Although Brandfon and DiChristina said that the journalism industry’s financial troubles were not a motivating factor—the magazine’s circulation and Web traffic numbers remain robust—any media company not reexamining its business model and planning for long-term stability right now would be acting incautiously. But, given the layoffs, some people at Scientific American bridle at all the talk about building a better “brand” for the future. “You know, there’s a bunch of people behind that brand, and it’s less clear to me whether [management] is more interested about the brand or the people,” said one.
Sources said a number of people in the office are also concerned about a potential conflict of interest emerging from the new relationship between Scientific American and Nature, which publishes peer-reviewed research that the former often covers. Moreover, Nature has a strong news department whose work is very similar to Scientific American’s.
According to Brandfon and Inchcoombe, the editorial independence and integrity of both publications will continue to be “paramount” and “non-negotiable.” And, in all fairness, sources said they trust that that is true. Indeed, the situation at Scientific American is not unlike that at a new non-profit outlet supported by a private foundation. It’s a promising relationship that will simply have to be watched closely.
And Scientific American is not the only outlet that science aficionados will be scrutinizing. The reorganization there mirrors one at the American Chemical Society (a non-profit scientific society not to be confused with the American Chemistry Council, a trade group), which publishes Chemical & Engineering News and the journal Environmental Science & Technology, which has a popular and well-respected news section. According to an article at C&EN:
Investment losses, declining ad revenues, and falling institutional print subscriptions to its journals and other publications have forced the American Chemical Society to cut 3% of its workforce and make further reductions to operating expenses and retiree medical benefits. … The society’s Publications Division took the biggest hit in job cuts. Of a total 56 ACS employees who were laid off, 40 worked in the ACS Publications Division, including nine members of the C&EN staff and 10 members of C&EN’s Journal News & Community Division.
The Journal News & Community Division was created just last December in order centralize news production for the society’s thirty-four journals, including Environmental Science & Technology. It had twelve members; now it has two. In the Chemical & Engineering News article, the publication’s editor-in-chief, Rudy Baum, said the cuts were “painful but necessary” and that he remains “committed to producing a high-quality” product for print and the Web. In an interview, he said that the Society has “substantially increased” the news division’s freelance budget in order to compensate for the staff reductions.
Still, sources at the magazine have their misgivings. Maintaining quantity with fewer people on staff can only come at the expense of quality, they fear. Furthermore, they are concerned that the American Chemical Society’s plan for long-term stability will mean refocusing on its journals program and publishing research rather than news. According to memos from the society’s top brass, which were distributed to staff and obtained by CJR, the reorganization was “a strategic reduction-in-force, rather than an across-the-board reduction in force.”
That is a shame, because Chemical & Engineering News and Environmental Science & Technology have built a reputation for incisive reporting. One source said that the magazine and journal editors usually encourage strong journalism, but that some members of the society have always been nervous about stepping on the chemical industry’s toes. As such, the source fears that last week’s layoffs are an attempt to abrogate potentially troublesome news coverage.
Only time will tell. It’s hard to fault either Scientific American or the American Chemical Society for trying to assure their companies’ long-term health and prosperity, given the imperiled state of journalism. And, surely, no decisions have been made lightly. With that said, however, the industry is undergoing profound and unsettling changes that must be watched closely. Everybody hopes for the best, but, as one source put it, “It doesn’t pay to be too sanguine in this age.”