Magazine Mayhem

SciAm and ACS cut staff, reposition for the long haul

Last week was yet another turbulent one for science journalism. Scientific American, the United States’s oldest magazine, and the American Chemical Society, which publishes a magazine and a number of journals with news content, cut staff in an effort to reposition themselves for long-term stability.

Portfolio (which closed just days later) broke the news about Scientific American, and there were follow-up stories in Folio and The New York Times. It was hard to tell what to make of the changes from the short articles. The Times described them as a “shake-up” and Portfolio wrote pointedly that fifteen-year editor-in-chief John Rennie is “out.” President Steven Yee is leaving as well, and the combined New York office of Scientific American and the Nature Publishing Group (which the former recently joined) has reduced its staff by 5 percent. All three write-ups also mentioned that the magazine’s advertising pages dropped 18 percent in the first quarter of 2009.

“The stories in the press about this want to dwell on the hand-wringing,” said publisher Bruce Brandfon in an interview. “But trying to position this as the overall story about the decline in advertising and print in general misrepresents what the background is.”

Brandfon argues that the changes should be viewed as a move to secure a long and stable future for Scientific American, which recently joined the Nature Publishing Group at Macmillan (it used to be a separate entity there). It’s a “strategic alignment of two like properties,” Brandfon said, and the layoffs are the result of eliminating redundant administrative and support positions. But sources at Scientific American who are familiar with the changes (all of whom requested anonymity for fear of reprisal) say that, far from hand-wringing, the three press accounts actually understated the layoffs.

“We’re all tired of looking at the media accounts and seeing a highly sanitized version of all this,” said one source. It is “highly misleading” to say that only 5 percent of the whole Nature Publishing Group office has been laid off, the sources argue, because it belies the fact that all of the cuts have come from Scientific American. According to the sources’ calculations, there have been eighteen layoffs since last week’s announcement (about what the media reported), but there have been twenty-five since early March, amounting to about 30 percent of Scientific American’s total staff.

Most of those eliminations have, as reported elsewhere, come from “back-office” administrative and support positions—but certainly not all of them. Nine editorial jobs (including various editors, fact checkers, photo and art personnel, and a blogger) have also been eliminated, sources said. And even when it comes to the legitimately redundant positions, they complain, all the cuts seem to have come from Scientific American, with Nature shouldering little of the burden. (E-mails and a phone call seeking a response to the sources’ calculations and criticisms were not returned.)

Mariette DiChristina, Scientific American’s executive editor, will serve as “acting” editor-in-chief when Rennie steps down this summer. In an interview, she praised Rennie’s leadership and said she is pleased he will continue to contribute to the magazine.

According to Brandfon, there is currently no plan to seek another permanent editor or to make any editorial changes to the magazine or Web site. Sources at the office say they have heard the same, but most seem to expect that there will be some kind of re-evaluation of the company’s editorial direction as soon as it completes the move to the Nature Publishing Group’s lower Manhattan office this summer. The group’s managing director, Steven Inchcoombe, who will oversee the business side of both Scientific American and Nature, wrote in an e-mail that:

Scientific American is publishing an excellent product in print and online, but the world is changing rapidly and we want to ensure that we are making the most of the available opportunities. Therefore we will survey and research our target market – current, prospective and lapsed readers and online users – and, based on that evidence determine how the business needs to change to better meet their needs, to be more relevant and to be more valuable.

Brandfon, DiChristina, and Inchcoombe all said that current changes represent a shift in marketing strategy and are designed to build a stronger and more dynamic media company. The idea is to reach a scientifically interested market that stretches all the way from high school classrooms to the very top of academia, industry, and government.

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.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.