A new ‘golden era’?

Nautilus is the latest in a proliferation of science-news sites

Nautilus, a new science magazine whose first issue appeared online April 29, has New York Times reporter Dennis Overbye, one of the beat’s veterans, feeling a bit a nostalgic. In a review on Monday, he wrote:

Many science writers at The New York Times, including me, hatched their careers working at a wave of glossy monthly science magazines that were started in the late 1970s and early ’80s, fueled by the belief that curiosity about the universe was not only part of the good life but a necessity in a democratic society facing decisions about nuclear energy, medicine, the space program and the arms race.

The Times started its science section in 1978. A year later the same folks who publish Penthouse brought forth Omni, a mix of science and speculation. In rapid succession the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of the journal Science, started Science79; Time Inc. started Discover; and Science Digest expanded to a full-size glossy magazine. The New York Academy of Sciences published The Sciences.

This profusion led to a hiring frenzy for science journalists, who, for a golden while anyway, had a blast producing magazines on scales of time and money that seem unworldly today.

A decade later most were gone or struggling for lack of advertising, despite circulations in the range of half a million and despite the growing importance of science in an age of climate change, energy crises and AIDS. The lone survivor of that golden era, Discover, has been sold four times. A more recent arrival, Seed, noted for its edginess, exists only online.

The audience has fragmented among stalwarts like National Geographic and Scientific American; blogs; and new-media adventures like the TED talks, the World Science Festival and Edge.org, the online salon, and Simons Science News, a new effort by the mathematician and philanthropist James H. Simons.

It’s easy to sympathize with Overbye. Since the number of science writers and newspaper science sections began to plummet at the end of the ’80s, there has been a sense among the concerned that there is a crisis in science journalism. Thanks to new online ventures like Nautilus, however, that feeling has begun to dissipate.

In fact, some of the blogs that are driving the renaissance in science writing have been around for a decade, and critics have long recognized their role in the revival. As recently as 2009, many experts in the field were only guardedly optimistic about the degree to which such efforts could or would compensate for the cutbacks happening in legacy media, but a lot has changed since then.

Blogs have “won a place at the table,” even in breaking-news situations, and magazines like National Geographic, Discover, Wired, and Scientific American have redoubled their efforts to adapt to the digital age, building outstanding science-blogging communities in the process. Old-timers like The New Yorker and newcomers like The Verge recently launched new science verticals on their websites. Academic magazines like Ensia, which focuses on the environment, are making a play for wider appeal online. NGO-sponosred magazines like the Natural Resources Defense Council’s OnEarth are showing their journalistic chops. And Web-native outlets like InsideClimate News are winning Pulitzers.

Is it too soon to say that the “golden era” of science writing that Overbye misses so much has returned? Perhaps. But the fragmentation of the current media ecosystem that Overbye seemed to worry about is likely a red herring. It’s easier than ever to stumble upon great coverage from a wider variety of sources than ever, and it’s all there at the touch of a button.

Still, Nautilus could mark a new high in science writing’s comeback in the sense that it’s the first outlet dedicated only to science to come out in a while, and it even plans to launch a quarterly print issue. Overbye got his hands on a sample copy and says: “Its 44 thick, color pages have the luxurious productions values of a corporate report.”

The last similar experiment was a magazine called Seed, which started in 2001 and published 22 print issues until its last in 2009. As Overbye noted, now it “exists only online,” but the site hasn’t actually added any new content in years.

The people at Nautilus undoubtedly hope to avoid the same fate, but they happen to be taking a similar approach. Seed’s motto was “Science Is Culture,” and the press release for Nautilus promised a similar bent, saying that the outlet “weaves leading-edge science, culture and philosophy into a single story told by the world’s leading thinkers and writers.”

That makes sense given that Nautilus launched with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, whose mission is to catalyze “discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality,” and which often organizes debates between scientists, philosophers, and theologians.

Each month, Nautilus will choose a new topic for its issue, whose chapters will be published every Thursday. So far, there has been a preview issue, “The Story of Nautilus,” with chapters titled “The Science” and “The Myth,” and an inaugural issue, “What makes you so special; the puzzle of human uniqueness,” with chapters titled, “Less Than You Think,” “More Than You Imagine,” and “Beyond Measure.”

It’s a well-balanced mix of interesting articles, essays, and multimedia reports by journalists and experts of various stripes. The single-topic structure is effective and the production value top-notch. “The online magazine is free,” Overbye noted in his review, “but even if it weren’t, it would be worth the price of admission….” A subscription to the print edition will cost $49 a year.

John Steele, who worked for CBS News and NBC News in the ’70s and ’80s, came up with the idea for Nautilus about a year ago, according to Overbye, and is now its publisher and editorial director. Michael Segal, a former editor at Nature Nanotechnology, is editor-in-chief, and there’s a lot of other journalistic talent on the 14-person masthead, including digital editor Amos Zeeberg, who played a central role in helping Discover move from print to pixels.

Nautilus has received favorable reviews from the Knight Science Journalism Tracker and Folio, and blogger Matt Shipman interviewed Zeeberg. None were as nostalgic as Overbye’s review in the Times, but they didn’t need to be. After a long slide, science writing is flourishing again.

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