What’s New at Science News

And what is familiar

Science News, the eighty-seven-year-old weekly staple of dedicated science news enthusiasts is making a few changes this month. Or rather, it’s making “Change Without Change,” according to an editor’s note by Tom Siegfried, the publication’s captain of seven months, which appeared in the first redesigned issue. The content, the quality, and the mission are all the same, he says, but based on the philosophy that “weekly is no longer timely,” the magazine is shifting to a biweekly publishing schedule, making each issue larger, and beefing up daily Web content-which will now be free. Siegfried, who was science editor of the Dallas Morning News from 1985 to 2004 and has authored three books about science, talked to CJR about the changes.

Curtis Brainard: Is it nice to be back in the editor’s chair?

Tom Siegfried: It’s great to be in touch with what’s going on in science on a daily basis and figure out how to communicate that to people. There’s always so much science going on, and making the judgments about what rises to the level of people’s need to know or people’s interest in knowing is something that’s not a trivial task and it’s a challenge and a lot of fun to try to deal with that.

CB: Is it a very different experience from editing at a newspaper?

TS: The medium is a little bit different, but it’s the audience that’s the issue. We have an audience consisting of people who are really very interested in science. That audience cuts across all kinds of age groups, and professional groups, and interest groups. Some of them are scientists, some of the them are in professions that are related to science, some are people who have no technical training at all but just have an avid interest in keeping up with science, some are kids in school. And all these people have in common this idea that science is interesting. So, it’s a little bit different than newspapers because you have an audience dedicated specifically to science itself, and that factors a little bit in how you go about making choices-you do some stories in more depth, or some stories in field that wouldn’t ordinarily make it to the top of the newspaper’s list. But the way you go about it is pretty much the same.

CB: Can you explain, “change without change?”

TS: Well, it’s a redesign of the magazine, which is something lots of magazines do from time to time, and Science News has done it, over the years, probably less frequently than many other magazines. But it’s a new look; it’s a change in appearance for the purpose of better calling attention to the content. Science News has always been a source of really high caliber science journalism, but the look has been pretty much the same for a long time, and in the modern media climate of everybody trying to out-shout everybody else with flash and splash, it was time for Science News to take on at least a moderately more modern appearance without sacrificing any of the quality of the content.

Of course, it’s a little more than that, really, because the redesign is in conjunction with some of these other changes-the change in frequency from weekly to biweekly is a really major change in the whole approach of the magazine. But as I’ve pointed out, it’s a way to make the news timelier by allowing us to focus on the Web site as a place for daily coverage of science, and then using the magazine as a repository for the best of that.

CB: Were these decisions made after you took the helm in October?

TS: No, that was part of lengthy review of Science News that was initiated more than two years ago. The decision to change the publication frequency, redesign the magazine, and focus more attention on the Web site had already been made. The execution of it was what began when I was hired last October.

CB: Was the execution difficult?

TS: It was challenging because it was an ambitious plan to remake the magazine and really expand the news coverage that the staff was doing. Yesterday, we put up as many news stories online as we ordinarily had in the old magazine each week. So there’s a lot more news being produced by the staff now, and organizing the logistics to accomplish that while at the same time making a new and bigger magazine-which, you know, has double the number of the pages of the old magazine even though it comes out half as often-was challenging.

CB: Did it involve any changes in staffing?

TS: There were changes already in process. There were openings that had to be filled, but the core of writing staff remained intact. The editing staff is completely new. And we expanded our use of freelance writing. Traditionally, in the past, Science News was entirely staff-written with rare exceptions and now, with the writing staff focusing more on writing daily news stories, there’s going to be increasing contribution of feature articles form freelancers. In the first new issue we had a freelance piece by Deborah Blum.

CB: How would you characterize the balance with print; is the Web the core of your operation now?

TS: I would put it this way-first of all, one of the important points is that unlike a lot of publications, we don’t separate the online staffing from the print staffing. We have one, unified operation. The Web is the immediate part of the operation. The news articles originate for the Web and are written for the Web, and then the best of those flow into the magazine on that two-week cycle. The features originate with the magazine and those are then posted on the Web at the time the magazine comes out. So it’s an integrated process. The print and the online presentations work together. The online presentation calls attention to the print publication and the print publication is loaded with information about what to go to online. It’s symbiotic.

CB: Is everything free online now?

TS: The news articles as they go up are all free. There is registration if you want to avail yourself of services like the e-mail alerts. The digital edition of the print magazine is available to subscribers only. And the last year’s worth of online material is accessible, but the archives are available to subscribers only.

CB: Will that boost readership?

TS: I would expect online readership should go up, not just because it’s free, but because there’s more there to read and it’s available in a more timely way. There’s going to be more news, faster, and that should boost online readership. The fact that it’s freely accessible removes a possible limit on how much it could go up, but the quality of the content and the scope of the coverage of science will drive higher Web interest.

CB: Why every other week? Why not monthly?

TS: There are a lot of monthly magazines out there and they perform different kinds of services. They’re mostly feature-oriented and they have some news, but that’s not their primary reason for existence. Science News’s primary reason for existence is still to report the news from science. Every other week is feasible given the resources that are available and it still gives people a small, easily digestible package, which is one of things that our research showed-that people like the idea of the concise reports and a magazine of manageable size.

CB: What kind of information did you have about your readership that guided the changes?

TS: Extensive surveys were done of current readers and some non-readers; there were focus groups; there was an elaborate, lengthy process of research undertaken before I ever arrived. All that was taken into account, but ultimately it wasn’t a focus group that drove the decision-it was planning how we could best do the job of science journalism. We are also returning the magazine to a role it used to play. There was a time when it was the one place people would go for timely science news updates and over the last few years the Web has made sources with that kind of information more available. So it was time for Science News to restore its old position as the place to go.

CB: So who’s your competition?

TS: I would say the competition is largely online. Some of those sites are from high-caliber publications that are very good; there are other Web-based science news sites that are really very bad. Our task is to compete with the good sites on the basis of the caliber of the reporting and the writing.

The only magazine that comes close to what we try to do, I guess, is New Scientist, which has some limited circulation in the United States and tries to cover the news on a weekly basis thoroughly and comprehensibly. The monthlies have some news, but they’re more oriented toward the longer features. We have features as part of our package, but the emphasis is covering the news.

CB: In your editor’s note, you quote E.W. Scripps urging journalists to “Get the truth just as far as possible.” Is that what this redesign/reorganization is doing?

TS: Our intention is to expand our audience by being more visible to those people who are interested in this kind of coverage. There are plenty of people out there like that; there are millions of people out there like that. And certainly the rest of the general mass media do not do a very good job of serving the need those people have for good information about what’s new going on in science. So the goal of the redesign and the new system is to make this available to the widest number of people we can who have that interest regardless of their scientific training or background.

CB: Is there anything else you like to add about the new, but unchanged Science News?

TS: Maybe I didn’t say one thing that I should be a little more explicit about: underlying all this is the belief that science news-w the lower case ‘s’ and ‘n’-is really important. This is not just for fun. In the world today, the kind of knowledge that science and research provide is critical to the well-being of society. And the fact that a lot of science news is being ignored or trivialized or misinterpreted in a lot of media is a bad thing. That’s something that I think sometimes people forget.

CB: That reminds me of another E.W. Scripps quote you used: “The only way to make democracy safe is to make it more scientific.” Will you increase coverage of the political and business news revolving around science?

TS: Traditionally, Science News has not ignored those kinds of issues, but that gets beyond the basic science that takes up most of your time and effort. But as part of the new system we do have a new blog by Janet Raloff, who has covered issues across the board in science and policy and environment for thirty years, that’s devoted to policy issues. I’m sure the magazine will have those kinds of stories as well from time to time, but the sustained attention to the policy side of things will be in that blog.

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