Seeing Science As An ‘Engine Of Human Prosperity,’ Scientific American’s Editor-In-Chief & Senior Vice President, Mariette DiChristina, Marches Boldly Into The Future – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…March 26, 2015
“Now that digital media are around, print hasn’t disappeared, but it has changed. And it’ll continue to change and I would expect it to. It would probably be very boring living on this planet if things didn’t change.” Mariette DiChristina
Propelling science into the 21st century might seem like an odd statement, but that’s exactly what Mariette DiChristina, Editor-in-Chief and Senior Vice President of Scientific American magazine has done. Mariette has been inspired and challenged by her career at Scientific American since she began in 2001. And she and the magazine have both benefited from those stimulating revelations.
From a challenging idea posed by Scientific American President, Steven Inchcoombe some years ago: wouldn’t it be wonderful if the magazine could become a major player in the digital field; Mariette proceeded to make that dream a reality. Bringing her print and digital staffs together on equal footing, the two previously separated groups became one team and the website went from 1.3 million unique monthly visitors in 2010 to 7.24 million uniques in January 2015.
Mariette is a firm believer in using every tool available to meet her audience on their own turf, their platform of choice, be it print, laptop, tablet or mobile. I spoke with her recently and discovered that she’s a woman who is passionate about science and about her brand. And that being versatile with every platform possible to engage with her audience is her prime focus and goal. We talked about the past, the present and the future of Scientific American and its diversity when it comes to communicating with readers.
The fascination and love she has for the subject matter of her brand is revealed in every sentence she speaks. Mariette was a science journalist for more than 20 years and her acumen on the topic is irrefutable. She is the eighth person and first female to assume the top post in Scientific American’s 170-year history. Under her leadership, the magazine received a 2011 National Magazine Award for General Excellence and many other awards.
So, I hope you enjoy this interesting and thought-provoking conversation with a woman who believes science is “an engine of human prosperity,” the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Mariette DiChristina, Editor-in-Chief and Senior Vice President, Scientific American magazine.
But first the sound-bites:
On the secret that has kept Scientific American going all of these years: I guess one answer to your question, at least from my perspective, and of course, I’m partial; although the magazine will be 170 years old this year, it’s really new every day, thanks to a lot of our digital platforms.
On how she is manifesting the brand digitally: We have a website, apps, digital products such as e-books; we have digital products such as PDF collections of our archive material; we call those ‘Classics.’ For instance, if you’re a student and you want to write a story about the history of aviation; we can tell you about it before the Wright Brothers; we have an archive compilation, a ‘Classic’ on that topic, that’s one digital product that we offer.
On whether she can imagine the Scientific American brand without a print component: Well, I think I can imagine anything; I have a pretty good imagination. (Laughs) But a counter point to that, I always think is, what the customers want is what we’ll provide. And as long as there are people who would like to consume in print, Scientific American will provide them with a print product.
On her expectations from new journalists she might hire: What I expect now is what I’ve always expected, which is, first and foremost; you’re an excellent reporter and storyteller, but the tools have changed and as the tools have changed, we’ve changed the way in which we produce that storytelling.
On a major stumbling block she’s had to face over the years and how she overcame it: A challenge that I faced happened in 2011; it was really the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011. I got a couple of, again, inspiring, challenges from management and one of them was from Steven, who said, it would be great if we could, in a few years’ time, say in five years, get to be a large digital player. And there was a specific number he said to that, which was, he would love it if we could get to 8 to 10 million unique visitors.
On how she thinks the job of editor has changed over the years: My whole team has responsibilities in both directions (print and digital). If you’re an associate editor with not as much experience maybe as a senior editor, then your print work might be editing a column and you might spend more of your time writing. You’ll get some editing experience too, so that eventually you’ll learn how to manage entire packages of content like a special report
On anything she’d like to add: I’d just like to mention a couple of other different platforms to you and these are conventional platforms; they’re kind of ancillary in a way. Scientific American has a book in print with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. So online, we might have short stories or longer stories that are really a fast turnaround. In print, we have longer feature articles that are providing analysis and then we have book-length.
On what keeps her up at night: That’s a great question. I sleep really well actually; I think that’s an executive skill. (Laughs) What keeps me up at night? Well, it’s not that it keeps me up at night, but I think anybody who runs a publication likes to solve problems and likes to solve puzzles, so I’ll think about, what we should consider trying to delight our audiences. I’m always thinking about the audience as people we’re having a conversation with.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Mariette DiChristina, Editor-in-Chief, Senior Vice President, Scientific American magazine…
Samir Husni: Looking at the history of science magazines since their inception; Scientific American is, of course, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, continuously-published magazine in the country; what’s the secret that has kept Scientific American going all of these years?
Mariette DiChristina: First of all, let me confirm for you, as far as our records show, we are the oldest, continuously-published magazine in the United States, not the oldest continuously-published science magazine, but the oldest continuously-published magazine with no gaps of any sort.
And I guess one answer to your question, at least from my perspective, and of course, I’m partial; although the magazine will be 170 years old this year, it’s really new every day, thanks to a lot of our digital platforms. You know once upon a time, Scientific American was even weekly, which was very frequent in those days, but now we have multiple ways of reaching our audiences and for each of those audiences, we have a unique way of expressing what is Scientific American.
Samir Husni: And with that expression; what do you think that you’ve done differently? I remember when I first came to the United States in the late 1970s, there were an amazing number of new science magazines that came to the market and then disappeared.
Mariette DiChristina: You’re referring to the 1980s, aren’t you?
Samir Husni: Yes.
Mariette DiChristina: I remember that and it was a very fun time in traditional print magazines around science. Like you, I was very excited as well.
Samir Husni: I remember Gerald Piel coming to speak to our class. And I asked him that same question and he said, well, at least now we have competition, which means it’ll keep us on our toes and give us the incentive to be better.
Mariette DiChristina: I have to agree with Mr. Piel on that. I’ve always liked the idea of competition, and I guess for all of us who produce magazines, especially in the science area, by that metric, we have more competition than ever. In fact, by many metrics I think people can agree, there is more science communication being consumed today than ever before.
The fact that there aren’t as many that are traditional brands and magazines like Scientific American, well, in some ways I’m sorry about that because I’m a traditional, old-time journalist, but in other ways I would never turn the clock back from people’s active engagement with science across lots of media. I find it all very exciting, actually.
Samir Husni: And how are you translating that? I know you have the monthly print magazine; you have all the SIP’s, the line extensions; how are you manifesting the brand now in the digital world?
Mariette DiChristina: We have a website, apps, digital products such as e-books; we have digital products such as PDF collections of our archive material; we call those ‘Classics.’ For instance, if you’re a student and you want to write a story about the history of aviation; we can tell you about it before the Wright Brothers; we have an archive compilation, a ‘Classic’ on that topic, that’s one digital product that we offer.
We also have digital subscription products that are at different frequencies than Scientific American digital, the main magazine, because the magazine itself, as a print and digital component, digital replica, is monthly, although it’s new every day with news on the site. We also have a weekly product that collects research summaries together called ‘Briefings.’
So, we have a variety of ways to reach out, and let me add to that; like everyone else in the modern era; we have videos and podcasts and we have infographic and interactive images that we put on our website as well.
Samir Husni: Can you imagine all of those different digital platforms existing without a print component?
Mariette DiChristina: Well, I think I can imagine anything; I have a pretty good imagination. (Laughs) But a counter point to that, I always think is, what the customers want is what we’ll provide. And as long as there are people who would like to consume in print, Scientific American will provide them with a print product.
I think one of the things that we’re seeing is, as new media have come on, our consumption patterns have changed. This shouldn’t be surprising. Magazines are organic creatures, like anything else that lives on earth. When TV came along and radio was around, radio didn’t disappear, but it did change.
And now that digital media are around, print hasn’t disappeared, but it has changed. And it’ll continue to change and I would expect it to. It would probably be very boring living on this planet if things didn’t change.
Samir Husni: As an editor and someone who’s responsible for the hiring and firing of personnel; what are your expectations now from a new team of journalists that you hire or that come onboard the magazine?
Mariette DiChristina: That’s a great question. I’ve been editor-in-chief here for five years, December was my fifth anniversary, and I can tell you how it was and things we did by way of answering your question.
What I expect now is what I’ve always expected, which is, first and foremost; you’re an excellent reporter and storyteller, but the tools have changed and as the tools have changed, we’ve changed the way in which we produce that storytelling.
When I was first acting editor-in-chief in 2009, I got, at the time, a new boss, his name is Steven Inchcoombe, he’s the president of Scientific American, and he came up to me and he asked, Mariette, what’s your vision? What should Scientific American be? What do you want it to be if you were the editor-in-chief? And I have to tell you; Steven’s questions were probably some of the most inspiring ones I’ve ever had in my career, because I did what you just asked me, Samir; I asked myself, what does it need to be and how do we make it be that?
So, I thought, let’s start with the core; science, I think, is an engine of human prosperity. I really think that everything you care about and I care about, when we read the headlines every day; the phones we’re using to talk on now; the computers that we compose our work on; all these things were developed through basic research and then applied and improved our lives over time.
Knowing that science is an engine of human prosperity, and that Scientific American has played quite a role in that for the past century and a half, I started to think about the things that people need from it and who are those people. And how do they consume their media, because everything has to start with who you’re talking to. If you’re talking to a child, you speak on way; if you’re talking to an adult, you speak another way. So, who are we talking to now and what are their needs?
So, we did a lot of basic reader research at that time, and we do it ongoing, everybody does it ongoing, but I’m just talking about when I first started thinking about where Scientific American needed to go and how we needed to accomplish that.
And I thought about the people who depend on science, which is all of us, but we depend on it in two, rather unique ways. One is people who depend on it because they just love it; they believe science for its own sake is a wonderful thing, that humans are curious creatures and we are inspired to learn about everything around us and science is an amazing evidence-based tool to do that with. I call those people, ‘Mr. Core,’ they’re our core audience.
Then there are people around ‘Mr. Core’ who really appreciate science if only they understand how it connects to something they value. Maybe they need science because they’re policy leaders and they have to make decisions that are going to be good for the populace they’re supporting or serving. Maybe they need to understand science because they’re a business leader and they want to know where to invest or what innovations are the ones that they need to invest in. Maybe they’re scientists and they want to know about other fields; maybe they’re educators or students who have their unique perspectives and needs. So, I thought about all of these customers and then I thought about what do the customers use.
Once upon a time, Samir, you and I as magazine people only had one way to talk to our audiences; we had this print product. We would tell our stories, maybe get some letters back in the mail and occasionally a phone call. But today, it occurred to me one day like a bolt of lightning that was easy then, we had the idea that we were speaking to this mass audience, but I started to look at the way the audience behaved differently in different places. On the iPad, they downloaded certain things; on the website, they did others. Then I really began to realize in a visceral way, and you’ll know this too, because every magazine editor has kind of a character that we have in our heads that we’re writing to or who their particular readers are, or examples of reader personas.
But it occurred to me that they differed not just demographically, but also by temperament, depending on the media they chose to consume. After I had a better understanding of different ways people like to consume the content that Scientific American produces; I could then find the staff to produce that, and when I say ‘I,’ of course I mean, getting training or university training to support our team, so that they had the right digital media skills to do it.
So, the short answer to your question is, we know we need to deliver on a lot of different types of media; the storytelling is and remains the core and then we have specialists who support the editorial team in producing a story and video or producing a podcast or any of the other media that we use.
Samir Husni: You assumed your position as permanent editor-in-chief in December 2009 right after the economy crashed and digital really came onto the scene; what was the major stumbling block that you had to face then and how did you overcome it?
Mariette DiChristina: There are editorial stumbling blocks and business ones, and I’m going to put the business ones to the side, because I think everyone saw the same challenges with advertising, starting around 2009, and the industry has experienced that. And all of us have seen similar challenges, I would say, in newsstand distribution shake-ups and in thinking about last year.
But editorially, let me tell you the biggest challenge. I told you a little bit about 2009 and how I started to, with Steven Inchcoombe’s support, think about a vision for Scientific American that really served the public and would inspire them about science as an engine of human prosperity, which by the way, was not a new invention on my part. Scientific American has always supported innovation in the United States ever since it was founded. In my case, I wanted it to apply to the modern era.
A challenge that I faced happened in 2011; it was really the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011. I got a couple of, again, inspiring, challenges from management and one of them was from Steven, who said, it would be great if we could, in a few years’ time, say in five years, get to be a large digital player. And there was a specific number he said to that, which was, he would love it if we could get to 8 to 10 million unique visitors. We’d had similar challenges for other areas of the business.
Remember when I was telling you earlier about all of the different products that we produce? Also in 2010, we were producing around 20 digital issues. We had 12 of Scientific American, 6 of Scientific American Mind, which is the sister publication that I started in 2004 about behavioral and neuro sciences; I launched that here in the U.S. And then we did a couple of newsstand anthologies per year. So, let’s call it 20 issues of for-sale content, not counting all the things we put online that’s open-access and supported by advertising, but just counting the paid packages.
We wanted to go from 20 one year to 120-plus the following year as a business. And you might ask: what was the 120-plus? Well, it was the e-books that I mentioned; the ‘Classics,’ which are PDF packages; the series of ‘Briefings’ that I mentioned to you also, and we were going to launch our iPad issue app. We had done iPad tests, but we were a little later than some on the issue app.
And if you add all those things together, knowing that an iPad issue app, which we were using the Adobe DPS platform, requires an issue in adding multimedia content; I called that in my head another 100 issues of content per year basically. Not all original, a lot of it repackaged, but it was a volume question.
So, I looked at my goal; and I also had a personal goal at the same time of wanting to make this a great place to work for the editorial team, because I love to be challenged and I think all editorial people are very curious people who love to tell great stories. So, how could I make it fun, while we’re at it, and make it a good growth experience?
It occurred to me, just like it occurred to me about different platforms and how the audiences were different; it occurred to me that my team was optimized really for content creation, but not yet for content curation.
So, that was the challenge. How was I going to take a team of journalists and make them efficient I curation and still able to continue to deliver inspiring, award-winning editorial content and get to those volumes? That was my biggest challenge.
I took a series of initiatives. First of all; nobody was telling me that I had to do anything in particular, but it occurred to me that we weren’t structured in a way that people could succeed.
So, I got the management group together and I told them, here are our challenges; we’re trying to get to these numbers; we have only a certain amount of staff and we want this to be a great place to work; we don’t want to give up on getting national magazine award nominations or anything like that.
We did what a lot of people do, which is, first of all, we looked for ways we weren’t being efficient. And one of the biggest ways was, like everybody else; our online team was separate from our print team. Everybody was doing that; online was a small thing and it grew over time. And it seemed to me they were similar to silos; at the time, and this was 2011, online team were rather newer in their careers and all they did was churn copy really fast, and a lot of the other people that focused on print were more experienced, dutiful journalists, but not necessarily, because of that, as well connected to the news of the day.
I decided to eliminate the barriers and what I did was remove separate meetings, where everyone met together, paired up the then-called online reporters with the then-called print editors, so they could talk about together how we should cover something. They could think about what was our daily coverage and then what was our longer-term coverage. We had to work out some of the workflows around that too, but the result was startling traffic growth, really startling.
And also startling volume output change of my senior team, because once they were looking more at their colleagues working online, and looking more at the news cycle, they started to write about it more. In one year, there were on the order of about 300 additional articles out of not a very big editorial team. It was just due to opening up some time for them, bringing them together and the act of simply supporting each other.
We went from, in 2010, an average of 1.3 million unique visitors each month to January 2015, we hit 7.24 million unique visitors and I would argue to you that that’s faster than organic growth, because I haven’t added headcount. The reason is because it’s a more digitally adept and a more digitally comfortable team supplying the content behind the science that matters to the public.
Samir Husni: When you were editor of Scientific American Mind, which you launched in 2004; how has the job of an editor changed in those years?
Mariette DiChristina: Let me clarify something to you also. I came to Scientific American in 2001 as its executive editor. And while I was Scientific American’s executive editor, I launched Scientific American Mind. So, I’ve been at Scientific American this whole time. I’ve been the editor-in-chief since 2009. I just wanted you to know that I wasn’t at Mind and then came to Scientific American after. I was at Scientific American and then started Mind.
In 2004, the online team, as I just said, was separate from the print team. So, if you were an online writer, you wrote stories for online and if you were a print editor, you produced content for print.
But now my whole team has responsibilities in both directions. If you’re an associate editor with not as much experience maybe as a senior editor, then your print work might be editing a column and you might spend more of your time writing. You’ll get some editing experience too, so that eventually you’ll learn how to manage entire packages of content like a special report. We’re always trying to make sure that people can grow their skills.
If you’re a senior editor, you’re handling large packages like a 300 to 500 word story, a special report, or maybe a whole single topic issue, but you also write online, and you also take a turn twice a month editing all the copy online. We have kind of a rotating city editor workflow, which lets the senior editors get a break of just editing content that’s running through the website; it puts them in direct touch with the website and it gives the team who are writing every day different editors to work with so it hones their skills as well.
Samir Husni: So surrounded by all these platforms, all these devices and teams that work with you; what makes you eager to get out of bed each morning and say, wow, I’m going to work?
Mariette DiChristina: (Laughs) What doesn’t make me say wow, I’m going to work? I think I have one of the world’s greatest jobs; I can’t imagine anything more inspiring and important than sharing news about science with our audiences.
Samir Husni: Anything else that you’d like to add?
Mariette DiChristina: I’d just like to mention a couple of other different platforms to you and these are conventional platforms; they’re kind of ancillary in a way. Scientific American has a book in print with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. So online, we might have short stories or longer stories that are really a fast turnaround. In print, we have longer feature articles that are providing analysis and then we have book-length.
Also, with Macmillan Education, we have a textbook for non-majors that Scientific American branded. There’s There is one on biology; one on earth science and there is one on psychology.
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
Mariette DiChristina: That’s a great question. I sleep really well actually; I think that’s an executive skill. (Laughs) What keeps me up at night? Well, it’s not that it keeps me up at night, but I think anybody who runs a publication likes to solve problems and likes to solve puzzles, so I’ll think about, what we should consider trying to delight our audiences. I’m always thinking about the audience as people we’re having a conversation with.
Or think of it like you’re a host of a dinner party and at the dinner party you’re expecting your friends to come by and see you. And you hope you have everything that they like. And if you notice that one friend likes watermelon and another likes bananas, then next time, you make sure you have enough of those things for those people.
Running a magazine, and when I say a magazine, I really mean running a brand with all the platforms, is a lot like that dinner party. What are the things that they like and how can you make sure that you have them so that they’ll visit you again? I think magazine editing is a grand conversation.
Samir Husni: Thank you.