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Sept. 19, 2016, 10:52 a.m.
Reporting & Production

A cross-disciplinary approach to science is helping Nautilus carve a unique niche in science publishing

With a focus on deep reporting, a print magazine, and an intense affinity for illustrations, nonprofit Nautilus has taken an expensive approach to launching a new science publication.

Nautilus might be the only science publication that pays philosophers to sit in on its pitch meetings.

That idea speaks to the mission of the site, which is designed to bridge the gap between the sciences and related topics in theology, art, and culture. By roping in philosophers to chime in on how science topics intersect with big questions in philosophy, the magazine aims to connect the dots between disciplines that have lost their association with each other, particularly in science media.

“When we started this, it was all about creating a broader, multi-disciplinary view of science,” said John Steele, Nautilus’ publisher and editorial director. “Science has become something otherworldly and mysterious to people, so they shy away from it. If you really wanted to connect people to this stuff, you just have to tell them a really good story.”

Nautilus, which launched in 2013, is designed around many similarly atypical editorial decisions that, while counter to many of the norms of digital publishing today, have added to the magazine’s appeal among readers, Steele says. Chief among these is its publication-timing strategy: Each issue of the magazine is conceived around a single topic — Learning, Noise, and Aging are a few recent examples — with a new cluster of pieces, grouped together as chapters, published each Thursday. The first chapter on its August issue, Sports, focused on a diverse mix of big questions about the topic: What if the Olympics were held in space? What if the key to helping football players avoid concussions lies in the anatomy of the woodpecker? Are fantasy sports and the poker table really that similar?

These longer, more reported stories, which can take up to six months from conception to publishing, don’t always find a place amid the rapid-publishing paradigm of most digital outlets, making Nautilus appear, in contrast, all the more like a throwback. (To supplement those longer pieces, Nautilus has Facts So Romantic, a blog updated closer to daily with relatively shorter, more digestible pieces.)

Another against-the-grain move: Nautilus has also taken a dive into print. Its print magazine, which has a circulation of 12,000 across subscriptions and newsstands, collects the best of the magazine’s web content, and showcases another one of Nautilus’ key differentiators: its focus on commissioned artwork rather than photography to illustrate its stories. This focus, core to the magazine from its inception, has made it popular both within the illustrator community and in magazine circles. (One of its issues last year won the Best Style and Design award in the American Society of Magazine Editors’ annual cover contest; ASME has honored Nautilus with three awards of times over the past three years.) This focus on design is a major selling point for the physical magazine, which is printed on high-quality paper and designed in the spirit of collectible magazines like National Geographic. “We want people to put these in their attics and keep them forever,” said Steele.

All of these features come together to make a magazine that’s counterintuitive on nearly every front, said Michael Segal, Nautilus’ editor-in-chief. “Someone once came up to me after a talk I gave and told me, ‘Nautilus is so inspiring because everything you’ve done is not supposed to work.’ But those counterintuitive ideas are the very things that have made us successful.”

Indeed, there are others who’ve come before and who faced headwinds with elements of Nautilus’ model. Seed Magazine, which also took a highbrow approach to science writing, ended its print run in 2009, after 10 years of publishing. Its website quietly ceased publishing two years later, joining other glossy science magazines such as Omni, Science 79, and Science Digest which have shuttered over the past few decades.

Steele said that if Nautilus would have taken the easy route and gone with the trends of the time, “we would have produced a very different kind of publication — something shorter, more high-volume and cheaper,” he said. “That’s not what we wanted.”

While Nautilus does share its name with a mollusk-focused academic journal The Nautilus, the magazine is targeting a broader, younger audience than a typical science journal, while also appealing to those with a deeper understanding of the topics it covers. Its reader demographics reflect that broad spread: While over half of the print magazine’s readership is under 40, nearly 90 percent of its readers have a college degree, 40 percent have masters’ degrees, and nearly 20 percent have Ph.Ds.

Writing for both specialist and broader audiences is no easy task, Steele concedes. Science writing in academic journals is dense and jargon-laden, and likely to go over the heads of most readers. Likewise, for seasoned science researchers, content from popular science magazines is often “mundane and uninteresting,” said Steele, who said Nautilus has found its audience because its managed to write in a such a way that appeals to both of those kinds of readers.

“Our goal with everything is to combine rigorous science writing with good storytelling, and that’s our unique niche,” he said. “We’re not Science, and we’re not Nature, but we’re also not like a lot of the other science outlets out there that are just reporting the latest study on why coffee is good or bad for you.”

This approach is made the site’s output popular among aggregator sites, such as Digg and Hacker News. Steve Rousseau, an editor at Digg, said that while there is no shortage of strong science writing on the web, Nautilus’ focus on connecting topics in popular science with the big ethical and philosophical questions makes it stand out. “I think it’s important to report out how science explains current trends, but it’s nice that there’s a magazine out there going in on [ideas such as] the false comparison between human and artificial intelligence. I guess if I had to make a ham-fisted comparison, I’d liken them to The Baffler of science writing,” he said.

This focus on quality over quantity, coupled with the engagement and education of its readership, come together to create some strong feedback loops for Nautilus’ business model. Sponsorships, while still a small portion of the magazine’s revenue, have become a viable revenue stream because organizations such as the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research (which sponsored the magazine’s aging issue) and the Olin College of Engineering want to get in front of Nautilus’ readers. More key, though, is the magazine’s subscription business: Half of Nautilus’ revenue comes from its Nautilus Prime subscription service, which offers subscribers a handful of perks — including ad-free reading, tablet-optimized versions of the print editions, and ebook editions of web content — for $15 a year. Print subscriptions, which also include digital access, run for $40 a year.

Ultimately, though, many readers pay for Nautilus because they want to support the deep reporting the site wants to create. The magazine’s writers, too, want to see the site thrive, largely because so few publications support this kind of writing, said Segal. The same goes for the Templeton Foundation, the Simons Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which have helped fund Nautilus since 2013 in an effort to support the magazine’s mission to improve science literacy. (Nautilus shares that mission with its parent organization NautilusThink, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) Steele founded in 2014.) Much of Nautilus’ approach stems from that mission, which is particularly key at time when many newspapers have cut back or folded their science sections and the pressures of web publishing are pushing more sites to credulously cover dubious research findings.

“Early on, a friend who works in venture capital told me that as a website, you can go out there and chase clicks and advertising, but if you do so there’s a good chance that you’re going to lose your soul. It won’t be the thing you started,” he said. “That’s always been the core reason we went nonprofit.”

POSTED     Sept. 19, 2016, 10:52 a.m.
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