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April 13, 2017, 10:25 a.m.
Reporting & Production

With new editor Joe Brown, Popular Science is using a “Trojan horse” strategy to take on science skeptics

“I wanted to make the most inclusive science and technology publication, period.”

In today’s political climate, “Popular Science” sounds a little like an oxymoron. Some people’ denials of climate change, evolution, and the efficacy of vaccines — issues that scientific research has repeatedly affirmed — have helped make science itself into a partisan issue, and scientists themselves into another interest group among many.

It’s a tough time for science, and it might be fair to expect every publication in the space to rush to the defense of science — even if that meant alienating some readers. But Joe Brown, the new editor of Bonnier’s Popular Science, wants to avoid the temptation of directly fighting against science skepticism. “We’re not a political magazine at all,” he maintains. “I want to make the most inclusive science and technology publication possible, one that that does not alienate people.”

This means not attempting to aggressively discredit, say, climate change deniers. While Brown personally believes that some forms of populism “can be really toxic,” his iteration of Popular Science is “taking populism not as something to react against, but something we can work with.”

This approach, which Popular Science has tried since Brown joined last August, can be most clearly seen in the magazine’s upcoming “Weird Weather” issue, which will focus on specific ways that climate change is affecting weather patterns around the world. The focus on the weather rather than the larger idea of climate change is intentional, and Brown said it lets the magazine “tell stories that don’t put readers on the back foot. That issue [of the magazine] is a bit of a Trojan horse. We thought we weren’t going to be reaching people if we were too overt about it.”

There’s some evidence that the approach may be an effective one. Researchers at Yale recently found that the more “scientifically curious” (as opposed to just knowledgeable) people are, the less likely they are to hold polarized beliefs about science and the more likely they are to be open to new information. (“As their science curiosity goes up, the polarizing effects of higher science comprehension dissipate, and people move the same direction on contentious policies like climate change and fracking,” researcher Dan Kahan said.) It supports the idea that appealing to readers’ curiosity can be a more effective way to change their minds than just trying to convince them that they are wrong.

Brown, formerly the executive editor of Wired and editor-in-chief of Gizmodo, said that this approach is part of a central mission to make Popular Science a more welcoming, inclusive science magazine. “When you compare us to other science and tech publications, we are talking to those readers who might feel disenfranchised by much of the mainstream science and tech press — and I like that,” he said.

The opportunity to made these kinds of changes was a big reason Brown took the job at Popular Science, a magazine that has had four editors in five years and whose circulation has declined from 1.3 million at the end of 2014 to just about 1 million at the end of 2016, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

Popular Science has changed significantly in the last year. The magazine’s shift from a monthly to bimonthly publishing schedule in January 2016 predated Brown’s arrival, but he’s used the change to experiment with an editorial approach built around single-topic issues (the more highbrow Nautilus takes a similar approach). Previous issues have focused on big machines, water, and exploration, respectively. Brown said that with the change in publication schedule, Popular Science saw a chance to develop a magazine that was less beholden to the news cycle and felt more like an object worth holding onto.

On the web side, Popular Science is also trying to do more with less. A year ago, published roughly 25 stories a day. Today, that number is closer to seven. This, perhaps surprisingly, has had a positive effect on the site’s traffic: Traffic to increased from 1.9 million unique visitors in February 2016 to 2.5 million in February of this year. (Popular Science’s 21-person staff is integrated across print and digital.)

Brown hopes that the new approaches both online and in print will continue to resonate with readers. “If they stop by to read our coverage about tanks, I hope they stick around for our coverage about climate change,” Brown said. “Come for the tanks, stay for the doom and gloom.”

POSTED     April 13, 2017, 10:25 a.m.
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