The boom in sci-tech magazines: Is it going to last?
Discover, Time Inc.'s "newsmagazine of science," ran a full-page ad last month telling potential advertisers that they will get a guaranteed average circulation bonus of 125,000 copies, or a total on average of more than 1 million for each monthly issue through June.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"It's just another miracle of science," the ad copy stated.
Hardly, says C. John Kirby, advertising director of Scientific American. What happened, he explains, is that Discover picked up some of the 350,000 unexpired subscriptions of Technology Illustrated. The Boston-based magazine, catering to laymen interested in technology, went out of business with its November issue.
It was one of several new science magazines launched a few years back. They have added a great many readers since then. Most of them, however, according to Mr. Kirby, have been scrambling to move out of the red ink without full success yet.
Scientific American, established in 1845 and perhaps the most prestigious of science publications, has remained profitable. But because of the competition and hard economic times, it was hit with a 13 percent drop in ad pages last year (although revenues were about the same because of higher page rates and greater mix of color vs. black-and-white ads). This year, however, promises to be the best in history for Scientific American, Kirby says. Ad pages are up 32 percent for the first quarter.
Most of the new science publications have aimed at a less science-sophisticated audience than Scientific American. Tie brought out Discover; the publisher of Penthouse launched Omni; the American Association for the Advancement of Science tried a popular publication, Science80 (now Science84 ); Hearst Corporation spruced up Science Digest; and Bernard A. Goldhirsh, after success with Inc. Magazine, a magazine for executives of smaller companies, published High Technology and Technolgy Illustrated.
The latter is gone, and Mr. Kirby suspects other popular science magazines will disappear in an industry shakeout.
"They have all been founded on a premise we have never accepted ourselves -- that there is a mass market for science," he says.
But Eileen Koslow, manager of research for Omni, maintains that the circulation of the new science magazines has grown so much that together they exceed the circulation of major business magazines. That, calculation, though, depends on what business magazines are included.
Allen L. Hammond, editor Science84, figures there are already more than 5 million readers of the new general science magazines. And he doesn't include Omni, which he describes as "the leading science fiction and science fantasy magazine" -- a description Omni would dispute. Nor does he count a 16-page, nonprofit weekly, Science News, which was founded in 1922 and has a circulation today of about 160,000.
"I would call that [total science magazine readership] significant," he said. "It says something about the health of the market and the need that there was for science coverage."
Carl Jaeger, publisher of Discover, agrees: "This is a building and burgeoning interest in science and technology. More and more people . . . want to see what it means to their business and personal lives."
Mr. Kirby and Scientific American publisher Gerard Piel tend to look down their noses at some of the younger upstarts in the science magazine business. The ad director talks with a certain disdain for those publications that concentrate on black holes, parapsychology, speculation about extraterrestrail beings, or science fiction.
One sign of trouble at Discover, he says, is this month's cover -- a color phototograph of a naked young couple. It illustrates an article, "The Riddle of Sex," which turns out to be basically scientific and far less titillating than the cover would imply.
Kirby reckons that Omni is making money. "Everyone else is losing his shirt," he said, referring to the new popular science magazines.
Science84's Mr. Hammond denies this, saying that, by his reading of the figures, the magazine is making money. "It depends on how you do the accounting for overhead and those kinds of things." Science News is in the black, says editor Joel Greenberg, although when mailing costs went up recently it had to raise its subscription price to remain there. Sherwood (Woody) Katsoff, advertising director of Science Digest, said he "could't answer the question," noting that Hearst is a private company. And Mr. Jaeger, of Discover, says only, "We are on the publishing track we laid out for the magazine at its outset. The prognosis is a positive one." Discover's ad pages were up to 15.4 percent last year, but have plateaued in the first quarter of this year, he says.