When I was a kid, we subscribed to Scientific American, and it was big fun for me to work through the articles. I didn’t always understand what was going on, but it was clear that the articles were important and written by the people doing the work.
Over the past decade of bookstore browsing, I’ve seen New Scientist magazine becoming more and more prominent on the news rack. New Scientist, a British magazine, is a little bit harder hitting than the soft science journalism you get in something like Discover or Popular Science. But it still has BIG PICTURES, BRIGHT COLORS, and FLASHY HEADLINES (Gaia’s evil twin: Is life its own worst enemy?). In short, it’s sensational hard science. It’s kind of a weird concept, even though the magazine often contains good articles. And it’s clearly selling. From my observations, it looks like New Scientist is winning and Scientific American is going out to meet them. Every year, SciAm gets fluffier and flashier and more like New Scientist. It must suck to be the editor at a magazine that’s losing money fast. As the captain of a sinking ship, you have to make rapid, high-stakes bets on how to attract new readers faster than you alienate your old ones. My guess is that SciAm is sinking fast.
But don’t take it from me. Listen to Brian Hayes. Brian is an excellent science journalist, columnist, and blogger who used to work at SciAm. Here’s what he has to say: bit-player: Sic transit. And where does Hayes work now? At a magazine called American Scientist (I know… these names are all pretty clever, huh?). In my opinion, American Scientist has claimed the mantle that SciAm once had: serious but accessible science, often written by the researchers themselves. Pick it up at the newsstand if you see it and support the old spirit of Scientific American.