The 144-year-old science and tech publication has name recognition and a robust following on social media. But Popular Science, which was bought by Bonnier Corp. in 2007 and switched from monthly to bimonthly last January, has had a tumultuous few years. Circulation, while it still averages over a million, has seen declines, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. After cycling through three editors in four years, the top spot on the masthead remained vacant for four months — until Joe Brown was named editor in chief in August.
The January/February issue, which hits newsstands today, is the first under Brown’s leadership. A veteran in the tech and science journalism space, Brown began his career at Popular Science as an assistant editor before going on to editorial positions at Wired and overseeing Gizmodo.
When Brown took over at Pop Sci, he had a mandate to update the brand. “I was really thinking about the place of the magazine in American media right now. If you’re printing news in your magazine, it’s out of date the minute it rolls off the press,” he said. “If you have something that gets out of date, it ends up in the garbage. And I hate seeing my magazine in the garbage.”
As a way to extend the shelf life of the magazine, Brown created a different theme for each of the six issues published in 2017 — starting with “exploration.”
Stories in the first issue, which was put together with a bare-bones staff (note to journalist job hunters: Pop Sci is currently hiring for multiple roles), include a graphic spread on the areas of America that will be the most impervious to climate-change in 2100, a photo essay on cargo planes, and a feature on the expat scene in Shenzhen, China. The overall design is reminiscent of Wired, but with broader appeal and ads that are less luxury and more the kind one sees in a supermarket flyer.
Although it shares subject matter with other science and tech focused publications, Pop Sci has a distinct identity.
“Pop Sci is a very earnest publication. We are not going to be doing social media takedowns or think piece-y hot takes. We are here to talk about technology and science in a way that anyone can understand,” Brown said, mentioning Wired, Gizmodo and The Verge — outlets that could be seen as competitors. “I think they are speaking to a different reader than I am. Our readers are just as smart and just as curious, but they come from a very different place.”
According to Brown, for more than half his readers, that place is the South and the middle of the country. “I see that as an opportunity to reach people who are not being reached by science and tech journalism,” Brown said. “Right now is a really important time for people to hear about science and understand it and see how tech is changing things.”
As part of that, Brown described a higher mission to educate his readers, including “climate change deniers” who “probably voted for Trump” about the human impact on the environment.
“I think that it’s a terrific advantage that they are reading my magazine and my web site, because that means they trust us,” he said. “We are respectful of different points of view, but we tell the truth. And the truth is that the best science right now says that climate change is man-made. And hopefully, if they read it in Popular Science, they will believe it.”