The New York Review of Magazines

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

By Marvin Anderson

Circulation: 900 subscriptions
for institutions, 17,000 e-newsletter subscriptions
Date of Birth: 1945

Destruction, dismal forecasts and a doomsday clock are components of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which for 65 years has been like a vagabond in the street warning passersby that the end of the world is near. But instead of rags, the Bulletin wears a suit appropriate to the mature handling of its content. And instead of a cardboard sign, it holds up the equivalent of an iPad — it is now exclusively an online magazine, a vivid, well-organized digital publication.

The magazine mushroomed into being in 1945 after members of the scientific community who collaborated in creating the atomic bomb realized the dangers of their creation and saw the threat that evolving weaponry technology posed to humankind. Some of them joined together to create a magazine that would sound an alarm about these dangers. And in 1947, the Bulletin created its Doomsday Clock, a countdown to nuclear holocaust that has become the signature of the magazine. It currently reads six minutes to midnight, which symbolizes “how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction.”

Any magazine that can inform its readers and at the same time stir their emotions is an effective media product. And the Bulletin excels at doing this, providing detailed analyses of political, nuclear and biological issues and trends.

Many online science publications are landfills with cluttered piles of data and information. The Bulletin’s metamorphosis from print magazine to online publication has resulted in a crisp design that is a step ahead of its competitors and its own former on-paper makeup. The text is easily readable, with burgundy accents, photographs and plenty of white space. According to Kennette Benedict, the Bulletin’s executive director and publisher, they have been experimenting with live video streams. One this past January was a broadcast of the adjustment of the Doomsday Clock. Viewers were invited to send questions and receive a live response, and, said Benedict, more than 150 people participated.

When Benedict arrived at the Bulletin in 2005, 25 percent of the organization’s revenue came from single-copy sales and subscriptions, with the remaining 75 percent derived from a combination of donor support and grants. The magazine was developing its online identity while trying to increase its subscriber base. “We essentially had a magazine with a website,” she said.

The staff continued to produce articles ranging from governmental policy effects on nuclear energy to climate change to weaponry. This formula was enough to maintain the quality content that readers like me expect to find when we visit the Bulletin, but not enough to sustain a strong flow of subscription revenues. Even with its nonprofit model, Benedict said, the Bulletin is not different from other magazines that have been experiencing subscription declines. She said that by fall 2008, subscriptions for the niche publication had declined to 5,000 for individuals and 1,000 for institutions, and sales in bookstores weren’t substantial either.

The Bulletin’s staff and its board concluded that the best way to assure their survival was to fully transition into the digital realm. “We decided that with a robust digital site and with our audience, the paper publication was a luxury we couldn’t afford,” said Benedict. The transition was difficult — people were reluctant to relinquish their ties to the paper product — but it was necessary, and the new, online-only Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists emerged in 2009.

Some news items and articles on the site are available to all readers, but much of the material is accessible by subscription only. Subscriptions have decreased since the Bulletin went digital, said Benedict, but the site has an average of 50,000 unique visitors a month, and more than 17,000 people subscribe to a free e-newsletter. When the Doomsday Clock was adjusted in January, more than 352,000 visitors frequented the site that week.

Inevitably, there have been complaints from longtime readers who felt alienated by the move to a strictly digital publication. Among the phone calls and other messages Benedict received from unhappy subscribers, one postcard in particular sticks out in her mind. This reader said she felt as though the magazine had died.

“Of course we haven’t died,” Benedict says today. “We’ve gone online. I love print, but in the end I don’t think it’s the way for the future. There’s so much more you can do and so much more you can provide on a digital platform.”

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