Weirder Science: Old Tech Title Reinvents Self With New Formula

Popular Science magazine has been around so long that it's almost a shock to see it referred to as anything but "the venerable Popular Science." First appearing in 1872, the magazine has reported on everything from the nascent days of air travel to solar power to, in 1969, a little thing called Arpanet (readers might be more familiar with its current moniker, the Internet).

But with newly installed publisher Gregg Hano at the helm, the magazine is continuing a gradual genesis that began when it was purchased nearly three years ago by Time Inc. In short, Popular Science is doing some work on its personality. "We've given it a little more attitude, a little more voice," Hano says. "We're being a little bit controversial. And we've put more humans into the magazine."

Following his promotion from director of sales and marketing in July, Hano finds himself in an interesting position. On the one hand, his publication has surged in recent years: although the audited 2003 Publishers Information Bureau numbers haven't yet arrived, the mag's PR minions are saying that 2003 has been the biggest revenue year in its 132 years of existence, with pages up 18 percent over 2002 (which, in turn, outpaced 2001 by 47 percent). Hano and his team are also eager to chirp about the current December issue, which at 94 ad pages is the biggest revenue issue in PS history.



On the other hand, Hano is in the awkward position of satisfying longstanding readers while trying to attract new ones. And those two goals may be mutually exclusive. Grouped under Time Inc.'s Time4Media banner with Field & Stream, Golf Magazine, and a handful of other specialty titles, Popular Science has hesitantly spruced up its design and editorial mix in the last 24 months. There are fewer hyper-technical descriptive pieces about emerging technologies and more hook-happy features: the "Worst Jobs in Science," the "Brilliant Ten" (science's smartest young minds), an upcoming feature on the country's top ten tech cities. Sense a trend here?

The mag's critics carped that by upping its list quotient and adopting a peppier look and feel, Popular Science had dumbed itself down. Readers, however, don't seem to agree, as witnessed by flat circulation numbers in MRI's mid-year index. "Clearly, when you make dramatic changes in your look, design, and tone, the fear is that you're going to disenfranchise your core audience," Hano acknowledges. "But everything we've heard says the opposite." By way of proof, he points to a letter from a reader who has subscribed since the 1930s, opining that the mag's November issue (which focused on the future of flight) was the best one he' seen.

Hano credits Time Inc. for the evolution of PS, noting that the company's "generous" backing has given the publication's editorial and marketing executives considerably more to work with "no offense to [previous owners] Times-Mirror or The Tribune Company, of course," he adds, almost as an afterthought. Time's expansive holdings have allowed Popular Science to better position its editors as expert commentators on a wide range of science and technology topics. One of the mag's editors, for example, does a segment on corporate sibling CNN on Fridays.

This awareness-generating push, however, is at least in part motivated by Popular Science's poor showing in one audience metric, number of readers per copy. "We're around 4.2 or 4.3," Hano says. "We don't get anywhere near as many [readers] as we think we should get, frankly." When the lights go out in the Northeast, Hano wants broadcast and cable producers to have the numbers of Popular Science experts on their speed-dial. Right now, he doesn't think that they do.

As for those competitors, even Hano isn't sure exactly who they are. "We're not really in any specific category," he says, and he's probably right. With a circulation of 1.45 million, Popular Science dwarfs the two other titles most often mentioned as competitors (Scientific American and Discover, which boast circulation figures of 660,000 and 850,000, respectively). For advertising dollars, the magazine probably competes as much with men's special interest titles like Field & Stream and Popular Mechanics.

"The burst of the Internet bubble really helped us," Hano says. "We're less about the Internet than about the products that will help [readers] integrate technology into their lives, and I think advertisers want to reach those readers more than they did ten years ago." The typical PS reader: a 42-year-old male homeowner, with household income of $75,000. "They're upscale and they're affluent - well, not by New York City standards," he cracks. "They are the neighborhood experts. Before somebody buys a car or computer, they run it by our readers."

Marketers who have recently added Popular Science to their media mix include Hewlett-Packard, Lucas Arts, Microsoft Media Center, Chevrolet (Malibu), and Black & Decker. In the months ahead, Hano says he hopes to add financial services companies and that he will likely continue to "stay up at night thinking" about ways to snare his two dream advertisers, Apple and Volkswagen. "They're design-savvy, youth-oriented, and so creative. If we can break the Apples and VWs of the world, we're going to feel like we've completed the turnaround."

Also on the PS slate for 2004: a TV show that will be distributed by Boston's WGBH, tentatively dubbed "Popular Science Adventures."

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