Magazine Weekly : Out of the lab, is New Scientist the latest must-have?

Now that the right-wing free marketeers have lost power, perhaps their house journal, The Economist, and its triumphalist advertising lose some lose some of its lustre. But what will replace it as the must-be- seen-to be reading magazine?

A likely-looking candidate is New Scientist, which picked up a special award from the Periodical Publishers Association in May for its consistent excellence.

The magazine's sales have been creeping up since its editorial was overhauled by editor Alun Anderson five years ago and the magazine is now looking for a way to capture a wide, international market. As The Economist is read by more than economists, New Scientist wants to be in the briefcases of more than just boffins.

For years New Scientist ploughed steadily along at just under 100,000 copies a week, worthily serving the scientific community that had to read it. Then Anderson arrived. His plan was to inject style into the magazine and "take it out of the lab", according to Bill O'Niel, a former features editor.

Attention was paid to the magazine's front covers, research was commissioned and focus groups discussed the magazine's look. The cover lines are worked at to make sure they are intriguing enough to get people to pick the magazine up. "I've noticed people rarely put the magazine down once they open it," says Anderson.

"Alun even hangs around in WH Smith looking at how people buy magazines," says O'Niel. "He is obsessed with getting the magazine into people's hands."

"We are read by more people in the UK than The Economist," says Anderson. It now sells 122,000 copies a week, 40,000 of them overseas.

A first edict was to make sure that no one in a white coat ever appeared on the front cover. The magazine was to be accessible while being weighty. Scientific writers now get their copy back over and over again with requests for jargon to be written out and explained.

The commissioning budget was increased to make sure it could get the best writers and New Scientist is now one of the highest-paying magazines in the country. It also uses more American science journalists because of a trend there for scientists to train as journalists. In the past up to 40 per cent of the magazine had been written by scientists with no writing experience.

The features are also shorter than when Anderson arrived and are more people-focused. "Our slogan is accessibility with authority," he says. "Authority often means impenetrability but I'm most proud of the fact that 10 per cent of our readers are totally outside science."

The magazine's unique nature puts it in a lucrative position for advertising. While there are features-based monthly science magazines and news-based weekly titles, New Scientist combines both. It attracts classified job advertising because of its weekly nature and the better designed, better written features pages are bringing in display advertising.

An office was set up in Washington DC and sights were set on the lucrative US market. As yet it sells only a 1,000 copies a week in the US and is trying to improve its distribution.

"New Scientist has been saying it will hit America since the early Eighties," says another former staffer. "The problem is that IPC (its publisher) has no long-term vision, it just looks at how to make a quick buck and hasn't the vision to commit resources to really crack the American market."

Tom Wilkie, a former features editor of the magazine and now senior policy analyst at the Wellcome Foundation, believes there are other obstacles to the magazine's development in the US. "There are half-a-million copies of New Scientist sold every month," he says. "So New Scientist hoovers up lots of the advertising revenue from the scientific community in the UK. Consequently most of the UK's national newspapers have less money to invest in science sections and coverage. That's not the case in America and New Scientist finds itself in competition with well-funded newspapers."

The Economist currently sells 108,000 copies in the UK and another 617,000 worldwide - mostly in the US. As a more generalist news magazine its circulation is always likely to be bigger, but it has benefited from being a fashionable read. Anderson believes his time is coming: "You become trendy by having self-confidence and telling people to eff off if they are not interested in what you're interested in.

"We also have some of the zeitgeist about us thanks to the rise of the digital world and characters like Bill Gates who show nerds as billionaires or the popularity of writers like Richard Dawkins."

And come to think of it New Labour, New Scientist has a bit of a ring to itn

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