The Science of Editing

Two years ago, Waukesha-based Kalmbach Publishing announced a major gamble. It was buying popular science magazine Discover, a major addition to the Kalmbach portfolio. The glossy was joining the ranks of hobby-related titles such as Classic Toy Trains and Bead and Button. Its staff, however, would remain in New York City, nerve center of the English-speaking publishing world.   But late this summer, Kalmbach announced another gamble – a plan to move Discover’s office to the quieter environs of Waukesha County. This gamble, as it played out, didn’t appear as successful. Editorial staffers declined to relocate, necessitating a hiring boom…

Two years ago, Waukesha-based
Kalmbach Publishing announced a major gamble. It was buying popular science
magazine Discover, a major addition
to the Kalmbach portfolio. The glossy was joining the ranks of hobby-related
titles such as Classic Toy Trains and
Bead and Button. Its staff, however,
would remain in New York City, nerve center of the English-speaking publishing
world.

 

But late this summer, Kalmbach
announced another gamble – a plan to move Discover’s
office to the quieter environs of Waukesha County. This gamble, as it played
out, didn’t appear as successful. Editorial staffers declined to relocate,
necessitating a hiring boom that culminated this week with a (mostly) new
masthead.

 

Kalmbach is keeping some
ties with the old staff. Outgoing editor-in-chief Corey L. Powell will stay on the masthead as an editor-at-large and
columnist. His forthcoming “Out There” astronomy blog will fill a gap left by last month’s move of Phil Plait’s popular “Bad Astronomy”
blog to Slate.com.

 

Additionally, Pamela Weintraub, a five-year veteran of Discover, will stay on as executive editor in what the company
describes as a consulting role.

 

Everyone else on the newly-remade
staff comes either from within Kalmbach’s existing roster or from outside the
company, and many are already Midwesterners.

 

Succeeding Powell as editor-in-chief
is Stephen C. George, an alum of the
Readers Digest America office in Greendale, where he was executive editor of
RDA’s book and special publications.

 

Don’t look for a wholesale revamp of the magazine, though, says Kevin Keefe, the magazine’s publisher
and Kalmbach’s vice president for editorial.

 

After the 2010 acquisition,
Kalmbach cut Discover’s circulation
rate base to 550,000 from the previous 725,000. The magazine business continues
to face very challenging times; Keefe notes that many other magazines have also
had to pull in their circulation. But Kalmbach has high hopes. “We’re very
bullish on the title,” he says.

 

Editorial strategy and content will
remain the same, with freelance science writers contributing about 60 percent
of the long-form feature content. Gradual shifts in content will continue.

 

“Ten years ago the conventional
wisdom was, one of the things that would sell this magazine no matter what were
dinosaurs and mummies,” says Keefe. “They’re still a part of what we do, but
less important than 10 years ago.”

 

Rising, he says, has been coverage
of human biology and medicine and increased coverage of science and the
environment. Those join “classic elements of our content” – physics, space
science and astronomy, and technology.

 

Extended narrative journalism
remains “the heart and soul of the magazine,” and Discover is banking on that going forward.

 

At the same time, while Kalmbach is
already
known
for its skill at capitalizing on digital media and resources, Keefe
says Discover’s website will allow the magazine to ask
and answer “What does it mean to be a digital publisher and what kind of
products are people looking for?”

 

One way, he suggests, may be
looking at how to deliver the magazine’s 30-year archive to readers. Another
will be to continue nurturing the magazine’s stable of science bloggers.

 

“The blog doesn’t always work for
all magazines. It works for our magazine because it draws a lot of traffic” –
traffic that might be interested in other digital content Kalmbach could offer.

 

Keefe also sees opportunities for Kalmbach
to use its experience producing events tied to its magazines – like the Bead
and Button Show in Milwaukee each year – to strengthen Discover’s already established event-marketing niche.

In moving the magazine from New York to Waukesha, Kalmbach hopes to
benefit from a lower overall cost structure here as well as the savings
available by the magazine’s offices in the same building  as the rest of its properties.

 

 “We’re very efficient, and we wanted to be
able to bring some of that efficiency to Discover,”
says Keefe.

 

The move might be seen as risky:
New York is, after all, home to important scientific institutions, both
technology- and science-based businesses as well as major academic centers and
institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History.

 

But Keefe insists the downside risk
is small to non-existent. The biggest challenge, he acknowledges, may be The
Big Apple’s other role. “If you’re not in the major media center, in New York,
you don’t have quick access to other media” – cable TV programs, for instance. And
this is where Corey Powell can be helpful. “When we get those calls, we still
have someone in New York,” Keefe says.

But when it comes to finding actual stories, “most of the business of this
magazine comes from, literally, anywhere in the world,” he says. As a science
center, places like Silicon Valley or North Carolina’s Research Triangle might
be at least as important as New York. “We did not feel that, in a scientific
context, Milwaukee was ipso facto a disadvantage,” he says. “Even the New York
people who came out here and looked the city over were very impressed with
Milwaukee.”

More to the point, though, is that
with a network of contributors and sources spanning the globe, “I don’t think
that it matters any more” where the magazine itself is located, Keefe adds.
“We’re certainly out to show that it doesn’t matter.”

 

When it came to recruiting new
staff, “We were able to find them in Wisconsin or attract them to Wisconsin,”
Keefe continues. “Most of them were either here or not very far away. It’s a testimonial
to the kind of talent there is in Wisconsin – more than we give credit for.”

 

The Rest of the Roster: Tasha Eichenseher, a former environment
editor and producer at National Geographic Digital Media, and Siri Carpenter, a Madison-based,
nationally published science writer and founder of The Open Notebook, a nonprofit
online resource
for science journalists, join as senior editors. Associate
editor-online Lisa Raffensberger
comes from the National Science Foundation and will run Discover’s website. Gemma
Tarlach
, former Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel
pop music critic turned international chef and travel and food
writer, joins as associate editor.

 

From Kalmbach, Trains magazine managing editor Kathi Kube takes on the same title at Discover; BirdWatching
photo editor Ernie Mastroianni – a
former JS picture editor and photographer
– becomes the science magazine’s photo editor; Bill Andrews takes the title of associate editor, moving over from
Kalmbach’s Astronomy magazine; and Allison Mackey becomes Discover’s senior graphic designer after
working in design for Astronomy.

 

A staff writer, Breanna Draxler, and a copy editor, David Lee, round out the list, and both
are outside hires; joining them is Elisa
Neckar
, an editorial assistant who is a former staff editor at Kalmbach’s
book division.

 

Happy Holidays: We hope Santa – or any other seasonal gift-giver
visiting your home – brings you your favorite new book, magazine, newspaper,
iPad app or e-reader. We also wish for editors and journalists everywhere the
intestinal fortitude, ethics, and backup to do good work, and the business
model to pay for it. Pressroom Buzz will take next week off but be back in the
New Year.

 

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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.