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Breathing New Life Into the Nation’s Oldest Magazine

Scientific American VP and Publisher Bruce Brandfon talks about revamping and reviving the 163-year-old magazine in print and on the Web—and increasing print ad revenue 25 percent.

March 2008 By Janet Spavlik
Founded in 1845 by inventor Rufus Porter as a weekly broadsheet, Scientific American is the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States. But after a redesign to its print edition and a Web 2.0 overhaul to its Web site (www.SciAm.com), you would never know it.

At the helm of bringing this industry stalwart into the 21st century is Bruce Brandfon, Scientific American’s vice president and publisher. Brandfon joined the publication in 2001, faced with significant declines in ad pages and revenue. But by 2007, the magazine’s ad revenue had increased 25 percent over the previous year. Brandfon spoke with Publishing Executive about this dramatic turnaround, and how he is expanding the appeal of the Scientific American brand to a broader audience.

Scientific American’s print ad revenue was up 25 percent last year from 2006, and you added some big-name, first-time advertisers such as Subaru and Citgo. How have you been able to generate this increased ad revenue, especially at a time when many print publications are struggling?

Bruce Brandfon: Many of [the country’s] major issues … today are in science and technology, such as a cleaner environment, alternative energy, privacy and security, curing urgent diseases. … The people who proceeded me in this role … simply didn’t embrace or understand this. … The day I got here was the lowest point in the bell curve of Scientific American [as far as ad revenue]. Here’s the extraordinary thing: During the last Internet boom, Scientific American lost pages. How can that happen? The people who are writing the code are the readers of the magazine! So the answer was, [those who proceeded me] didn’t know what they had. [And] they were overwhelmed by all the attention some of this new media was getting.

… Is there room for traditional media in this new media landscape? The answer is: Of course there is. But it doesn’t mean that you should be staunchly defending anachronistic business practices. … As the audience migrates and changes in the way that it wishes to access the information, you have to find a way, in our case, to maintain the level of quality and rigor, the accuracy, credibly and importance of the information, and … you’ve got to give it to them in the way they’re wishing to consume it. … A wonderful thing that we have going for us [is that Scientific American] is a publication that people have demonstrated that they like spending lots of time with. …
 

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