Is Anybody Buying Policy?
Politics attracts money, but analysis of policy is hard to sell.
Technology Review, the venerable magazine published by the MIT Alumni Association, has decided that policy doesn't sell. At least since 1967, when John Mattil became editor, Technology Review has devoted itself to exploring the social and political implications of science and technology as well as reporting on the steady march of progress in human discovery and invention. Mattil and his successors, particularly Steven Marcus, who was managing editor under Mattil and became editor after a stint as editor of Issues, succeeded brilliantly in creating a magazine that enlightened us about developments in science and technology at the same time that it stimulated us to think critically about their use. But no more.
Marcus and most of the staff have been dismissed. John Bendit, the new editor, told Kim McDonald of the Chronicle of Higher Education that in the future policy articles written by experts will be replaced by reports on technological innovation written by journalists. Bendit and publisher R. Bruce Journey hope to double the magazine's circulation in the next few years and reduce the subsidy provided by the alumni association. Certainly there's nothing inherently wrong with publishing a magazine that enables readers to keep up with progress in technology. The audio, computer, and car magazines have been very successful at tracking consumer technology. Scientific American does a distinguished job of explaining technology as well as science to a broad audience. But that should not be every magazine's mission.
Technology Review has learned the same lesson that we have learned at Issues: Serious and informed discussion of S&T policy is not a mass market commodity. We'll print about 15,000 copies of this issue. That's two orders of magnitude less than Soap Opera Digest, Golf Digest, or Martha Stewart Living. Family Handyman and Sesame Street Magazine print more than a million copies of each issue; Hot Rod and Weight Watchers are close to that. Even Becket Baseball Card Monthly, which claims to have about 350,000 subscribers, is in a different universe. Of course, although we have all nourished the hope that a broad public would develop an interest in S&T policy, neither magazine was created to be a profit center.
From a business perspective, the Technology Review decision is good for Issues. Although there have always been obvious differences between the magazines, Technology Review was in some ways the magazine most like Issues. It was the only magazine bigger than Issues that devoted significant attention to S&T policy issues for a broad audience. Now we won't have to compete for authors or readers who care about policy. But that is small comfort. The National Academy of Sciences and the University of Texas at Dallas are not focused on market share; they seek to expand the market for ideas. They support Issues because they believe that the nation needs a place to debate S&T policy issues. They want to help create a public that is better informed and more involved in the development and use of scientific and engineering knowledge. Technology Review was engaged in the same quest, and it seemed fitting that the nation's premier engineering school would be supporting that effort.
We would like to see more places to discuss S&T policy so that more viewpoints would be represented and more readers would be drawn into the discussion. It was discouraging when Congress expressed its lack of interest in substantive discussion of S&T policy by eliminating its Office of Technology Assessment. What are we to think when MIT loses interest?