Ivan Oransky joined the staff of Scientific American less than a year ago as the managing editor of online, but within months he made sweeping changes to the magazine's Web site. An editor with a medical school background, Oransky has merged both interests into a full-time career in science and health journalism.
PRWeek: What are some of the challenges that come with adapting the oldest [continuously published] magazine in the US to current media trends?
Ivan Oransky: As you know, we've been published continually since 1845. The Web came along a little while after that. So, one of the things we're thinking about is how to adapt our very strong brand to the Web, but the reason that the brand has done well - has done so well for so long - is that we've never really tied ourselves to a particular trend….So, what we're doing is kind of taking a look at trends and thinking through what do you do when you have this brand that is primarily known for authority, which is a really good thing, primarily known for in-depth coverage, being written by scientists in many cases, and most of the magazine is written by scientists. How do you translate that to a Web environment that doesn't necessarily love three- and four-thousand word pieces?
PRWeek: How has your readership changed with these challenges?
Oransky: Well, the readership online is probably somewhat different…We're in a real growth phase. We have gone from, as recently as about three years ago, we only had really two people working online, in terms of editorial. Now, there's a team of nine of us. So, everything we do, as you know, changes the size of the audience. So when you change the size of the audience, you tend to also sometimes change the demographic. So, we're still really collecting that data and we have to, you know, look at it a little more carefully now that we've gone through so much growth, in terms of our traffic, and in terms of how much content we're putting on the Web. But, our sense, is that a younger group of users, younger group of readers, [is] still a very scientifically inclined group of readers, of course. But, there are some differences.
PRWeek: So has there been negative feedback from the science community?
Oransky: I wouldn't say negative feedback. The thing about Scientific American is that the scientists who have been a really important part of our…community have always known that they're reaching out to a much larger group of people than simply scientists and engineers. And, so they very much appreciate that, in order to do that, especially with the Web nowadays, it being the way so many people these days are getting their information, you have to adapt a little bit and so they really do trust us in terms of presenting their research, presenting policy, and presenting other things in a way that will captivate more people. We're the sort of editorial experts, and they're the scientific experts.
PRWeek: And what made you decide to move from a clinical background and education to a science and health journalism position?
Oransky: I would say that I really have always kind of done both things. In college, I was executive editor of my college daily. Basically, most of my friends now are off doing journalism full-time but I always had an interest in medicine and I come from a long line of doctors so the kind of thing you did was go to medical school and I was very interested in it. And I remain, obviously, very interested in science. But, sometimes, during my internships – that's the year after medical school – I was just finding myself writing all the time, even though I was exhausted from working all these shifts and so I said maybe I should try this full-time and see what happens. I had some columns going and I was doing some Op-Eds. I was doing as much reporting as I could do, regular stuff like that, and so I just decided it was time to try it full-time and it's worked out so far.
PRWeek: And why do you think that PR professionals who work in science and health should have clinical backgrounds, or should they?
Oransky: I think that's an open question. I don't think they should or shouldn't have any particular background. I think that, in many ways, requirements for someone in PR who covers science and health are the same as someone in journalism who covers science and health. At the end of the day, you need to be able to explain what you're doing and explain why something's important to an audience that doesn't have that background; I think because most people don't. You always need to be able to understand what's an important story, what's going to be compelling to readers, and what's going to maybe be important in terms of change in policy - things like that.
PRWeek: Can you give examples of any recent PR pitches that stood out to you, and why?
Oransky: I've worked with some great PR folks over the years, here and at other places…One that sticks out recently was someone who was working with Partners in Health, which is mostly based at Harvard [University] and a sort of public health organization that Paul Farmer founded. And, they were sending a bunch of their people to Siberia, different parts of Siberia, to look at training programs in multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, which is a really serious problem over there…And they said “Hey, how would you like to have a reporter tag along?” and I jumped at that even though logistically, as you can imagine, it wasn't the easiest thing to do.
PRWeek: What do you and the rest of the Scientific American editorial staff wish that PR professionals knew when they were getting in contact with you?
Oransky: I think the most important thing is to really get a good understanding of what we cover and who we're covering it for. And that's not necessarily really obvious from just me explaining it. The best way to get a sense of what we're about is to sign up for our daily emails.
PRWeek: What has been the most important change at Scientific American in the last five years?
Oransky: Well, not to sort of toot my own team's horn, but probably the most important thing that has happened here has been the vast expansion of the Web team and of our Web efforts, our online editorial efforts. We have had a really great relationship with our parent company, which is Holtzbrinck Publishing. And they really believe very strongly in the future of the Web...You know, we put everyone online on the Web for free now for a limited time. But, you know, a lot of our colleagues are still just putting up their print product and calling it a Web site. And we've realized, as a lot of people have, you really need to be much more dynamic and … do a real sort of daily effort, an hourly effort, that's what we're trying to do with the Web.
PRWeek: So what do you see as the main focus on the Web? And what role has branding played?
Well, we are trying on the Web to sort of leverage – again, that's a horrible word – our expertise and what we're doing in print as well as what we're originally doing online and really fuse them as well as we can. So, for example, we recently, just in the past few weeks, have shifted a lot of the categories that are sort of main content areas that we are producing content for on the Web...So, you know, in all of this, of course, is trying to be fast and dynamic and give readers and users what they want, as often as they want it. In terms of branding, the name of the brand is really one of our most valuable assets. So, in print and online, it stands for authority, it stands for credibility, and it stands for looking forward. So, everything we do online is absolutely in service to that and in respect to that brand. I mean, it's, you know, a 163-year-old brand [and it's] been quite a successful one, of course, quite a successful international one, as well.
PRWeek: What are the biggest trends in science and health media right now? And where do you see the market going over the next few years?
Well, I think there's a couple ways to think about that – one is media, in general, and where it's going. And if I knew the answer to that, I could probably do a lot of good for a lot of people. Our guesses, I'd like to think, are as good as anyone else's but I think that you're, of course, seeing fragmentation, you're seeing people getting news in different ways…One of the things I'd like to see happen in science and health media is that, and I think this is really beginning to happen, is that science and medical reporters start to treat the subjects they cover with the same degree of respectful skepticism – that's not cynicism but respectful skepticism – that other reporters are treating other subjects with. We have seen a lot of stories, unfortunately, that don't have that and that aren't quite, you know, robust enough in terms of questioning what's really going on.
Name: Ivan Oransky
Title: Managing editor, online
Outlet: Scientific American
Preferred contact method: firstname.lastname@example.org
Web site: www.sciam.com