WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY 2014
What has inspired your current career path?
Like all kids, I was born a scientist. What I mean by that is that I liked to ask a lot of questions and tried to find out how the world works by experimenting. When a pet goldfish died, for instance, I’d bury it and then see what its bones looked like a month later. For my birthday, I begged for a microscope and a chemistry set until I got them. A girlfriend and I once used a gerbil with a nasty habit of biting because we wanted to see what our blood looked like under a microscope. We didn’t have the nerve to poke our own fingers for the blood, so we let the gerbil do that! (Crazy, I know.) I memorized the orbital periods of the planets and how many satellites each planet had the same way some kids absorb baseball statistics (although I liked baseball, too).
I also had a habit of taking blank sheets of paper, folding them into quadrants and cutting them, and then stapling the pages along one side to create a kind of small magazine. I would hand-write stories and draw pictures for illustrations on those pages. The stories were usually fiction but the form should seem familiar: I was making my own magazines and I wasn’t even out of elementary school. I liked finding out things and then sharing the stories with others.
So, I appear to have always had the habits of a person who should be a science writer for magazines—especially those with informational graphics, like Scientific American. But that only became clear to me in hindsight. When I was a student, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career. I only figured that out through a series of happenstances that stretched from eighth grade to sophomore year in college, when I finally saw the path ahead of me. More about that later.
What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced? How did you overcome them?
When I was in college and after I’d decided to become a journalist, our neighbor across the street asked what I wanted to do. I told her. “Journalism?” she snorted. “There’s no future in that. No, I think you really should be an engineer instead.”
At the time, as is true today, it seemed like it would be impossible to get a job as a full-time reporter. Other people also told me that, even if I could get such a job, I’d have to move away from New York, where I grew up, and work at a series of small-town papers far away for years. I’d have to work my way back.
I’m not sure how it came to me, but in response to all the naysaying, the following occurred to me: Other people manage to get jobs in this field and they are probably no smarter or more lucky than I am. All things being equal—and especially if I’m passionate about my job and if I work hard: Why not me? That became an animating principle for my life’s choices, and it’s something I now tell young people who really want to follow their passions: Why shouldn’t it be you who succeeds? It won’t be enough to get you there alone, of course. You need to have the commitment, the skill and the willingness to work. But you have to believe in yourself first, so you don’t fail even before you begin.
I have used the “why not me?” tactic a lot during my own career. Once, with just four days to press, my boss at Popular Science said, “OK, our cover story just fell through. What have you got?” We usually had more than a month to report out, design and get the illustrations for a feature article of 3,000 words plus captions and labels. After I scraped my jaw off the floor, I thought about it, and realized I did actually have a pretty good idea for a replacement. And why couldn’t I just make it happen? I knew what story I wanted to tell. I would just have to focus hard to get the work done in time. I put my head down and spent the next few days conducting some two dozen interviews and then writing and producing the article (with great infographics, thanks to our art team) on advanced propulsion concepts for spacecraft. That cover story later sold a gratifying 192,000 copies on newsstand, which was much higher than normal at the time.
Then there was the challenge of getting my current job as editor in chief of Scientific American. In 2009, my predecessor, a brilliant colleague whom I admire greatly, left after an impressive 15 years in the editor in chief’s seat. As it happened, Scientific American around that time got a new management team based in London, who, naturally, wanted to see real change in the publication’s direction so that it could keep growing in an increasingly digital world. They gave me the title of “acting editor in chief” and began a search for my predecessor’s replacement. On top of that, our online managing editor left soon afterward for a new opportunity. So I was covering the work of not only my old job as exec, but also the online spot—and then ALSO trying to juggle my existing management of Scientific American Mind, a sister publication that I’d started in 2004. I knew I had a reputation as a solid second in command at that point, but I wasn’t sure anybody in upper management knew I could be a good change agent or serve as a leader for Scientific American’s next chapter.
At one point, a friend took me out to lunch and said, “Mariette, you’re the main wage earner for your household, your kids are going to go to college in a few years, and everything is against you. How come you are not freaking out?” I told him that I could only worry about the things that were up to me to control, and the rest simply was out of my hands. Rather than being resentful about my situation, I also realized it wasn’t my new boss’s fault that he didn’t know me or consumer publishing or Scientific American. That meant I had an opportunity to share learning—something I’d been doing as a journalist for many years.
So I thought: “Why not me?” I knew at least as much as other candidates—more, actually, given my eight years as executive editor of Scientific American. More important, I told myself: Few people in the world ever get the privilege of this kind of opportunity to make a difference—and few positions in the world can move the needle to help a lot of people in the public in addition to helping their staffs and their company meet their goals. The editor in chief of Scientific American, the longest continuously published magazine in the U.S. (since 1845!), is one of those positions.
I decided that even if I did not ultimately get the job, I would respect the privilege of whatever time I’d been given and do the best I could, and as productively as possible, for Scientific American. Even though my title was just “acting,” I would BE the editor in chief, as long as I had the chance, and do what I thought was right for the magazine as its leader, caretaker and advocate. That way, no matter what happened in the future, whether I actually got the job or not, I could tell myself that I had not been timid or tried to play it safe—that I had done the job full on for the magazine and the team, with an open heart.
As part of his assessment of my skills during that period of several months, my boss then did something wonderful: He invited me to present him with my future vision for Scientific American. Nobody had ever asked me for anything like that before and I actually felt kind of humbled by the opportunity. Because I had already decided I was the editor in chief until somebody told me I wasn’t, I answered his invitation as boldly and completely as I could. I thought about what Scientific American had been in the past, what it was now, and what it should be to best serve its audiences in the future—what was uniquely needed now compared with even five years ago. As they say, the rest is history: Our global audiences have been seeing the results since then, as the Scientific American team and I have put various initiatives into place—although I still have a number of things that I still intend to do!
What are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of?
One of the benefits of being a top editor is that I get a chance to look at the horizon, to metaphorically steer our magazine ship. Plus, I’m a strong believer both in taking personal responsibility for not only my own work and in the success of every member of my team—and I feel they should each take personal responsibility and be passionate about what we do as well.
The entire magazine industry is under a lot of pressure from the changes wrought by the digital transformation of media. Fortunately for Scientific American, our readers have always valued our unique offerings enough to feel they are worth paying for. But in 2011, with the stagnating economy continuing to depress advertising and sponsorship sales for the entire publishing industry, our business team realized that we needed to offer more kinds of editorial products to our reader customers. At the time, we were producing 20 issues a year—12 of Scientific American, six of Scientific American Mind and 2 newsstand editions. The business wanted to add the equivalent of 100 more issues a year of repackaged content to be sold digitally, among them: tablet apps for both magazines, summaries of scientific papers, packages of archival articles, and eBooks. We also needed to increase our multimedia: video, podcasts, slide shows.
I realized, as if a lightning bolt hit me, that my team was only optimized to produce original content but not for repackaging. I also knew I couldn’t possibly add additional staff. How could I make sure we’d succeed?
It became clear to me that we simply had to reorganize the editorial team—and I also realized that the old divisions between “print” and “digital” editors had to go. I started with my management team, letting them know what I planned and promising that we would continue to maintain our magazine’s hard-won quality and authority. We worked together to list out all the new tasks we’d need to do to deliver all those digital editions. We removed obstacles to communication and efficiency for the staff, such as our then-separate meetings between former “print” and “digital” editors, and we removed unnecessary work as well. I let the staff know in the spring that things would be changing. I sent us all to digital media training over the summer at a local university. Afterward, we managers laid out our plans and transition timings for the team. At the end, after we launched the changes, I gave the entire staff a PowerPoint review of the journey we’d taken together. And the result? We produced all the content we needed to do without skipping a beat.
A year later, I met with every person individually to find out how it was going. As one editor put it, “Mariette, the experiment is working.” Today, Scientific American’s editorial team produces more than 300% of what it did before I took over, and the editorial jobs are more stimulating and everyone has a better career path. On top of that, we have tripled our online traffic in the past three years and even lifted our newsstand performance in the past six months while other titles flagged.
Who have been the most influential mentors in your life?
I’ve had so many! My father is first among them. Once, we were at a gas station when I was maybe seven years old, and I noticed the attendant was a man. It occurred to me that I’d never seen a woman in that role. I asked my father whether it would matter to him if a woman pumped the gas. “Is she as good as the man?” he asked. “Oh, yes!” I said. “She can do whatever he can do.” He said, “Then of course I am happy to have her do that job.”
In eighth grade, too, I had a female science teacher who had an after-school club for her “Alchemists.” I loved doing extra experiments with the lab equipment and then organizing the various flasks and Bunsen burners for the class.
For these reasons, and others, it just never occurred to me that a woman couldn’t do whatever she wanted. In my current role, my boss is a superb mentor—always listening to my crazy ambitions, introducing me to people who might be helpful collaborators, and building on my ideas with helpful suggestions.
One of the most influential mentors for me, however, relates to your next question, so read onward….
What would you describe as a turning point in your life?
If you’d asked me as a ninth grader what I wanted to do for a living, I would have said “scientist.” But by tenth grade, I realized that a scientist has to choose what she would study, one specialty above the rest. I liked every subject much too much to pick just one to focus on for the rest of my life, however. So science—although I was passionate about it since I was small—was out as a job choice, I decided.
In high school, I was also pretty good at art, even getting after-school jobs with the art teacher to do things like making maps of the local area for fourth graders’ classrooms. But I realized that—while I always loved art (remember those little mini-magazines?)—I didn’t think I had the level of passion and commitment for it that some other classmates clearly had. Whatever I was going to do for a living, I decided, I was going to love it absolutely.
Then, as a sophomore at Boston University, I took an introductory journalism course. The professor was a scary ex-reporter. Terrifying guy. He would give us news quizzes every week, would write “illiterate” on people’s papers if they used the wrong word, and would write a big “F” on the front if you ever had two typos on a story you turned in. At the time, we used manual typewriters because—although mainframes and terminals existed—you wouldn’t waste computing power on introductory students. So it wasn’t like today, where the software catches your errors of spelling (and grammar, for that matter).
The professor had an interesting technique to teach us the reporter’s craft of analyzing facts quickly and writing them up. “Imagine an airplane just crashed,” he said one day. Then he described the process of finding out what happened, one phone call at a time. He did that for different kinds of stories and topics. We would scribble notes furiously as he spoke. At the end each time, he would say something like, “Finding all that out took you 13 minutes. There are still four minutes to deadline. I want you to write four paragraphs—so it’s long enough to get a banner headline over it for page one tomorrow. Go!” The class would then pound out what we could for the next four minutes on those manual typewriters. Sometimes it was just three minutes. Although other students dreaded these exercises, I found it exhilarating to solve the story “puzzles” of stringing facts together in a sensible way on deadline.
One day, the professor snapped at me: “I want to see you after class.” I figured I had to be failing. I mean, how could anybody be having so much fun in a class and be doing well, right? When I met up with him, he demanded to know: “What are you majoring in?” I didn’t know, I told him. Public relations, maybe? Frankly, I didn’t even know what that was at the time, but the idea of doing something with the “public” sounded maybe nice.
“PR!” he barked. “PR! The best people are in JOURNALISM. You should be a journalist. You are good at this. You can do this!”
Suddenly, everything fell into place with a snap: I could continue to learn about science—and not just one discipline, but all of them. I could write about what I found out. I could figure out the words and pictures. I could share knowledge with others to help them learn about the world as I had.
When I was a senior undergraduate a couple of years later, B.U. let me take the introductory graduate science-writing class at what was then a new Master’s program in science journalism. Before I left college, I sold some freelance stories from class assignments. I was on my way.
By the way, the professor and I are still friends more than 25 years later. He is long retired, but still e-mails me stories to read almost every day. And if he thinks I did poorly on some TV interview, he’ll still yell at me about that.
What are your goals for the future?
They are pretty simple, actually—and the same goals I’ve always had, even if they might sound corny. I’d like to bring curious minds together to do great things. I’d like to help change the world by sharing knowledge. And I’ll be working on those as long as I have the privilege to do so. #