Scientific American Experiment: Letting Readers Shape Print Stories Online
Monthly magazines all face the same challenge: Bringing readers timely news in the face of competition from newspaper, television and the Internet. The dilemma prompted Scientific American to embark on a breaking news experiment this past September after paleontologists discovered the oldest skeletal remains – some 3.3 million years old, to be exact – of a human child.
“This was a case of something new coming out of something very old,” said Kate Wong, editorial director for ScientificAmerican.com, speaking during MPA’s Digital Day last week. “This was a good opportunity for us to try something we had been thinking about for a while.” Scientific American posted a special report on the fossil finding, which came to be known as “Lucy’s baby,” a reference to the 1974 discovery of a child-fossil dubbed “Lucy.” The special report gave the basic facts of the fossil finding and then solicited comments and questions from readers, who were told that their inquiries would shape the print version of the story, said Wong.
Wong also invited 10 scientists to weigh-in and blog on the findings. “We used promotional banners to keep the conversation going over the course of a few weeks, and we really had no idea what to expect,” she said. “What we ended up with were some reader comments and questions that were intelligent and thought out. And, of the 10 or so scientists invited to comment, six responded and we posted the responses verbatim on the blog and then incorporated them into the print story.”
Wong said she also visited the blog over the course of writing the story to interact with readers and answer their questions. When it came time to write the print article, Wong did several things. She rewrote the main story using information from the scientists’ blogs and the reader comments. She also created sidebars that directly answered readers’ questions and highlighted more of the information provided by scientists in their blogs.
The experiment resulted in daily Web page views several times higher than the norm during the course of the discussion on Lucy’s baby, said Wong, and a survey in the December issue revealed a high level in reader interest in the print article, particularly in the sidebars containing reader questions. “Will we do it again?” she said. “We already have. (In February), we put up a draft of an article on the origins of life. So far, the discussion has been lively.”
Wong said the magazine is now looking for other ways to involve readers in their coverage. “In preparing our holiday guide, we solicited reader ideas for gadgets to include in our list,” she added. “In January, we started a blog discussion on a conservation idea that will be the subject of a forthcoming article in print. We’re looking to establishing a dedicated area on the site for articles under construction.”