MIT Technology Review Redesigns for the Greater Good
CEO and publisher Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau on the magazine's new approach and the purpose of print in 2018.
One of many memorable covers over the long history of MIT Technology Review‘s various iterations arrived in October of 2012, in the form of a close-up portrait of Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin above the tagline, “You promised me Mars colonies. Instead, I got Facebook.”
Six years later, we still don’t have condo’s on the red planet, but we do find ourselves in an increasingly fraught conversation about the positive and negative impacts of technological advancement—and a 119-year-old magazine wants to host it.
“As the leader, I’m trying to get people rallying behind this vision of MIT Technology Review as the most authoritative, influential, and trusted media platform in technology,” says Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau, who arrived from The Economist in 2015 before rising to CEO and publisher last summer. “That’s a very hubristic goal and vision.”
A major step toward fulfilling that vision comes to fruition next week with the release of the magazine’s July/August issue, the first since a major redesign (and reinvestment), replete with an elevated paper stock, bolder graphics and typography, and a book-like, single-topic focus.
Folio: sat down with Bramson-Boudreau to learn more about the redesign and the role of a technology-focused print magazine in 2018.
Folio: The redesign is being rolled out as part of what’s been called a new mission for MIT Technology Review. What do you mean by that?
Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau: It’s very popular to say that technological advances are good for everyone, but for some time, it’s been clear to us that technology has not always been oriented towards the good for the greatest number of people.
We read about things like the power of large companies like Google and Facebook and Amazon, about risks related to cybersecurity and hacking, concerns about what might be going on with our democracy. There are a lot of things that technology purports to be able to improve about the world, but it hasn’t necessarily been oriented in that direction.
Folio: So this is a new and important role to play for MIT Technology Review, in steering technological advancement in a way that serves the greater good?
Bramson-Boudreau: I don’t think this is a changing of our mission so much as a rephrasing of it. What is different is that these things we’ve been talking about for years were read and experienced by far too few people, and that had to do with MIT Technology Review not really having a voice that was amplified properly in technology media. Our impact was low. So really this is about doing a better job with our core principles.
Folio: That sounds like broadening the audience a bit. Are there certain types of readers who should be reading the magazine, but aren’t?
Bramson-Boudreau: Absolutely. We think our readership ought to be anyone who cares about how technology is being made and being used and being shaped. We think of the makers, the users, and the framers, and there are an awful lot of those people—about 40 million of them in the United States, by our reckoning.
Folio: I think it’s fair to say that for the last several years, the magazine’s core audience has probably fallen into that “makers” category. Is there any concern about turning an objective lens on those folks or alienating core readers?
Bramson-Boudreau: It’s not a worry. The kinds of articles that we’re going to be writing will not necessarily be profoundly different. What we have done is hire a new editor-in-chief [Gideon Lichfield, from Quartz] who is extremely savvy about how to make a story acceptable to a broader number of people. It really is about expanding the tent. It shouldn’t be a different tent.
We’ve always been saying that the people who are the makers have responsibility. In my view, we don’t even have enough of those makers in our audience. So I think we’ve got some things to do to improve how we tell the story to our traditional readers, too. So I really don’t see anything but growth.
Folio: Was there anything specific you were hearing from your readers, or seeing in the market, that catalyzed this shift within the print product?
Bramson-Boudreau: Any time you have a new leader come in, there’s a moment and a nice opportunity to think about why we are here, about what makes us special and what our purpose is. When I took this role, we engaged in a large market research project to understand better who we ought to be targeting and where the gaps were.
There were a lot of things that we hadn’t really done to be unique and distinct. We were doing a lot of things that other publications were also doing, so it was a great opportunity to rethink a lot of things.
Folio: Was this rebrand in the works already at the time Gideon was brought in late last year?
Bramson-Boudreau: We already knew that we needed to do these things. We came to Gideon and we said listen, we’ve got all of this stuff that we want to do. We need the right sensibility and the right voice, and he was so clearly the right leader for this moment.
Folio: Let’s talk about the print redesign. The most notable change is this shift to a single-topic format with each issue. What was the rationale there?
Bramson-Boudreau: Print in 2018 and beyond has a special role to play. I do think it has a role to play, but it’s not the same as it once was. There’s not enough of a reason for people to read you in print if they can read the same thing online. Those two things don’t complement one another.
The first step meant asking whether we were going to continue doing print at all. Then it was a matter of how we do it in a way that’s special and enhances the value of the reader’s experience. It became pretty clear to us that—given that we publish six times per year and aren’t going to be publishing all the time, like The Economist or The New Yorker—that we needed to be a little bit more considerate about what we do in print. The ability to do a thorough job of communicating the societal and business impact of technology is going to be really important. So a really wonderful way of doing that is to take a tough issue like blockchain or artificial intelligence or the impact that tech is having on the economy, and treat it in a single issue from a whole bunch of different perspectives.
Folio: So it affords you more real estate in each issue to explore topics to a level of depth that wasn’t possible before?
Bramson-Boudreau: Absolutely. We’ll look at what this technology is all about, how does it work. That’s the “how.” Then there’s the “now,” which is how the technology is being used and what impact it’s having today. Then there’s the “next.” What’s coming. What’s possible. What could be the desired or unforeseen negative consequences of the way this technology is working out.
Every one of these topics takes that “how, now, next” structure. At the same time, we’ve changed the paper stock so it’s a higher quality and more tactile reading experience. It gives people who want to spend the extra time digging into a topic a little bit more of an immersive experience when doing so.
We’re excited about how this single-topic, lean-back reading experience accompanies and complements the always-on, constant, largely-mobile reading experience on the web. The two things are quite different, and the times in your life when you’ll consume one or the other are different.
Folio: Do you need all of your print readers to be digital readers, and vice versa? Are you content to cultivate and serve two different communities in two different places?
Bramson-Boudreau: We’d like you to be our reader everywhere, and we’d like you to attend our events. We don’t necessarily expect that. Our readers have different preferences, different appetites for how they want to digest their content. And that’s fine.
However, we also think that we haven’t necessarily made a case for each of those groups to cross over. That’s the rationale for rethinking the way we do print. It’s a matter of taking into consideration what is unique and special about the print experience and leaning into that, and doing the same on the digital side. Together, it creates an offering that’s really formidable.
We’ll continue to offer a print-only or a digital-only subscription, but we really think there’s a case to be made for this print experience that complements the digital experience, and vice-versa. Previously, we really didn’t give you any reason to.
Folio: What other big changes can readers expect from the book going forward?
There’s going to be a really nice, new way of treating infographics. We’re going to be doing a lot more of them in print. We haven’t traditionally used infographics to their best effects, and we’ve got a lot more that we aim to do there.
In general, we’re treating our images a little bit differently. Previously, we kind of took things as they were, and I often felt that our photography and design were a little bit inconsistent in terms of style. We’re going to be more intimate in our photography. We spent a lot of time thinking about what type of mood we wanted to convey. It’s been really eye-opening for me, because it’s not intuitive. So it’s been fun to work with Pentagram and our creative director [Eric Mongeon] on that. It’s about connecting our readers to people and technologies that might have previously felt a little bit out of reach.
Folio: Were there any advertising considerations at play in the redesign?
Bramson-Boudreau: We’re excited to share it with our advertisers, and we’ve been giving them some sneak previews. Print is appealing to advertisers, but it’s not our leading advertising medium. Because our endemic advertisers are technology companies, they tend to be doing a lot more activations in live events and in digital. Hopefully a better looking book will mean that they want to add that on, but really the motivation that drove the design was about the subscription reader over the advertiser.
Folio: You have the CEO in place. You brought in a new editor-in-chief. Was it a matter of convincing the rest of your stakeholders, both up and down the ladder, that this shift was a step worth taking?
Bramson-Boudreau: Change is always hard. But I can say that the entire team is really excited and supportive and creative, and really ready for this. In terms of my stakeholders like the board, I really lucked out. The devil is in the details, of course, but I have tons of support. That doesn’t make it easy, but at least I don’t have to convince people that it’s worth doing.