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A Vanity Fair of Science?

The Media Report, ABC Radio National | 17 March 2005

A new popular science magazine will soon hit the shelves. The Media Report's Richard Aedy talks to its editor, Wilson da Silva.

Wilson da Silva, editor of the new science magazine COSMOS
Wilson da Silva, editor of COSMOS

Richard Aedy: Who amongst us has never wanted a robot lover? I know I have. But what are my chances of actually being able to pick one up? Well that’s exactly the kind of topic up for discussion in COSMOS, a new popular science magazine. Its editor is the highly respected Wilson da Silva, who was also in charge of the last popular science magazine in Australia, the now-departed Newton.

Wilson da Silva: Well Newton was actually a great success. You’re right, Australian Geographic used to publish Newton. And it was a great success in the sense that it was in the Top 100 titles; commercially it sold very well, even though I think it had a really high cover price at $12.95. But it was bi-monthly, and there were far too many expectations put on it. I think Australian Geographic’s experience with one other title was they were expecting 100,000 circulation, and magazines, you’ve got to give them a chance, you can’t expect them to pay back in two or three issues, or even a year, you’ve got to really invest in editorial, engage in a community, and be patient and that’s what we’re going to do with COSMOS.

Richard Aedy: Because Newton, I recall, you were editor there too, it was glossy, it looked great, you obviously had a reasonable production budget, but it wasn’t enough.

Wilson da Silva: Well it wasn’t enough for that publishing company. As I said, you really have to invest in the editorial, make it gorgeous, as you say, glossy, and very attractive, but you have to expect it to pay back maybe in two or three years, that’s what magazines do, and I think if you put too many expectations on it, it’ll never satisfy you. We have an investor who comes from a science background, he’s a science entrepreneur and he believes that we need a popular science title in Australia. We certainly believe it, Kylie Ahern, the publisher and myself, it’s just a matter of finding the right formula for it. Because you know, science rates extremely well on television. The Discovery Channel is almost all science, and it’s 1.4-million every week.

“We have an investor who comes from a science background, he’s a science entrepreneur and he believes that we need a popular science title in Australia.”

Richard Aedy: Is this in Australia?

Newton, November 2001

Wilson da Silva: In Australia, yes. Catalyst, the ABC TV science show, last week rated 880,000 in the five city capitals, but if you include nationally, it’s more than a million people. Radio is covered with science, mostly from ABC, and in books, the non-fiction category for the last few years have known that science books rate very well, from Longitude to A History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. So, in other categories of media, we know science works. Nobody’s quite found the formula yet to work in a popular science category, and we think we have. We think we’ll be even more popular than Newton. Newton used to sell something like 30,000, we’ll probably go towards something like 40,000 or 50,000, purely because we’re going to the people who are interested in science, but also if you like, the science agnostics, the people who read a science article in a newspaper, or watch Discovery Channel, but wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves readers of science magazines. We think that if you make science part of culture, the science of everything, we think we can bring those people on board too.

Richard Aedy: It’s a hard thing to do though. I can only think of three successful popular science publications in the English-speaking world, and they are New Scientist, which is the venerable weekly, Scientific American, and Discover magazine. So if there’s only three in these two much larger economies, although they’ve all published internationally, it’s clearly difficult.

We think you can write intelligently without being facile and without talking down to your audience.

Wilson da Silva: There’s actually a lot more. There’s Popular Science, which is a monthly in the U.S., it’s actually the largest circulation with nearly two million circulation in the U.S.; there’s also Smithsonian, beyond Scientific American, and you mentioned Discover, but in the U.K., there isn’t just New Scientist, which is a news weekly of science, if you like, but there’s also Focus, which is a very populist, a bit laddish you could almost say, science monthly. We’re not quite going the laddish path; we think you can write intelligently without being facile and without talking down to your audience. You’re right though; in publishing terms, and in journalistic terms, science is challenging. You have to commit to editorial, you have to stand your ground. It’s not easy celebrity journalism.

Richard Aedy: Given that there are these other publications, and I was only thinking there were three, but there are others, and certainly those three are available here, you have to admit that it’s a niche, and those guys are already in it.

Scientific American, February 2006

Wilson da Silva: You could say that dirt bike racing is a niche, that pig hunting is a niche, and yet those titles, there are titles in the Top 100 that concentrate on that. On knitting, you know, gardening, the food titles, the category of food, really didn’t exist a few years ago until the magazine called Delicious launched, and suddenly there’s all these other food magazines. We believe we can do the same in this market.

Richard Aedy: But we all eat, I’m just thinking, everybody eats. I’m interested in science, but not everybody is.

Wilson da Silva: I think they are. I think we just haven’t found the way of communicating with them, or talking to them about it. It’s not about telling them about science, it’s showing them – I mean they fly planes that involve incredible amounts of scientific and technological ingenuity and know-how. People are using technology all the time. We’re not going to preach to them about technology, about science, we’re going to give them a deckchair approach to science if you like. Why can’t there be a Vanity Fair of science? That’s where we’re going, we don’t want to replicate Popular Science in the U.S., or Discover, they’re trying for a very, very mainstream large-circulation audience. We want a publication that is intelligent, but is also engaging, a kind of, as I said, a Vanity Fair of science.

Richard Aedy: Vanity Fair’s very glamorous, you can have glamour?

Wilson da Silva: Yes, why can’t we do a photo shoot of an Albert Einstein type person, as if it was a fashion shoot, why can’t we do a photo essay of brain surgery as if it was war reportage? Why can’t we break all the standard media models and just try something new? And that’s what we’re going to try and do with COSMOS.

Richard Aedy: A lot of people have started magazines over the last five or six years, and I can remember five years ago when I was doing a stint on The Media Report before, I went and interviewed Eric Beecher, who was starting The Eye, which was a very good magazine, and he had a very good pedigree as a journalist, and now he’s since then gone on to be a very successful publisher. But The Eye, despite being a great product, didn’t last a year.

New Scientist, 27 Feb 2006

Wilson da Silva: Yes, you have to be patient. You cannot expect it to pay back in two issues, three issues a year, even two years. In the U.S. and U.K., it is expected that you will lose money or you’ll not get your original investment back within two or three years. And we have gone, when Kylie Ahern and I proposed this to Alan Finkel, we told them, this could take a while to pay back. And he’s happy to do it; he thinks that we need it, and that there is a commercial opportunity there.

Richard Aedy: When do you come out? When’s your first issue?

Wilson da Silva: We’ll be launching in June.

Richard Aedy: Are lots of advertisers clamouring to get on board?

Wilson da Silva: Well we’ll see. This is the first announcement. We’ve been running under the radar for four or five months now, and we are going to advertise us from today. Look, advertisers are interested in science titles overseas, Popular Science, Discover, Scientific American, Focus, they wouldn’t exist without advertising. We think the market is there, but we’re going to try to publish it the old-fashioned way: we’re going to create an editorial product that people love, first; and we think that therefore advertisers will find it fantastic and want to come on board.

Richard Aedy: Well good luck with it, Wilson, and thanks for coming in and joining us on The Media Report.

Wilson da Silva: Thanks so much, Richard.

Richard Aedy: Wilson da Silva, from the new science magazine, COSMOS.


This is a transcript of an interview broadcast on The Media Report, ABC Radio National, on 17 March 2005.


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