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Ellies 2007: So What Do You Do, Mark Strauss, Editor, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists?

An under-the-radar Ellie nominee discusses his mag's Doomsday Clock and how it feels to inspire a Linkin Park song

By Dylan Stableford - April 23, 2007
ellies_hardware.jpgLeading up to the May 1 2007 National Magazine Awards, is publishing a special package of our popular interview series, "So What Do You Do?," with daily interviews of selected nominees, ranging from well-known to obscure. Today we chat with Mark Strauss, editor of possibly the year's most obscure nominee, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

See our other interviews with Ellie 2007 nominees: Joyce Rutter Kaye, Editor, Print; David Granger, Editor, Esquire?; Moisés Naím, Editor, Foreign Policy; Jay Stowe, Editor, Cincinnati; Ted Genoways, Editor, Virginia Quarterly Review;

Name: Mark Strauss
Position: Editor, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Resumé: Before becoming editor of the Bulletin in 2005, Strauss was a senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Before that, Strauss was a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a reporter at Discover magazine and an editorial intern at SPY magazine. He has written articles for Slate, New Republic, Washington Monthly and the Washington Post.
Birthdate: November 8, 1966
Hometown: Ridgewood, NJ
Education: B.A., Macalester College; M.S., Columbia School of Journalism; M.A., School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
Marital status: Married
First Section of the Sunday Times: The New York Times Magazine
Favorite television show: Lost. But if they don't start answering some questions soon, I'm going to pull an Elvis and shoot the TV set.
Guilty pleasure: Video games (A lifetime addiction ever since I first played Pong as a nine-year-old.)
Last book read: Fahrenheit 451 (I re-read it every year.)
Nominated For: General Excellence, Under 100,000 circulation (alongside I.D., Metropolis, Print and Virginia Quarterly Review)

So, what the hell is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists anyway?
We're the best magazine with the worst title. In its earliest days, the Bulletin was a newsletter. It was founded in 1945 by former Manhattan Project scientists who wanted to inform the public about the dangers of the escalating nuclear arms race.

Our title is deceptive for two reasons: First, it implies that we're an academic journal -- which we're not. We're a glossy, full-color magazine targeted towards a mainstream readership. We tend to describe ourselves as a magazine with the credibility of a peer-reviewed journal. Second, we don't devote our coverage exclusively to nuclear weapons and arms control. Our mandate is to provide readers with non-partisan, non-technical, but scientifically sound information that is critical to the debate on global security. So, we cover a broad range of topics, including terrorism, climate change, global health and the implications of emerging technologies such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology.

And, of course, the Bulletin is famous worldwide for its iconic "Doomsday Clock," which since 1947 has periodically moved back and forth to indicate how close we are to global catastrophe. [The Bulletin's Board of Directors reset the clock to "Five Minutes to Midnight" in January 2007.] In fact, the Bulletin was the inspiration for the title of Linkin Park's forthcoming album, Minutes to Midnight. Eat your heart out, New Yorker.

Which outlets does the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists compete with?
Well, unless there's a Bulletin of the Subatomic Scientists, I believe that we're a niche unto ourselves. Certainly you can find some similar content in science magazines and current affairs publications, but I think the Bulletin stands alone in how it effectively merges these issues. Moreover, our tremendous credibility in the scientific and academic community gives us unique access to the top experts in their fields. My Rolodex is packed with Nobel Prize winners.

When did you know you wanted to be editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists?
Given my interests in both science and international security, the Bulletin was always part of my regular reading list. When I heard the magazine was hiring a new editor, I immediately applied. I felt it was a very good magazine that had the potential to be much better. The editors, the art director, and I spent the last two years reworking the publication. We did a cover-to-cover redesign, introduced new sections, reimagined old sections -- and we committed ourselves to diversifying the editorial content and publishing more reader-friendly articles. I guess the nomination suggests that our efforts have not gone unnoticed.

"The Bulletin was the inspiration for the title of Linkin Park's forthcoming album, Minutes to Midnight. Eat your heart out, New Yorker."

What do you think of your Ellies chances?
The Bulletin won the Ellie in 1987 for best single-topic issue, beating out Esquire and Texas Monthly. So, who's to say that lightning can't strike twice? I'm quite proud of the content that we submitted, with articles ranging from a debate over the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack five years after 9/11 to a reported account of the worsening AIDS pandemic in Burma. [In fact, that article just won a merit award from the Society of Publication Designers.]

Take us through a typical day in the life of Bulletin's editor.
When you have a magazine with a staff as small as ours, everyone is multi-tasking -- so there's no such thing as a "typical" day at the Bulletin. But, generally speaking, I arrive at work at 8:30AM. I spend my first 20 minutes deleting spam and reading emails from some guy in Montana who claims to have invented a time machine. My typical day is devoted to editing and top-editing articles, consulting with my editors and art director, and scouting for article ideas. In between, I drink a lot of coffee. Although we're a bimonthly, the daily pace is pretty brisk. We've got a lot of content to publish, and not many people to get the work done, so we need to keep to a very rigid editorial and production schedule.

bulletin_of_atomic_scientists.jpgHow do you feel about the state of the industry?
For 20 years, I've been hearing apocalyptic predictions about the decline and fall of magazine publishing -- so I'm not losing much sleep. Yes, we have to come to terms with the digital age and the new media landscape. But, the magazine industry continues to attract a high percentage of extremely talented, smart people who constantly revitalize the medium. As always, some magazines will adapt and thrive, and others will close shop. But, the industry as a whole continually finds a way to muddle through.

What's the biggest challenge of your job as an editor?
Translating complex scientific and technical concepts into accessible, readable prose. I mean, when's the last time you found yourself having to explain to your friends the mechanics of uranium enrichment?

A lot of magazines are currently trying to figure out the Web. Is this a problem for you?
No, it's not a problem for us. We relaunched our Web site in January, and we've been very pleased with the results. Many of the issues we cover are so fluid from day to day that we recognized the need to provide expert analysis in real time. So, we've recruited a roster of top-notch scientists and columnists to provide exclusive online coverage around the clock. And, in doing so, we're also building a community of experts and voices that we can use across all of our media platforms -- whether as contributors to the magazine, or as speakers at conferences that we periodically sponsor.

What's the next step for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists?
The next step is our first step. Our mission hasn't changed. The key challenge for us is to continue developing innovative ways to act as a bridge between the scientific community and the general public. A magazine is a wonderful thing -- a unique medium for delivering information in an engaging format. And we want to keep thinking of ways to make the most of that. Fortunately, I work alongside a very creative, hardworking staff who have zero tolerance for mediocrity.

Finally, what will you be wearing to the Ellies?
Whatever tuxedo my wife picks out for me.

[Dylan Stableford is's managing editor, media news. He can be reached at dylan AT mediabistro DOT com.]

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