What to Expect from Nautilus: an Interview with Amos Zeeberg
The new science magazine Nautilus is rolling out its first issue today, April 29. All I knew about the magazine was that each monthly issue would focus on one specific topic. To learn more, I picked the brain of Amos Zeeberg, digital editor of Nautilus. And, yes, he has some tips for freelancers.
Communication Breakdown: Did you come up with the idea for Nautilus? Why choose to focus an entire issue each month on a single topic?
Amos Zeeberg: It wasn’t my idea – I joined in as the fourth employee a few months into the project. The idea for Nautilus came from John Steele, our publisher. By the time I came on the scene, he and Michael Segal, our editor-in-chief, had worked out the basic idea for the magazine, including the idea of single-topic monthly issues.
The reason for doing that is that we want to look at individual scientific topics and really find out what the science means about our world and ourselves. We’re doing that by looking at them through a variety of lenses – biology, physics, culture, philosophy, etc. – and giving people lots of different ways into the topic. In trying to get into a topic and arrive at a deeper understanding, it helps to really focus on it for a while. Hence the single-topic monthly-issue format.
Zeeberg: As far as I understand, John took the general idea to the Templeton Foundation, which was interested in supporting this effort to spread a deeper understanding of what our scientific discoveries mean. But I wasn’t around for that part and don’t know a lot about it. If you need more detail, I can connect you with John.
CB: Did Templeton provide all of the financial backing for the project? And were they only providing start-up funds, or will they be funding the project moving forward? Will Nautilus rely on advertising or subscriptions to generate revenue?
Zeeberg: The Templeton Foundation provided all of the money for our launch and for the initial operation of the magazine. We hope they’ll fund us further, and we also are getting revenue from advertising and potentially other foundations.
In the near term, all our content is free, so there are no subscription costs, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility over the mid-to-long term.
CB: Has Templeton had any editorial involvement, or have they given you full independence in terms of shaping what Nautilus will and won’t do?
Zeeberg: They had some input in working out, with John, the editorial purview of the magazine – that we’d be covering big questions in science in a thoughtful, philosophical way. Nothing beyond that; nothing in the month-to-month work.
CB: I’ve heard that Sally Davies and Rose Eveleth will also be part of the Nautilus team. What’s the make-up of the overall editorial/content team? How did Nautilus recruit folks to a news outlet that didn’t exist yet?
Zeeberg: The team is mostly journalists, mostly who have a background in science. Sally was a freelancer; Rose is a freelance writer and editor; Michael Segal was an editor at Nature; John Steele’s done a lot of different work producing and editing; Kevin Berger and I came from Discover; Len Small, our art director, came from Tablet; Lina Zeldovich was a freelancer who’s written novels; Luba Ostashevsky edited big science non-fiction books at MacMillan. We also have three ongoing blog contributors (Lee Billings, Jennifer Ouellette, and Nikki Greenwood) plus lots of freelancers.
CB: Once the team was in place, did it change anyone’s idea of what Nautilus would be? In other words, did the skills of this particular set of people give you new ideas for what you could/would do with the publication?
Zeeberg: There’s been lots of input from the team, including me, about how to realize the project. That doesn’t include the general goal of the magazine or the structure, but definitely the topics and particular stories. So I think we’ve influenced Nautilus through our ideas more than what we could do.
CB: You’ve already addressed this to a certain extent, but what do you think will set Nautilus apart from other science news outlets?
Zeeberg: A few main things: really focusing on what science is saying – what these discoveries mean about how we think about the world and ourselves; showing how science connects to so many other parts of our lives; and connecting with people and opening up their senses with lots of great, original art, plus video, interactives and infographics. All science pubs do this to some extent; we’re trying to put more emphasis on those areas in particular.
CB: The “teaser” page for Nautilus highlighted the multimedia nature of the publication, referring to games and videos as well as art and prose. But the page also offered to send interested parties a print preview. Will the publication be solely online? Will it have an e-format? Was the preview the only print version, or will there be print editions moving forward?
Zeeberg: Our main thing over the short term is going to be the online version. There will also be a print product, though its exact format is to be determined. It seems likely that we’ll do a digital edition and/or app, but we haven’t had time to nail that down. Hopefully later this year.
CB: How far out have you planned your editorial calendar? What subjects are you planning to focus on over the first few issues?
Zeeberg: Today we release our preview issue (“The Story of Nautilus,” about the many ideas the nautilus represents) and our May issue (“What Makes You So Special,” about human uniqueness). Our topic in June is uncertainty (in technical and more loosey-goosey senses). July is movement (on all different size scales), August is the unlikely, September is fame (think creatively), and October is secrets.
CB: Because freelancing minds want to know: will you be making an editorial calendar available online so that freelancers can pitch you? If so, what are you looking for in a pitch?
Zeeberg: We have a monthly call-for-pitches email that has more information on the upcoming topics. If you’re interested in contributing and want to receive those, send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
CB: Was there any part of bringing Nautilus to fruition that was more difficult than you thought it would be?
Zeeberg: I ran Discover’s site for six years and got pretty familiar with the challenges of combining editorial, design, and development work in an online science publication. The complications involved in doing infographics have been a minor surprise.
CB: Was there anything about it that was easier, or more rewarding, than you anticipated?
Zeeberg: I really like our approach – the philosophical bent, the creative topics, and the magazine-y style. It’s proved to be more rewarding than I let myself expect.
CB: Last question: what will you be drinking to celebrate the launch of Nautilus?
Zeeberg: Is there a character limit to this answer? Probably a gin martini with a twist or a Jameson with a tiny bit of ice, since that’s what I’d drink to celebrate anything (like another successful rotation of the Earth). After that I might be susceptible to doing something cheesy, like trying to find a drink that goes with the ocean/Nautilus theme. In that case, I might look for a dark and stormy, though you’d probably have to be at a pretty dedicated cocktail bar to get ginger beer. If that doesn’t pan out, I might furtively sip on some Captain Morgan’s – total guilty pleasure drink.
I’m also open to suggestions; let me know.