March has been a difficult month for two of the nation’s top science publications, with a financial shakeup and a personnel dispute costing several seasoned reporters and editors their jobs.
The trouble began on March 1, when Popular Science magazine announced that it had dismissed editor in chief Cliff Ransom, along with executive editor Jennifer Bogo. Another editor, Matt Giles, was dismissed and rehired the following day, according to people familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named to protect their relationships with the magazine. Yet another editor, Breanna Draxler, left several weeks ago, and her position is not being filled.
Then, on March 10th, Michael Balter, who had been a contributing correspondent for Science magazine for 25 years, says got a call from his editor. Balter was told his contract was being canceled because of a “breakdown of trust” between him and the publication’s editorial staff.
The layoffs at Popular Science and the Balter contract cancellation are not directly related, and the circumstances are quite different in each case. One was apparently a business decision; the other, a case of strained writer-editor relationships and an apparent dispute over the content and editing of a recent story. But both had the same outcome: Reporters and editors who were doing well — as far as they knew — were out of work.
In a memo to the staff at Popular Science, Gregory D. Gatto, vice president and publishing director of Bonnier Corporation, which owns the magazine, discussed organizational changes at some of its other titles, and noted that Ransom was leaving “to pursue other opportunities.” His replacement will become the fourth editor in chief of Popular Science in four years.
Gatto’s memo didn’t mention the other dismissals, nor did he say whether the dismissals were related to Popular Science’s transition from montly to bimonthly, which began in January.
In response to my queries, Molly Battles, the public relations manager at Popular Science, said only that Ransom and Bogo “have left” the magazine. “As the media landscape continues to grow ever-more diverse,” she added, “the brand’s focus is on creating and distributing more digital and social content, while maintaining the printed magazine.”
Balter’s departure, meanwhile, came several weeks after he wrote a piece for Science about sexual misconduct allegations involving Brian Richmond at the American Museum of Natural History.
Balter announced his break with Science in a post on his personal blog on March 11th. The notice came in an email he’d received the day before from Tim Appenzeller, Science’s news editor, who gave Balter 30 days’ notice for termination of his freelance contract and added, “I regret this. You’ve done wonderful work for the magazine over the years, and your recent story on Brian Richmond was a high point.”
Balter wrote that he had had “a tense, sometimes bruising behind-the-scenes conflict with my editors over the Brian Richmond story that eventually forced me to threaten to pull it from Science and publish it elsewhere.” Balter described numerous disagreements between himself and his editors during the preparation of the story.
Appenzeller told me in an email on March 14th that “Michael’s termination says nothing about Science’s commitment to covering sexual harassment,” and “his parting with Science has nothing to do with the published story.” The preparation of the story “brought to a head a long-standing, mutual loss of trust,” Appenzeller wrote.
Balter has a history of public disagreements with Science. In 2014, he protested the firing of four female colleagues by taking a three-month leave of absence. And in mid-January, he wrote a series of tweets critical of the handling of the Richmond story, including this one on Jan. 18:
If the thing you’re worried about most is being sued, don’t cover sexual misconduct cases.
In a follow-up blog post today, Balter elaborated on “a number of things were cut from the story due to length and legal issues,” many of which he said he would have preferred to keep in.
Tiffany Lohwater, a communications officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science, said in an email today: “Contrary to a public narrative that has been set forth by others, the ending of Mr. Balter’s association with AAAS is not related in any way to the content of the news story published in Science on allegations of sexual misconduct against Brian Richmond.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of the first and last names of one of the editors who recently departed Popular Science magazine. She is Breanna Draxler, not Brianna Drexler.