Society Learns From Magazine Sale

WASHINGTON—The pending sale of Psychology Today to the owners of American Health marks more than the end of a costly and divisive episode in the life of the American Psychological Association. APA’s experiences with the magazine, according to its new owners and several psychologists closely connected to it, offer valuable lessons to any scientific association thinking about educating the public through a commercial magazine. “We have a better chance of serving the vision of

Apr 4, 1988
Jeffrey Mervis

WASHINGTON—The pending sale of Psychology Today to the owners of American Health marks more than the end of a costly and divisive episode in the life of the American Psychological Association. APA’s experiences with the magazine, according to its new owners and several psychologists closely connected to it, offer valuable lessons to any scientific association thinking about educating the public through a commercial magazine.

“We have a better chance of serving the vision of APA if they don’t own us,” said T. George Harris, who is joining with publisher Owen Lipstein to purchase a magazine that Harris first edited 20 years ago. “A reader must feel about a magazine that ‘This is a friend who will level with me.’ It’s much harder to do that if you own the store.”

APA purchased the magazine in January 1983 from Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. for $3.75 million plus the assumption of $4 million in ob ligations. The new sale price is reportedly between $5 million and $10 million. APA has invested roughly $15 million in the 850,000-circulation magazine, according to chief executive officer Leonard Goodstein, and will retain 10 percent ownership. Negotiations are expected to be completed by May 1.

The sale comes less than two years after the American Association for the Advancement of Science sold its money-losing Science 86 to Time, Inc., which immediately folded it into its own monthly magazine, Discover. The fate of both magazines raises the question of whether scientific associations are capable of achieving one of their most cherished goals, that of educating the public about science.

Duke University psychologist Gregory Kimble, a longtime adviser to Psychology Today, suggested that the gap between the values of a professional society and those of the public may be unbridgeable. The problem may go beyond overall philosophy to substance, he added.

“Being involved in the day-to-day operations of the magazine means that any issue within APA becomes an issue for PT,” Kimble said. “That causes all kinds of problems, of course. But without such intrusion, the magazine cannot achieve the level of quality that the society’s members would like.”

Supporters of the magazine within APA see the sale of Psychology Today as a lost opportunity to teach the public about psychology. Harris hoprd that APA’s 10 percent interest will offer the association a chance to contribute without worrying about psychology’s image.

“I will propose that APA have one page that is theirs, to present the voice of organized psychology on issues that APA feels are important,” Harris said. “But that doesn’t mean I am asking them to edit the magazine.

“The association had to be concerned about the consequences of what was being said about the profession,” he continued. “A journalist is more concerned about truth. And that tension may have had an effect on the magazine.

Top association officials have worked hard for several months to sell the magazine, citing its continuing drain on the association finances. Goodstein, who inherited the magazine when he came to APA in 1985, said the sale was “like getting rid of your favorite sports car. You do it with grave reluctance, but you finally decide that it’s just not worth the trouble and expense to keep it.”

Beyond the expense, Goodstein said, the association was polarized by issues relating to advertising policy, marketing and the articles themselves. “Actions that are adopted by a bare majority [APA’s board of directors voted 6 to 5 to buy it, although its governing body ratified that decision by a three-to-one margin] and lack consensus tend to be divisive over time, particularly if the plan fails.”

APA was never able to protect the magazine from such internal squabbling, noted former executive officer Michael Pallak, who also served for a time as publisher. And it failed to recognize that owning a magazine required a new way of doing business.

“We had the opportunity to look at things from a new perspective,” he said, “but we never figured out how to provide what we knew in ways that people could use. It’s not impossible for a professional society to run a consumer magazine, but it takes organizational stability and a commitment to a long-term deficit operation.”

Virginia O’Leary, a psychologist at Radcliffe College and former APA director of public affairs, rejected the suggestion that APA’s experiences are a useful guide to other organizations. “It was a good idea then to buy the magazine] and it’s still a good idea. People need to have a vision of what the magazine should be, that’s all.” Kimble cautioned associations not to be blinded by such a vision. “Buying and operating a magazine belongs in the same category as every other thing an association does,” he said. “You need to ask, ‘What are we willing to give up to do this new thing?’ "

Mervis is on the staff of THE SCIENTIST. He was formerly editor of The APA Monitor.