As a longtime digital news editor and now the editor-in-chief of the online science magazine Quanta, I confess: I love print. I love the look, smell, and feel of print newspapers and magazines. While I nevertheless consume most of my news digitally, I have never owned a Kindle and do not borrow my wife’s. With apologies to the baggage handlers at JFK Airport, I prefer to manually page through the books I read.
So why is there no print edition of Quanta? There are obvious advantages to publishing online. As a news delivery system, it’s faster, cheaper, and geographically unlimited. Though quality online articles take no less time to report, write, edit, fact-check, and illustrate than their print counterparts, once a digital package is final, it can be published within minutes. Anyone in the world with an internet connection or a smartphone then has immediate access to the story.
In the übercompetitive news industry, online publishing offers an agility, shareability, and velocity that can transcend a niche audience. Readers are no longer willing to wait a day, much less a week, to get their news. While digital publications lack the tactile advantages of print, and arguably some of the visual advantages, they offer a multiverse of media-rich possibilities (try watching a video, listening to a podcast, or fiddling with an interactive graphic on dried tree pulp).
A case can be made for print as an incentive for attracting or retaining some subscribers and as a high-end ad delivery platform. But Quanta, a nonprofit, public-service news outlet wholly funded by the Simons Foundation, does not charge for its content and does not sell ads.
“Love print, not doing it” was my mind-set last year when Amy Brand, the director of MIT Press, floated the idea of publishing a print collection of Quanta articles. I was intrigued. Some readers—perhaps fellow immigrants from an analog universe—have pined for a physical Quanta magazine. Our writers and visual editors certainly deserve to see their work in print. But what greater purpose would such a collection serve?
Online, our most popular articles reach and educate hundreds of thousands of readers. Our site serves millions of unique visitors every year. We reach millions more through articles syndicated on the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Wired, and other partner publications’ websites. Nobel Prize–winning physicist David Gross called Quanta the greatest thing to happen to science journalism in many years. In contrast, everything I knew about book publishing in general, and article collections in particular, led me to believe that at the end of a time-consuming, byzantine process, we’d be lucky to sell 10,000 copies.
But I knew this: our growth and reputation were a direct consequence of Quanta’s unmistakable sense of purpose. My team is deeply committed to illuminating the fundamental (and otherwise inaccessible) discoveries driving science and mathematics—i.e., human knowledge—forward. While largely invisible in the popular press, these basic, curiosity-driven revelations will ultimately lead to the life-altering technological and medical advances of the future.
Books also need a raison d’être. A Quanta collection had to become more than the sum of its individual articles. A meaningful narrative had to emerge filled with surprising insights, strong characters, and universal themes. It could not indulge in best hits nostalgia or devolve into a vanity project. In the end, I proposed two collections telling the stories of the biggest ideas in science and mathematics over the past five years.
As I began editing these volumes, I was encouraged by the larger themes and trends that took shape. Soon, a narrative arc appeared. There were clear conflicts if not always clear resolutions. Some stories required updating. Newer results had to be accounted for. Sadly, a few central (and irrepressibly brilliant) protagonists died. Then a talented young researcher won the highest honor in mathematics; in that went.
Soon, two completely new books emerged: Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire and The Prime Number Conspiracy. I’m proud of them and hope that they bring joy and intellectual prosperity to readers. Still, the question remains: will there ever be a print edition of Quanta magazine? Only if it serves a purpose.
Thomas Lin is the founding editor-in-chief of Quanta magazine, an online publication that reports on developments in science and mathematics.