survival is its own reward

darwinTony Edger, author of the “Fossils and Other Living Things” blog, recently published a “rumination” on John Bonnett Wexo’s short-lived Fossils Magazine, whose one and only issue appeared in 1976. Tony called his piece “Catching Lightning in a Bottle,” and you can read it here:

In lamenting the demise of Fossils Magazine, Tony compared it to Fossil News: The Journal of Avocational Paleontology, with some regret that we didn’t seem to have quite lived up to the promise of Fossils Magazine. While we’re grateful for the attention—and for the compliments that Tony did pay us along the way—we think a few important points may have gotten missed.

First of all, a fair comparison of the two publications would consider FN’s whole run—both its 1995-2012 version (under the editorship, first, of Joe Small, and then of Lynne Clos) and its “revived” 2015-to-present incarnation. Tony looked at one single issue of Fossil News.

(Just as a side note, and because Tony raised the question in his blog post, I had never before heard of Fossils Magazine, and I doubt its one 1976 issue had much impact on Joe Small’s decision to launch Fossil News: The Journal of Avocational Paleontology twenty years later in 1995.)

Reaching Professional Scientists
Leaving aside the long and impressive list of authors and subjects that Fossil News covered from 1995-2012, our contributors since 2016 have included master photographers and photomicographers, museum curators and professional preparators, the authors of influential books in paleontology, and such working scientists as paleobotanist David Dilcher, Spencer Lucas (Curator of Paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science), Carl Mehling (American Museum of Natural History, Division of Paleontology), Neil Owen (Assistant Curator of Geology for Leeds Museums and Galleries in the UK), Angela Baldanza (Professor, Department of Physics and Geology, Università degli Studi, Perugia, Italy—and one of the discoverers of the first deposit of fossil ambergris in Italy), and others, as well as such respected paleontologists-in-training as Dean Lomax and Elsa Panciroli and a host of paleoartists whose work is well known by amateurs, professional paleontologists, and museum staff. We’ve collaborated with the Micropalaeontological Society, we covered the Geological Society of America meetings in 2017, and we were the first to publish Dorceta Taylor’s GSA keynote address on the lack of diversity in the geosciences.

Tony surmises that “reaching deeper into the community of professional scientists” would have broadened the audience for Fossils Magazine, but I doubt it. It has certainly not done so for Fossil News. If you think about it logically, it makes sense: Why would a professional paleontologist subscribe to a magazine for amateurs? It may seem counterintuitive, but they are not the target audience for a publication like ours, nor were they for Fossils Magazine. Professional paleontologists are, however, the men and women who write for us and provide us with expert information and opinion. One of their jobs is to make scientific information available to the public, and going to them in that context is indispensable. If the metric is whether or not the magazine is in contact with the “professional community,” we do that. And we always have.

A Small Matter of Four Decades
It isn’t just 43 years that separate 1976 and 2019, however. They’re separated by a revolution in the ways that the public finds and interacts with scientific and para-scientific information. Scores of professional paleontologists—the kind of folks who might have written for a magazine in 1976—now have their own blogs, Instagram accounts, Twitter followers, and YouTube channels, and there’s little to entice them to write for print when they can get their ideas in front of the public with a few mouse clicks—and maintain control of the entire process to boot. (Think of Darren Naish’s “Tetrapod Zoology”; open-sourcer John Tennant’s “Green Tea and Velociraptors”; Jacquelyn Gill’s “The Contemplative Mammoth”; Mark Witton’s blog of the same name; and Brian Switek’s “Laelaps” on the Scientific American Blog Network or, on Twitter, Dustin Growick (a science instructor at the New York Hall of Science) and Thomas Holtz (lecturer in vertebrate paleontology, U. of Maryland).

Museums and even organizations like the Paleontological Society and the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, to name only two, have their own blogs and a social-media presence; the PLOS Paleo Community is huge.

Meanwhile, the way in which magazines and books are produced—meaning as physical objects—has also undergone a convulsion. The price of paper has not stopped rising since the late ‘70s (in the last year alone, the price increased by 25%), and paper supplies worldwide continue to shrink dramatically. Today, most large-scale book and magazine printing is done overseas. That winds up being cheaper than US-based printing, even taking shipping costs into consideration. The result is that the per unit price can be lower—but only if a publisher is able to order thousands of copies at a time. That puts small magazines and small publishers in a tight spot, forcing us to fall back on the POD industry, whose cut of our profits is enormous. I probably don’t need to add that postage has increased more than 400% since 1976. In brief, some of what was possible for a small magazine 43 years ago isn’t possible today.

A Little Credit?
I’ll finish by saying that, while I’d agree that it’s too bad we didn’t get to see what Fossils Magazine might have become, Fossil News has been serving the community of amateur paleontologists for more than two decades—and doing so well. The fact is, Fossils Magazine died after one issue. We’re still going—and there’s something to be said for the species that survives.

I would have no hesitation putting our “overall quality” up against any other citizen-paleo magazine now (or ever) in existence—whether for production values, editing and writing, international scope, or visual appeal.

Tony Edger may be right that Fossils Magazine “caught lightning in a bottle,” but Fossil News turned lighting into a steady fire, and that’s a cause for congratulations and celebration, not nostalgia.