How the American Astronomical Society Acquired Sky & Telescope Magazine
They revived a once venerable magazine
It all started with a picnic in Cambridge. Over hamburgers and potato salad, our society’s press officer was candidly informed that the magazine he used to serve as editor-in-chief, Sky & Telescope, was facing difficulties. Difficulties not with itself or the community it served, but with the parent company, which owned many dozens of similar enthusiast magazines. Among possible solutions floated was an outright purchase of the venerable astronomy periodical by the American Astronomical Society, a truly outside-the-box idea. The next day he called me and that got the process started, but where we ended up was far from what we envisioned during that initial call.
As the CEO of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), a membership organization, I’m faced with all kinds of challenges, most of which are near-term and always pull me away from long-term strategic matters of significance. Setting aside the time and space to think big is something all non-profit CEOs need to do, while actively working toward the inclusion in all policy matters of their elected leaders, who are the guiding force for any scholarly society. One big issue our organization had been grappling with for years was how to engage with the large population of amateur astronomers, who represent the most interested members of the public in the scientific advancement of astronomical knowledge. With limited resources and a substantial range of events, businesses, and amateur organizations already serving this community, it was challenging to find a foothold that would allow us to fulfill our mission of enhancing and sharing humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe with the amateur community. The limited resources were a paramount concern.
The AAS has roughly 7,500 members of all types, with just over 4,500 core members, representing active researchers in our discipline along with about 1,500 students and a range of affiliate and emeritus members. Even though we are the largest professional society in the astronomical sciences, representing roughly 25 percent of the active researchers worldwide, our size is tiny compared to the amateur community, which is at least ten times if not a hundred times larger in number. Aside from leveraging Internet-based technologies to communicate more effectively with this pool of enthusiasts, we have never quite found the ‘secret sauce’ for engaging with this large community, which has been an ongoing frustration.
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