Backgrounder: John Rennie and Carl Zimmer

John Rennie had a tough time selling the idea of a Scientific American blog to the magazine’s leadership — and Rennie is the editor-in-chief of the century-and-a-half-old science, technology, and business magazine. So in 2004 he began discreetly writing his own science blog on “out of a certain level of frustration,” he said. When Scientific American finally established the SciAm Observations blog, Rennie, who has served as the magazine’s editor-in-chief since 1994, was initially the sole contributor to the blog.

These days, SciAm Observations bustles with posts from the Scientific American editorial staff, comments from readers, and even multi-part seminar blogs, in which top researchers present new and noteworthy findings in their fields. The blog is a dynamic supplement to the monthly magazine and serves as an outlet for “rapidly moving content,” Rennie said in a recent interview. In addition, he asserted, online coverage creates a new level of reader interaction — a new development with both positive and negative implications.

“When you're talking about blogging, your hide has to get a lot thicker,” Rennie said, referring to the direct criticism he has endured in the blogosphere. But by now Rennie is used to such online attacks; he says he’s “widely hated throughout much of the Internet” for controversial stories like “I.D. is Bad Science on Its Own Terms,” a diatribe against Intelligent Design. Still, Rennie said he looks forward to increasing the interactivity between the print and electronic components of the magazine.

Rennie, who has served as Scientific American’s editor-in-chief since 1994, joined the magazine’s board of editors in 1989, after working for TK years as a lab technician in a Harvard Medical School laboratory. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Yale University in 1981.

When Carl Zimmer finished his fourth book, Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain and How It Changed the World, in early 2003, he decided to publicize his book by blogging about it. “When you write a book, you can feel a little helpless,” he noted. In September 2003, Zimmer harnessed the experience he’d gained as a freelancer for publications such as the New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic, and created his own blog, The Loom, in which he wrote about topics related to his book.

Since then, the blog has expanded far beyond this initially slim scope. “It evolved into a place where I could write about things I might not be turning into an article for a magazine, but were really interesting,” he said. In June 2006, The Loom was invited to be part of Scienceblogs, a blog portal hosted by Seed magazine.

Zimmer traces his online writing style to essays he wrote for Natural History, for which he has freelanced since taking a B.A. in English from Yale University in 1987. Two years after graduating from college, Zimmer began working his way through the ranks at Discover magazine. He began as a copyeditor and fact-checker, and is now a contributing editor.

“I wanted to write but didn’t realize I would like writing about science so much,” Zimmer said.

Josh Romero is a first-year graduate student in the science, health, and environmental reporting program in the department of journalism at NYU.