Donald Christiansen and the Making of IEEE Spectrum

How a former engineer left his mark on magazine journalism

6 min read
Donald Christiansen and the Making of IEEE Spectrum
Photo: Donald Christiansen

Editor's note: In this 50th anniversary year of IEEE Spectrum, we are using each month's Spectral Lines column to describe some pivotal moments of the magazine's history. Here we celebrate the tenure of Spectrum's first full-time editor, Donald Christiansen.

It was the summer of 1963, and at a staff meeting at Electronic Design magazine, the topic of the day was a potentially fearsome new competitor. The IEEE, only a few months old, was about to introduce a magazine. Around the table at Electronic Design, there was a palpable sense of concern that the upstart publication, which would be called IEEE Spectrum, would draw away readers and advertisers.

But the worry soon passed, says an editor who was at the meeting, when the IEEE revealed that the new magazine wouldn't be led by an experienced publishing hand. In keeping with the usual practice of association publications, the name at the top of the masthead would be that of a part-time volunteer. And his responsibilities would include not only Spectrum but all the publications of the individual IEEE societies.

The story doesn't end there. That Electronic Design staff editor was Donald Christiansen, and eight years after Spectrum's launch, he took charge of the magazine, to the great benefit of both. During a 21-year run as Spectrum's editor, Christiansen would mold the magazine into the basic form it still occupies today. Under his direction, the magazine would do pathbreaking coverage and analyses of the Bay Area Rapid Transit engineering whistle-blower case, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the AT&T divestiture, the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the performance of the weaponry in the first Persian Gulf War, the Iraqi nuclear weapons project, and the Shoreham nuclear power plant in New York state. Under Christiansen, Spectrum would win four National Magazine Awards, the highest honor in U.S. magazine publishing, along with scores of other honors.

To appreciate Christiansen's transformation of Spectrum, you have to begin with what it was prior to his arrival in late 1971. For its first eight years, the day-to-day running of the magazine was left to a managing editor. That editor—Elwood K. Gannett at first, and Ronald K. Jurgen later—pursued sound journalism. But the lack of publishing expertise and vision at the top of the masthead put the magazine at a disadvantage.

In those days, Spectrum competed with formidable and well-run magazines for advertising and readers. They included not only Hayden Publishing's Electronic Design but also McGraw-Hill's biweekly Electronics—which Christiansen had joined in 1966 and ultimately led as the editor. In the 1960s, it wasn't uncommon for an issue of Electronics to have 250 pages. The magazine had an editorial staff of about 50 people, with bureaus in Bonn, London, and Tokyo. Spectrum had half a dozen staff editors in New York and no bureaus at all.

By the early 1970s, Donald G. Fink, the IEEE's first general manager, decided that Spectrum needed a professional editor. Fink, who had himself been the editor of Electronics before Christiansen, wasn't driven just by the need to compete with professionally run magazines. He also sought to defuse an impassioned debate within the IEEE about what kind of magazine Spectrum should be.

Spectrum's last two volunteer editors, J.J.G. McCue of MIT's Lincoln Laboratories and David DeWitt of IBM, had both unflinchingly steered Spectrum into some of the biggest technology-related controversies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. One involved a huge U.S. antiballistic missile (ABM) project. Spectrum's coverage included not just technical aspects but also letters and other material that criticized the ABM work on ethical and social grounds. The criticisms in turn provoked a deluge of letters, many of them quite irate.

With input from members, IEEE president F. Karl Willenbrock responded by formulating a policy statement that affirmed Spectrum's mandate to cover controversial topics, so long as “reasonable efforts" were made to include different points of view. The statement also declared that articles in Spectrum reflected the author's point of view, not some sort of consensus of the IEEE's officers or, even more improbably, of its many members. (Such a declaration is published to this day on one of the contents pages and below the masthead of every issue of Spectrum.)

The controversies repeatedly raised a question about Spectrum, Christiansen says: “Who's really running this magazine? It's why Fink finally concluded, 'Look, you've got to have a professional running this magazine,' and he convinced the IEEE board to do it."

Fink, meanwhile, had no doubt about whom he wanted for the job: Christiansen. An IEEE senior member (later a Life Fellow), Christiansen was a Cornell EE grad and had held positions in vacuum-tube and semiconductor-device engineering and management at CBS's electronics division. In his spare time, he wrote for a magazine called Electronics World, before becoming a full-time editor in 1962.

Fink asked Christiansen to write a proposal describing what he would do with Spectrum if he were the editor. Christiansen's plan was straightforward: Ban mathematical equations (Spectrum at the time was full of them); publish shorter, tightly edited feature articles; and include more staff-written features. And he insisted on being not just the editor but also the publisher of Spectrum. Fink submitted Christiansen's proposal to the IEEE board of directors, which agreed to all the conditions.

Christiansen's first issue was January 1972. As the staff was finalizing the issue, on 12 December 1971, David Sarnoff died in New York City. So the new editor's first big decision was to order up a new cover story on Sarnoff, to be written in three days. It raised a few eyebrows at IEEE HQ: Technical-business genius though he was, Sarnoff was reviled in some engineering circles, partly because of his vicious patent feud over FM radio with engineering hero Edwin H. Armstrong. Fink, himself dismayed, left the decision to Christiansen. After expressing his reservations, Fink ended with, “But you're the editor." Sarnoff stayed on the cover.

And so it began. Christiansen's tenure at Spectrum, from 1972 to 1993, was characterized by journalistic vigor and an unwavering focus on the member-reader. In his Spectral Lines columns, he prodded engineers to become more active in their companies as managers and to volunteer their expertise as citizens; he commented on the burning tech-related topics of the day; and he celebrated the simple pleasures of designing something elegant. Whistle-blowing, occupational dilemmas, and the sometimes conflicting demands of morality and loyalty were frequent subjects. “An employed engineer is sometimes drawn between the purely moral thing to do, and what management would have him do," he says. Under Christiansen, staff editors (full disclosure: For nine happy years, I was one of them) were encouraged to pursue newsy and controversial topics, to follow them wherever they led, and to dig deeper than the mainstream press into the technical details. We were pushed to investigate failures—the bigger the better—and to point fingers and assign blame. And we had to do our homework: Don brought in a copy consultant, a crotchety, old-time newsman named Richard Haitch, who pounded us if we hadn't.

Under that formula, great stories—and journalism awards—soon started piling up. In 1979, Spectrum explained to the world exactly what caused the partial meltdown in a reactor core at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania. In 1982, just after the war in the Falklands, we made a wide-ranging assessment of rapidly advancing military technologies. In 1985, the magazine unraveled the chain of events that led inexorably to the breakup of AT&T and correctly predicted what it would mean for the future of communications. And in 1992, we revealed how Iraq tried to build an atomic bomb, and how the discovery of that clandestine effort led to new ideas about safeguarding nuclear weaponry. All four of those investigations won National Magazine Awards, putting Spectrum among the very few—count 'em on one hand—association magazines ever to win the awards repeatedly.

Today, Christiansen writes the popular Backscatter column for Today's Engineer, the publication of the IEEE-USA, the IEEE's advocacy group for U.S. engineers. He writes about pretty much whatever he wants, but many columns draw on his first-hand exposure to some of the great events and people during an amazing time in technology. He hasn't lost his passion for professional concerns: For several years he has organized a seminar on engineering ethics for the Long Island, N.Y., IEEE section, of which he is an active member.

In his final column as Spectrum's editor, Don wrote: “Spectrum has been criticized for publishing case histories or company profiles complete with the warts that prove engineering designs or management decisions are not always perfect and on occasion are outright disasters. No surprise, the critics were usually those whose oxen were being gored, and occasionally IEEE leaders who feared withdrawal of support for IEEE activities by the corporations under scrutiny. But our readers always responded enthusiastically to articles probing 'what went wrong,' and these continue as staples."

It was classic Don. In a world growing more turbulent, complex, and even hostile, he navigated by relying on ethics, professionalism, and, most of all, his readers' interests. And in so doing, he showed many of us the way, too.

This article originally appeared in print as “Remember the Reader."

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