growing pains

Mournjenluc1 A few months after I started Cocktail Party Physics in 2006, I was asked to join the then-relatively-new SEED Science Blogs. It was tremendously flattering to a spanking new science blogger, and very tempting: who wouldn't want to join a vibrant community of science bloggers and — not coincidentally — get a nice boost in traffic as a result? In the end, I reluctantly declined the invitation, mostly because my blog was new, I was pleased with the design, and said design would have been lost by moving to SEED. I also, to be honest, just liked the idea of having a space that was mine, and mine alone, with no pressure (real or imagined) about traffic stats and frequency of blogging. There's a lot to be said for creative independence, and while I can and do blog professionally (i.e., for pay) for both commercial and nonprofit outlets when called upon, Cocktail Party Physics remains special to me for that reason. It's my haven, as I hope it is for my co-bloggers (we went "group" in 2008). But I actively follow and participate in the Science Blogs community, nonetheless, and consider many of the Sciblings to be friends.

The point is, I'm emotionally invested. So this was a painful week for me, as "Pepsigate" erupted over at Science Blogs, and many of my bloggy buddies were forced to grapple with the ethical subtleties inherent in the tension between integrity and pragmatism in publishing (and yes, blogs are part of the publishing enterprise). Several Sciblings left the fold in protest — who could blame them? — while those who remain are asking themselves some tough questions about where to go from here. And Science Blogs' credibility has been badly damaged. No need to rehash the whole mess one more time; Ed Yong has a great list of the best commentary from the firestorm that broke out in the science blogosphere over this, and Carl Zimmer and Dr. SkySkull are both keeping track of where the orphaned bloggers end up.

Suffice to say, I come down 100% on the side of those who strenuously objected to the decision by SEED Media Group to "sell" a blog to Pepsi — whether they ultimately chose to leave or stay. This, this and this nicely summarize my own thinking on the matter. I have no problem with advertising on blogs, provided it's clearly labeled as such. (We don't have ads at the Cocktail Party, nor do we plan to, but who knows? We might change our minds one day.) Media outlets have to make money, and this is a necessary part of the business model as it currently exists. And as several folks have pointed out, we all have inherent self-interests (see sidebar, "We Have No Shame"). But it's disingenuous to claim that therefore it's perfectly okay to sell editorial space (a blog) to a corporation as if it were not advertising, mewling about "inviting industrial scientists into the conversation." Industrial/corporate scientists have never been excluded from Science Blogs; they've just been invited as individuals, on the basis of merit, not by buying their way in.

So kudos to those who left in protest. And for the record, I also support those Sciblings who are troubled but adopting a wait and see attitude, because they played a courageous role, too. Everyone has a different situation, different concerns, and what's right for, say, David Dobbs, Rebecca Skloot, and Brian Switek, might not be right for Orac or Abel Pharmboy — who first raised the alarm. (Indeed, poor Deborah Blum missed the whole damn thing and now finds herself caught in a much murkier gray area.) Make no mistake: had the outcry not been raised, had prominent Sciblings not opted to leave, had those who remained not demanded action by going on indefinite hiatus, the Pepsi blog would still be in place. And that would have been a bad day for science blogging. 

Understandably, the strongest objections came from bloggers who specialize in health, nutrition and medicine, and from professional writers like myself, for whom this was a clear violation of journalistic principles. Several research scientists (and commenters) didn't really understand the objections, or felt the protesting Sciblings were over-reacting. Chad at Uncertain Principles, for instance, apparently could care less about such issues, since the blog is a hobby for him and he views Science Blogs as nothing more than a technology platform, like Blogger or WordPress or Typepad, except he gets paid a tiny amount for his efforts.

With respect and affection for Chad, I must disagree (while supporting his decision to stay). I pay Typepad to host Cocktail Party Physics; it's a standard business transaction, and I've been very happy with the service. But it's no Science Blogs. Science Blogs has always been much more than that. It's an impressively diverse community of individuals — smart, opinionated, often boisterous and loud, occasionally rude, but always interesting. They fight with each other, and support each other, and they supported SEED Media; "good soldiers," every one. But they are not, and never will be, patsies for the Overlords. That's why the community has slowly built up a strong public identity, a loyal following, and considerable credibility in the science communications realm. I'm proud of the Sciblings for pushing back — hard! — and succeeding in setting some much-needed boundaries between editorial content and advertising/"advertorials."

The bad news is that it seems this might not have been an isolated incident. Gaia Vance wrote in the Guardian about having a column pulled by a former SEED editor because it was potentially offensive to an advertiser they were courting. Apparently said editor is no longer there, but it's disturbing, nonetheless. And I was surprised to learn of prior "corporate sponsored blogs," albeit written by independent scientists, not the PR flaks or employees of the sponsoring corporation. I did note the World Science Fair and US Science & Engineering blogs when they appeared, and felt a twinge of dismay at the recent inclusion of blogs by specific research institutions rather than individuals. I just assumed this was part of an education and outreach effort on the part of SEED Media. Now, in the wake of Pepsipocalypse, I'm not so sure. I, personally, would really like to know which blogs are paying to be there — and thanks to Kendra Snyder of the new Brookhaven blog for making it crystal clear that Brookhaven is not paying for the blog space. That's the real, lasting damage that has come out of this. I shouldn't have to wonder, and folks like Kendra shouldn't need to explicitly clarify.

Since the Pepsi blog has now been removed, many remaining Sciblings are waiting to see if there will be any significant changes in response to their concerns — and it's a promising sign that SEED Media CEO Adam Bly now has his own blog and is entering the fray for a more direct discourse with the Sciblings. The rest of us will be watching with interest as this unfolds, not because we're salivating voyeurs, but because this is something many other media outlets are likely to struggle with as we hammer out new models for blogging and the media in the 21st century. We're in the midst of a major sea change (just can't bring myself to use "paradigm shift"), where blogs are transforming the mainstream media, and as blogging moves into professional circles, the MSM is starting to transform blogs, as bloggers (and the outlets that support them) find themselves facing the same kinds of pressures that the MSM must face on a daily basis. It isn't pretty. But it's necessary. And as others have said as well, sometimes "old media" does have something to teach "new media" — in this case, about the importance of maintaining that critical wall between editorial and advertisement.

Pepsigate is further proof (as if any were needed) that blogging is coming of age, with all the growing pains that come with it. At Science Online 2008, I gave a keynote address about how I viewed blogging and where I saw it going in the future. Granted, I'm no psychic octopus, but here's what I wrote after that conference:

I've never viewed blogs as a threat to mainstream media. The two feed off each other; for all the contentious antagonism, it's a pretty symbiotic relationship. Among other benefits, science bloggers can hold each other and the science media accountable in ways that are kind of unprecedented in recent history, because now everyone who wants one, has a platform to express their ideas. Sure, it's loud, crowded and occasionally confusing — and the same freedoms extend to utter crackpots — but people find ways to sift through the noise to latch onto what they like and/or need. I'd like to see that natural synergism enhanced and developed in the coming years. … [P]erhaps blogs associated with major media outlets could benefit from a layer of light oversight and quality control. … The trick is giving just enough oversight not to kill the very qualities that people love about blogs in the first place: personal, subjective, highly opinionated, with the opportunity for an interactive free-for-all with readers in the comment threads. Traditional letters to the editor are such a yawn-fest in comparison.

As blogs become more professional, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect them to be paid a reasonable wage/fee, depending on whether they're full-time staff or freelancers. Media outlets are already doing this: journalism school graduates of the future are definitely going to be doing some blogging in their future positions, in addition to straight reporting or feature writing (which is why, when asked, I advise instructors to start up class blogs for their students, or encourage students to start their own).

I said something along these lines during my wrap-up presentation, and someone in the audience expressed concern that if blogging becomes profitable or (god forbid) lucrative, people would start blogging for the "wrong reasons." I didn't realize there were "right" or "wrong" reasons; the concept strikes me as absurd. Peoples' motivations for blogging are as varied as the individuals themselves. And frankly, the comment smacks of a bizarre elitism, even a high school clique-ishness: "If EVERYONE starts blogging, we won't be as cool and special!" I think that rather misses the point of the source of blogging's power to effect change: giving a voice to everyone who wants one.

There's also the inference that blogging is this pure, noble selfless endeavor that should only be done for pleasure. Um, okay, it can definitely be that, but since when is it antithetical to love what you do and also make a living wage? The whole point of my talk is that blogging is moving out of the quirky little hobby category and into the professional sphere, and if someone wants to take their blogging to a professional level — which would mean doubling (at least) the degree of effort, editing, fact-checking, etc. one would normally do with a blog post — there should be a mechanism in place to ensure they can be adequately compensated. In no way do I think that everyone should be a professional blogger; it will just become another job option. There will always be a place for the idealistic amateur in the blogosphere.

We're navigating uncharted waters, people, but that doesn't mean we can't draw on the lessons of the past for guidance. And like the Sciblings, we must be willing to raise a stink and push back occasionally when a line is crossed: this far, but no farther. It is only through constant vigilance that the trust between blogger and reader can be maintained.

9 thoughts on “growing pains”

  1. With respect and affection for Chad, I must disagree (while supporting his decision to stay). I pay Typepad to host Cocktail Party Physics; it’s a standard business transaction, and I’ve been very happy with the service. But it’s no Science Blogs. Science Blogs has always been much more than that. It’s an impressively diverse community of individuals — smart, opinionated, often boisterous and loud, occasionally rude, but always interesting. They fight with each other, and support each other, and they supported SEED Media; “good soldiers,” every one. But they are not, and never will be, patsies for the Overlords.
    The diversity you cite is the core reason why I don’t feel that upset about the whole thing. The fact is, there is no collective “ScienceBlogs.” It’s a collection of 70-odd individual blogs. There is no coherent institutional voice, or style, or editorial guidance. Some of the individual blogs barely manage to have a coherent voice– how can “ScienceBlogs” as a whole be said to be anything.
    There was a time early on when it might’ve become more coherent, but the site has gotten too big and too diverse to be considered as anything but a collection of individual blogs.
    If there were some central editorial control over what people wrote, then I would agree that something disreputable elsewhere on the site affected the credibility of everyone on the site. But if there were central editorial control, I wouldn’t be blogging at ScienceBlogs any more.

  2. Agreed it’s a loose conglomeration, but you’re ignoring the fact that there IS a selection process: people have to be invited to join Science Blogs. It’s not open to the general public. The blogs have to be nominally related to science, too, either because blogger is a scientist, or the subject matter is scientific in nature. And then there’s the fact that Science Blogs — whether you like it or not — has become a successful, immediately recognizable “brand” in the public sphere, particularly in the scientific community.
    It could not be more different than Typepad, Blogger, or WordPress.

  3. “Understandably, the strongest objections came from bloggers who specialize in health, nutrition and medicine, and from professional writers like myself, for whom this was a clear violation of journalistic principles.”
    At the risk of picking a nit, I think the entire Earth Science* sb community has either walked or stopped in protest.
    As it turns out, there are numerous Earth scientists industry bloggers (not of science blogs) who have a very hard time drawing the line as to what should and shouldn’t be said. There are some obvious limits (e.g. the ones that send us to jail for insider trading, or get us fired and sued by our bosses). Sadly I’ve approached this problem in the past year or two by phasing out content. But a hopefully productive question is this: What sort of blog-related activities could industry scientists do that would be good for science education without being professionally hazardous?
    * Not including climate, which I don’t follow.

  4. Nice recap Jennifer.
    In defense of people who are/initially were undecided about this thing:
    I was, at first, on the fence about this, and I call myself a part-time freelance journalist. Three reasons for my “let’s wait a minute here” move:
    1) I’m not a “shoot first, ask questions later” kind of person,
    2) I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and
    3) I’m not a member of the Sb community (a serious disadvantage in terms of keeping a pulse to things/maintaining institutional knowledge about ScienceBlogs’/Seed Media Group’s previous offenses).
    But ultimately it became clear to me that Sb/SMG management stepped over the line — as my twice-updated post points out (end of shameless self-promotion). Although I think the company has gained back some sizable Jenga blocks of trust in a post-Pepsigate era, it didn’t change the fact that they toppled a large portion of their trust structure with that silly move (aka launching “Food Frontiers” in its initial state).
    Behind closed doors, I’m guessing they justified their actions pre-launch in a way similar to this:
    “Hey, we’ve had a few other corporate-sponsored blogs before, so this PepsiCo ad — er, blog — shouldn’t peeve anyone.” And that was their first mistake.
    In defense of the people who left immediately, they were probably:
    1) more in tune with SMG’s previous irritations,
    2) smarter than I and
    3) had a very good reason to take an immediate stand (i.e. professional journalists).
    So there.
    In my mind, the remaining question is this:
    Why didn’t bloggers raise such a huge stink before, when other corporate-sponsored blogs were launched? I understand the format was different (i.e. guest posters wrote, not company employees), but in principle I don’t see it as that much different. I feel the integrity of the content is similarly suspect in those blogs.
    I may have found part of an answer in the fallout (feel free to drag this conclusion into an alley and beat it up, though):
    1) that whole “institutional knowledge” thing I mentioned. It seems a lot of bloggers are new, and most (of the vocal) early bloggers have left/gone by the wayside;
    2) the “individual blog” nature of ScienceBlogs that Chad mentions above. For evidence, see Rebecca Skloot’s comment on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker post:
    Can anyone here shed a more light on this question? I think there is a big lesson for all of us in it, bloggers, journalists, scientists, and readers alike.
    And yes, I like lists.

  5. I, personally, was not aware there were prior “corporate sponsored” blogs. That definitely would have raised a red flag in my mind. But then, I might be invested in the Sci-Blog community by virtue of being tight with several of the earliest bloggers there, but I wasn’t part of the fold — by choice. It would have caused me to email a couple of my pals about it, definitely….
    Some Sciblings genuinely don’t care/don’t see the big deal, although I think those voices are now in the minority.
    My personal take is that blogs have kind of gotten a pass re: the usual accepted standards of journalism until now — we saw this in the Dave Wiegel firing from WaPo for daring to have private opinions about the poeple he covered (although that seemed like more of an overt targeted “hit” on Wiegel). [For the record, I thought the WaPo was wrong to fire him.] The MSM wasn’t taking blogs seriously. Now blogs are being taken seriously, and moving into the mainstream — and running smack into the kinds of pressures, ethical guidelines, and tensions between business vs editorial freedoms that publishing grapples with on a daily basis. Hence my reference to the blogosphere’s “growing pains.”
    ANd that’s why those of us who care about the future of journalism, and blogs, and how these two will evolve should care about Pepsigate… not because we like a good melodrama, but because, for all that, these are very serious underlying issues. Pepsigate is going to be the poster child for this kind of thing for a few months, I think in journalism classrooms. 🙂

  6. …since when is it antithetical to love what you do and also make a living wage?
    Why when the moral and ethical principles of science blogging are compromised in any way, shape or form by the very presence of money, even if that money is less living wage and more like half of minium wage! Just ask David Colquhoun… =P
    Of course as a blogger who does make a little something to cover the blog’s bills and a little extra, I have a few opinions on that…

  7. With all respect to Chad, even as he admits he’s not a “journalist,” that so totally misses the point that it makes his point. I’m a professional journalist. As a journalist, his statement would be like me saying I’m not a physicist so I don’t care if I know somebody who has willfully and fraudulently performed physics research and reported them as true to a peer-reviewed journal. All crafts, arts and scientific disciplines have codes of ethics, some written out, some not. Without adherence to them, all trust falls apart. And in the case of physics, so do bridges and tunnels. Sorry Chad, you can’t compartmentalize forever.

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