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Monday, July 12, 2010

The PepsiGate of ScienceBlogs by Martin of

An Analysis of 'PepsiGate'

Fizzy drinks and computers famously don't mix, which is why I no longer drink Coke during BBC Question Time. But it turns out that they don't work too well in blogs either, as Seed Magazine are finding out to their cost.

The story, in a nutshell, is that Seed - the company behind ScienceBlogs - and Pepsi - the company behind obesity and tooth decay - have entered a partnership in which Pepsi will pay to have their own ScienceBlogs blog. This is obviously a break away from the usual model in which bloggers apply to the site, are accepted on merit, and receive some pocket money from advertising.

The existing bloggers at ScienceBlogs are pretty unhappy about this, and a number of them have either left or are thinking about it, including such famous faces as Brian Switek and Rebecca Skloot.

Some have questioned whether these bloggers have over-reacted, but these criticisms generally miss the point, which is that this isn't really about the evils of corporations per se or Pepsi's right as a company to blog about science, or even about preventing Pepsi's views from being aired on Seed's platform.

Instead, the scandal that will inevitability be dubbed Pepsigate, is ultimately about three things. The first is community identity - the fence that delineates the ScienceBlogs community from the rest of the world; the second is respect; and the third is the line between editorial and advertising.

The first point is really so simple that it's banal, and it's quite staggering that Adam Bly, Seed's CEO, doesn't seem to understand it. To its bloggers and readers, ScienceBlogs was always a meritocracy built by top science bloggers. They attracted the best science bloggers from the US and increasingly around the world, and allowed a community to organically develop in which everyone had a stake.

In doing that, they turned ScienceBlogs into a powerful and prestigious brand, and that brand in turn attracted more writers and readers. For a couple of years, until about 2009, being offered a spot on Science Blogs was a giddy achievement. As GrrlScientist puts it:
I and my colleagues were recruited by ScienceBlogs based on our track records of productivity, topic choices, traffic and whatever ephemeral talent that their corporate masters thought we possessed. Not one of us had to buy our way in.
It should be immediately obvious that selling a seat at this table damages the brand, whoever it is. It's like watching King Arthur hand-pick eleven knights of the Round Table, and then sell the twelfth seat on Ebay. If anyone can buy themselves a Seed Blog, then one of the main reasons to blog there - the prestige - is gone.
And the effect of that is doubled when King Arthur himself doesn't bother to tell the knights until some rich kid in Gucci armour wanders in the room asking where the bar is.

"The SEED management team has repeatedly failed to treat me and my fellow bloggers with courtesy and respect, and this latest event goes beyond disrespect into actively undermining our credibility."
The above quote is from Brian Switek, one of the top science writers on the web, and a jewel in Seed's crown until yesterday, when he quit.

The latest insult for Switek was that the bloggers who helped build the site weren't consulted on such a fundamental change in direction. I'm not privy to the internal world of ScienceBlogs, but when your best writers are saying things like...
"...the skanky clandestine manner in which it was executed is a fucking slap in the face from Adam Bly and the ScienceBlogs overlords, reflecting their overall (lack of) respect for our collective contributions and investments."
...then, my friend, you have fucked up very badly. As Abel puts it: "You reap what you sow."

The following guidance comes from the American Society of Magazine Editors, and was highlighted yesterday by Knight Science Journalism, who point out that this is an issue that traditional media have wrestled with for years. It's worth reading in full:
"For magazines to be trusted by consumers and to endure as brands, readers must be assured of their editorial integrity."
"Editorial-looking sections or pages that are not produced by a magazines editors are not editorial content. They should be labeled Advertisement, Special Advertising Section or Promotion at the top of every page in type as prominent as the magazines normal body type…"
"Advertisers should not pay to place their products in editorial pages nor should they demand placement in return for advertising."
This is one of the fundamental rules in US magazine publishing, and one that a website indexed by Google News ought to take seriously (the comment by a reader of Jack of Kent's blog that "these are only blogs, not published content" is spectacularly naive). It's also one of the scummier practices we see in British newspapers - all those Daily Mail stories about products with telephone numbers and websites at the bottom.
Let's be clear first of all that this is advertising material. This not a blog primarily about food science, but about Pepsi. The blog is intended to promote Pepsi's products and the company itself, as Pepsi's own introduction to the blog very clearly states:
"...we'll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo's product portfolio, we'll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging."
And of course the blog already exists on Pepsi's own website, where it consists of basically a feed of press releases.

Some people have made the valid point that it's good to have corporations engaging in the science blogosphere, and that's true, but this is completely the wrong way to do it. To see why, it's interesting to think about cases where it might be okay for Pepsi to join ScienceBlogs. I can think of at least four scenarios in which this could work:
  1. They produce their own science blog so good that other science bloggers love it, and they manage to get a place on merit.
  2. They sponsor a discussion blog, which is open for a variety of ScienceBlogs members to contribute to, with their own submission limited and very clearly marked as such. A sort of "engage with Pepsi" group blog
  3. They provide guest posts, accepted on merit and again clearly marked, putting their point of view as part of a wider cluster of posts on a topic (like the last point, but less formal).
  4. Seed host a special 'sponsors' blog section, distinct from the main blogs and not indexed on Google News, for advertorial submissions. You could even play on the infamy, and use it as good discussion fuel for the 'real' bloggers. 
Any of those approaches would allow Pepsi to join the debate while maintaining editorial integrity. The problem comes as soon as Pepsi are paying for their editorial content to be inserted in amongst the other bloggers at ScienceBlogs, regardless of merit, and with (originally) very little to mark them out as advertising.

Ultimately though it all boils down to one simple truth - any blogging community is as good as its writers.
When they start leaving in droves, you need to fix it. So far, Adam Bly and Seed show no signs of doing that.
You can keep track of bloggers leaving ScienceBlogs and their new locations at Carl Zimmer's blog.

And of course if any rogue sciblings want to reach out to a new audience (and you don't have to be exclusive, I'm a promiscuous host), they can always join us here!

__________________ Martin is the editor of


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