Uproar at ScienceBlogs.com

Protesting Pepsi’s new nutrition blog, writers defect from respected site

At least two well-respected science journalists and a handful of scientists have canceled their blogs at the popular and heretofore highly respected ScienceBlogs.com community, protesting Seed Media Group’s decision to give PepsiCo a nutrition blog.

On Tuesday afternoon, ScienceBlogs.com’s editor, Evan Lerner (who has contributed to CJR), posted a short note announcing the new blog, called Food Frontiers, which explained that:

As part of this partnership, 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.

Longtime members of the ScienceBlogs.com community reacted quickly and angrily to the move, arguing that Pepsi was “buying credibility” created by other bloggers on the site, and tarnishing that credibility in the process (tip of the hat to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which brought the scoop to wide attention on Wednesday with a post titled, “ScienceBlogs Trashes its Bloggers’ Credibility”). Announcing that he would move his popular neuroscience blog, Neuron Culture, science journalist and author David Dobbs wrote:

Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t cotton to this. With the addition of Food Frontiers, ScienceBlogs has redrawn the boundaries of what it considers legitimate and constructive blogo-journalism about science. In doing so they define an environment I can’t live comfortably in. So with this post I’m leaving ScienceBlogs. For the moment I am moving my blog to Neuron Culture, hosted by Wordpress, while considering other venues that might make sense for me.

Rebecca Skloot, the best-selling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Brian Switek, a freelance science writer and blogger for Smithsonian, announced they, too, are putting their blogs on hiatus. Likewise, Blake Stacey, a physicist and science-fiction writer who writes the blog Science After Sunclipse, Mark Chu-Carroll, a software engineer at Google who writes the blog Good Math, Bad Math, and Dave Bacon, a theoretical physicist who runs the blog The Quantum Pontiff, suspended their operations. A host of other scientist-bloggers have voiced their strong opposition to the Pepsi deal; one the community’s most popular, PZ Myers, asked:

So what’s with the corporate drones moving in next door?

They aren’t going to be doing any scienceblogging — this is straight-up commercial propaganda. You won’t be seeing much criticism of Pepsico corporate policies, or the bad nutritional habits spread by cheap fast food, or even any behind-the-scenes stories about the lives of Pepsico employees that paints a picture of the place as anything less than Edenesque. Do you think any of the ‘bloggers’ will express any controversial opinions that might annoy any potential customers?

There won’t be a scrap of honest opinion expressed over there that isn’t filtered and vetted by cautious editors before making it online, and it will all toe the Pepsi line…

The Guardian posted a leaked letter (worth reading and mulling over in its entirey) from Seed Media Group CEO and Seed magazine editor Adam Bly, which admitted that Pepsi’s blog was a strategic financial deal [links added]:

SB, like nearly all free content sites, is sustainable because of advertising. But advertising is itself highly unpredictable, as the last year has shown the industry. And securing advertising around topics like physics and evolution is even more challenging as the dearth of ad pages in science magazines indicates. We started experimenting with sponsored blogs a couple of years ago and decided to market long-term sponsorship contracts instead of sporadic advertising contracts. This is not a new idea: respected magazines have been doing the same thing for years (think Atlantic Ideas Festival going on now or The New Yorker Festival, where representatives of sponsoring companies sit on stage alongside writers and thinkers, or advertorials where companies pay to create content — clearly marked as such — instead of just running an ad). But we accept that we haven’t got it 100% yet. Should we host these blogs under a modified SB logo? Allow our readers to exclude them from RSS feeds? Establish a blogger council that signs off on the scientists who are blogging? Make the sponsor’s logo clearer on the banner? As always, I would very much welcome your feedback and suggestions so we can build a stronger SB for the future. It’s in our collective interest to ensure the long-term sustainability of a mission that we all believe is important.

That may be so, but there is a limit to what even full transparency can accomplish. While conferences like the ones Bly cites are indeed rainmakers for the media industry, such events are quite a bit different than renting out space in a science/journalism community that values impartiality and abhors corporate influence.

[Update, 9:30 a.m.: In the comments section of Paul Raeburn’s post at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, there is an interesting discussion about previous “corporate blogs,” as Bly put it in his letter sponsored by GE and Shell. Stacey and another current Scienceblogs.com member, Josh Rosenau, think the companies had less control over those blogs, but that seems uncertain. Additionally, NPR’s Ira Flatow offered to host defecting bloggers at his Science Friday Web site.]

Science journalist and author Carl Zimmer, whose Discover blog, The Loom, once resided at ScienceBlogs.com, took Bly to task for ruining years of hard work:

What I find particularly galling about this whole affair is that bloggers who don’t want to associate themselves with this kind of nonsense have to go through the hassle of leaving Scienceblogs and setting up their blog elsewhere. The technical steps involved may be wonderfully easy now (export files, open account on Wordpress, import), but the social steps remain tedious. Take it from me, someone who has moved his blog three times over the past six years: your readers lose your trail, and it takes a long time for Google to start helping them. These folks did nothing to deserve this irritation.

Zimmer is also keeping a running list of Sciencblogs.com defectors. If begins to grow, we’ll see how Bly responds. One hopes that he and his colleagues at Seed Media Group were sitting around a table late Wednesday night re-thinking their approach.
Fundraising is a legitimate problem in the industry today, but a smart play would be to put the Pepsi blog on hold and reach out to bloggers for ideas. It would be a tragic shame to break up an honest, insightful, and widely respected community of writers for something as foolish as Food Frontiers.

[Update, 10:30 a.m.: Bly just announced that Scienceblogs.com has taken down the Food Frontiers blog, writing, “We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.”

Appropriately, Bly encouraged more debate on the matter, adding “How do companies who seek genuine dialogue with this community engage? We’ll open this challenge up to everyone on SB and beyond in the coming days so that we can all find the right solution.” The comments string following the post is already filling up with interesting suggestions and ideas worth taking a look at.]

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.