ScienceBlogs.com made a HUGE mistake in granting Pepsi Co. a blog in which Pepsi staff were to be writing a nutrition blog, which Seed magazine editor Adam Bly admitted was a strategic financial deal. It was the faux pax heard ’round the blogosphere, and beyond. For something to make the rounds in the blogosphere isn’t that out of the ordinary- after all, we are a community of colleagues and friends, and we frequently respond to the same issues, particularly if they are controversial. But for the PepsiGate scandal to have been picked up by The Guardian, Knight Science Journalism Tracker, and Columbia Journalism Review is a huuuuuuuuuuuge effin’ deal. Knight Science Journalism Tracker and Columbia Journalism Review are BIG names in the world of journalism, and are based out of two of the most prestigious universities I can think of.
Yes, journalism, especially print media, has been in trouble. With the evolution of journalism from print to web, things can get confusing, and many media organizations are still adapting. These organizations are still learning how to profit on the web, such as charging for content versus giving it away for free. In print media, most of the funds come from advertising, and not from the fee you pay for your morning paper. In print, it is usually easier to tell an ad from an editorial piece, but with web layouts and dynamic pages, sometimes things can get a bit murky. Responsible media organizations need to make sure the reader knows when editorial content ends and advertising content begins.
In a leaked letter from Adam Bly to the Sciblings, he explains the importance of advertising to Seed Media, and the industry at large:
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).
At the end of this excerpt though is the key point- when sponsored blogs are present, they must CLEARLY MARKED AS SUCH. In a blog post about the scandal, Superbug shared specific guidelines from American Society of Magazine Editors that state:
We recommend the following standards (subject to change as the medium evolves):
The home page and all subsequent pages of a publication’s Web site should display the publication’s name and logo prominently, in order to clarify who controls the content of the site.
All online pages should clearly distinguish between editorial and advertising or sponsored content. If any content comes from a source other than the editors, it should be clearly labeled. A magazine’s name or logo should not be used in a way that suggests editorial endorsement of an advertiser. The site’s sponsorship policies should be clearly noted, either in text accompanying the article or on a disclosure page (see item 8), to clarify that the sponsor had no input regarding the content.
Hypertext links that appear within the editorial content of a site, including those within graphics, should be at the discretion of the editors. If links are paid for by advertisers, that should be disclosed to users.
Special advertising or “advertorial” features should be labelled as such.
In the case of the Pepsi blog, Food Frontiers, it was not clearly marked as advertising. There was no transparency. Instead, the blog sat alongside those of pre-established, respected scientists and writers who earned their invitation to be a part of ScienceBlogs through respect. David Dobbs wrote a great post on the matter. Dobbs was just one of many Sciblings who took part in a mass exodus from ScienceBlogs and have been establishing new homes elsewhere on the web…and so now I remind you all to update your RSS feeds and blogrolls, as I have just done, to make sure you support all these wonderful science bloggers on their journeys to new homes on the web.
It is with great sadness that I watch all these bloggers leave ScienceBlogs and find new homes, and marks a changing landscape in the blogosphere. I urge you all to read Bora’s post on the changing science blogging ecosystem- I cried while reading it. PZ Myers may have the top-ranked science blog out there, but to me, Bora is the center of the science blogging universe. To see him leave ScienceBlogs really means the end of an era.
This new era is a strange one. For nearly two years, I have held ScienceBlogs in high regard. I’d dreamt of one day being invited to be a Scibling, something I viewed as an honor. But the recent actions of Seed have tainted that respect, and left a funny taste in my mouth….sort of like when you burp hot-dog flavor while eating an ice-cream cone hours later. The bad taste may subside, but it all depends on how Seed handles itself in the near future. I know there are still concerns and issues with those who have chosen to remain at ScienceBlogs, but that several of those individuals are seeking big changes from Seed in order to stay put. Hopefully their needs are met. The way Seed chooses to handle itself from here on out will dictate whether or not it will be able to regain the respect it once had.