The PepsiBlog Fracas

Yesterday afternoon I checked my e-mail and found something from the ScienceBlogs management. Apparently there was to be a new blog around here sponsored by PepsiCo. that was to focus on nutrition and other food related issues. I only skimmed the e-mail and did not really think much about it. I am still on blog vacation, after all, and I wanted to get back to my other work.

Later in the day I decided it was time for a break. Figured I’d check in with my favorite Science Blogs and see if anything was happening. Turns out, something was.

Apparently a lot of my fellow bloggers were up in arms about the new blog. To the point where several decided they must leave ScienceBlogs in disgust. Phrases like “corporate sleaze” and “incompetence” were being thrown around. Apparently there was massive disrespect shown by management towards their bloggers. To paraphrase Lloyd Bridges from Airplane, looks like I picked the wrong week to take a break from blogging.

I won’t rehash here the ethical issues raised by the blog. They have been adequately discussed elsewhere, and I am sure you do not need me to explain them to you. It was certainly a bad blurring of the line between editorial and advertising content. The idea of having a major corporation buy blog space under the same banner that houses “real” science blogs is not very appealing, to put it kindly. It seemed a bit galling that one of the biggest producers of junk food in the nation was going to be blogging about nutrition.

On the other hand, we have had corporate blogs around here before without any major histrionics. They usually do not last long, and they are very easy to ignore. The PepsiBlog was clearly labeled as “Advertorial” and its affiliation with Pepsi could hardly be missed. (Apparently this was not the case when it first went public, which explains part of the anger directed towards it). There was also the fact that they had not posted anything beyond a brief introduction. I wanted to read some actual content before passing judgment. In principle there is a good blog to be written by food scientists in industry, and I do not think it is fair to dismiss their contributors out of hand simply because they worked for Pepsi. If it turned out to be the asinine propaganda blog everyone feared then it would quickly die for lack of readers.

And then there is the most obvious point of all. We are in the midst of a major economic downturn and the publishing industry has been especially hard hit. It takes money to keep the lights on around here, and sometimes that means tolerating some things you would rather not tolerate.

Today it was announced that the blog had been nixed. I am not sorry to see it go, though I do worry about what it portends for the financial health of Science Blogs. The folks at Seed Media Group have put together something amazing here. It was downright visionary when they first conceived the idea of assembling a stable of first-rate bloggers writing about virtually every aspect of science. I was honored to be chosen among the earliest bloggers here. I have never regretted my decision to join, including after this little dust-up.

I am decidedly less impressed with the petulance and self-righteousness of some of my fellow bloggers. The nattering about how our credibility as bloggers was threatened by the PepsiBlog strikes me as terribly overwrought. I very much doubt that anyone is confused about our status as a loose confederation of independent bloggers, or seriously worries that somehow the content of our blogs is being influenced by outside corporate interests. Perhaps I am naive, but I simply am not worried that anyone will see one of my posts on science and religion and wonder if I am just parroting the lines of the corporation that owns me.

Nor am I impressed by complaints that this is emblematic of the disrespect shown to us little guys by our corporate masters. Certainly this could have been handled better, but there is a perfectly non-sinister explanation for why it was not. I do not believe this was a matter of management trying to sneak something past us, or of them trying to force something down our throats. I think they just genuinely underestimated the hostile reaction the blog would receive. My guess is they figured that they routinely add new blogs here or start new initiatives, and most of the time they meet with nary a peep. They probably saw the PepsiBlog as little different from other corporate blogs we have hosted here and didn’t think it merited any special fanfare. It was an error in judgment, and one that has now been rectified. But I think the people picking up their toys and going home are looking for insults where none were intended.

I have always viewed my blog merely as a hobby, so perhaps I can afford to be more cavalier than some. For those who see their blogs as a journalistic enterprise, or who have substantial professional interests invested in their blog, I can see why they might react more strongly to this than I have. All I can say is that from my perspective this seems like much ado about very little.

Plenty of my SciBlings have been writing about this. Chad Orzel aptly summarizes my own views. Abel Pharmboy explains how things ought to have been handled. Josh Rosenau has a useful and non-histrionic post summarizing the problems with the blog. And erv has an interesting post presenting a more cynical view of the outrage.

Perhaps one good thing has come out of this. My passion for blogging, which has been on the wane in recent weeks, has suddenly been reawakened. Suddenly seeing your peeps attacked will do that to you!

Comments

  1. #1 Badger3k
    July 8, 2010

    A nice, well-reasoned post! Congrats on saying what I and many other commenters here think. It’ll be good to see you post more as well, so something good came of this.

  2. #2 Zach Voch
    July 8, 2010

    The Pepsi thing was totally worth it if it brings you back, IMO.

    Lots of things have been afoot this last week.

  3. #3 Lynn David
    July 8, 2010

    I wonder what would occur if exploration or production geologists from BP or Chevron were to start a blog here to talk about the science of their previous discoveries (non-proprietary work, that is). I believe such a blog would be well accepted. It seems that the closer the science is tied into marketing that the expected problems and ethical considerations become important.

  4. #4 fyreflye
    July 9, 2010

    You math guys are so rational…
    Thanks for a sane response to the flap. Now get back to work.

  5. #5 SLC
    July 9, 2010

    A number of bloggers bailed out. However, most of them were low visited sites. I suspect that the management would have been a lot more concerned if PZ Myers or Ed Brayton had decided to bail.

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    July 9, 2010

    On the other hand, we have had corporate blogs around here before without any major histrionics. They usually do not last long, and they are very easy to ignore.

    And all of them were managed and staffed in a way quite unlike that of Food Frontiers. If PepsiCo had paid for a blog on foods and nutrition, written by independent journalists and people already members of ScienceBlogs.com, people would have thought it ironic, I’m sure. We would have seen the wisdom of the choice questioned, without a doubt, but I hardly think the issue would have exploded the way it did.

    I wanted to read some actual content before passing judgment.

    They’d been posting content at their original “blog” on the Pepsi corporate website for some time now. Dull marketroid schlock.

    The evidence is available. Judgement can easily be passed.

  7. #8 Blake Stacey
    July 9, 2010

    I have always viewed my blog merely as a hobby, so perhaps I can afford to be more cavalier than some.

    My blog has always been a hobby for me, too. That’s why I don’t feel I need to make any money off it, or that I need to be part of a big mass of other bloggers. When I moved over here, I had hoped to be part of upgrading the infrastructure to make this place better for serious discussions of mathematics and physics; that never happened, and I eventually realized that it never would. No loss for me if I depart — and if the Management can’t make ends meet while holding to a shred of journalistic integrity, I don’t have to be part of it.

  8. #9 Blake Stacey
    July 9, 2010

    (My sincere apologies for the succession of comments — I’m trying to avoid the spam filter’s link limit.)

    I think they just genuinely underestimated the hostile reaction the blog would receive.

    Yeah, OK, never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence. But when incompetence is this big, more “underestimations” are coming, and I don’t feel a crushing need to hang around until the next mistake hits.

    I think a great deal of the outcries in this matter have been misplaced; just because I left SB, doesn’t mean I agree with everyone else who also took their ball and went home. (To illustrate: suppose it had been Trader Joe’s, or the REI sporting-goods company, instead of PepsiCo. The boots and the laptop bag I bought at REI have worked out great, everybody I know finds their products dependable, I haven’t heard of them doing anything spectacularly evil, etc. Pending further information, I have nothing against them. But if they had paid SEED to start a blog on the Science of Extreme Hiking Paraphernalia, I would have been ticked off. Other people worked up additional anger over the nature of Pepsi’s products, but that’s not my fight.)

    I think this was a mediocre-to-bad idea which was made terrifically worse in the execution. For myself, it was the last touch I needed to go from posting infrequently here to posting infrequently elsewhere.

    All right. Enough from me. We’ve generally been in accord about most hot topics of debate, and I think you’re a great writer to have around, wherever you are working.

  9. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 9, 2010

    Blake –

    It is a loss to Science Blogs if you leave, and I am sorry to see you go. I will continue to read your blog, assuming you return to blogging elsewhere. But I stand by everything I said in this post.

    It is not people leaving per se that bothered me so much. People have to do what they think is right. I think it is an overreaction, but as I suggested in the post I could understand why some people would see it differently. What angered me is the utterly classless way some of them chose to do it. Hyperbolic denunciations, profanity-laden comments, not a trace of acknowledgment that SMG created something good here that they personally benefited from. Many people were, indeed, attributing malice where, I would say poor judgment, was the far more likely culprit. Not everyone, of course, and I am not going to name names of who specifically I am thinking of. But there was enough of that that I felt some pushback was in order.

    I was blogging independently for three years before making the jump to SB. When I signed on my understanding was that I would keep doing what I had been doing except that now I would get paid for it and would have people more tech savvy than myself doing my tech support. That is precisely what happened. What I did not expect was to derive so much satisfaction from being part of a community of other bloggers, all of whom I respect greatly, my occasional disagreements with some of them notwithstanding.

    I was one of the original bloggers contacted to start SB, and while for technical reasons my new blog wasn’t quite ready to go in time for the initial launch it was added very soon afterwards. At that time there was the thrill of meeting other writers who I might never have encountered otherwise and of being in on the ground floor in creating something valuable. As SB grew we had annual meet-ups in New York which contributed to the strong sense of community. That has frayed recently as SB has gone from big to very big and as the financial situation has gone south. As I recall, you joined after those glory days had receded, so i can understand why it does not have the resonance for you. But I am not prepared to give it up so easily over a quickly rectified error in judgment.

    If, and I repeat if, SB folds then I will probably go back to blogging independently. The blogging bug comes and goes these days, but it comes often enough that I doubt I would ever give it up completely. At the very least I would continue to contribute to The Panda’s Thumb, probably more frequently than I have been in recent months. But something great will have been lost if that happens, and I do wish more people were willing to take a break from their nauseating self-righteousness to acknowledge that fact.

  10. #11 Blake Stacey
    July 9, 2010

    Fair points.

    As I recall, you joined after those glory days had receded, so i can understand why it does not have the resonance for you.

    I’ve found that, generally speaking, I’m not one to feel strong community spirit. Maybe it’s just a quirk of my wiring, or maybe it’s due to the first few communities I found myself in growing apart sooner than I had expected. I don’t know.

    What angered me is the utterly classless way some of them chose to do it. Hyperbolic denunciations, profanity-laden comments, not a trace of acknowledgment that SMG created something good here that they personally benefited from.

    I don’t want to speak definitively for anyone else, but from what I’ve read this past week, several people felt that they hadn’t received those personal benefits. (Some of what I know comes from private communications, but Alex Wild made pertinent comments in public.) A background of bitterness probably does not make for polite leave-takings.

    And, of course, as you said, we weren’t all involved in building this site from the ground up, which definitely can change one’s perspective.

    But I am not prepared to give it up so easily over a quickly rectified error in judgment.

    My concern is that this error in judgement [Firefox got set to the British Ænglish spelling dictionary, somehow] will not be “quickly rectified”. I mean, the offending website got taken down, but far too many people sat up and noticed. The story got picked up by MIT’s science-journalism school, by the Columbia Journalism Review and by the freakin’ Guardian. I strongly doubt it’s finished, either; we’ve probably got at least a few more cycles of retrospectives and analyses coming out of this mess.

    And, from what I’ve seen, the people most critical about SEED’s conduct have been the journalists.

    This is pretty far from a good thing. It’s the flipside of what happens when a magazine like New Scientist runs sensationalistic dreck on their cover: knowledgeable scientists, who could and should be part of spreading the word about their subject, don’t trust the media and don’t want to work with them. Now, people in the business of covering science will look askance at everything the SEED Media Group does. They’ll have to wonder how any new blogger got their job: merit, or cash on the barrelhead? Yes, you might be safe, but what about the folks who haven’t built up a reputation for being forthright and irascible?

    How easy will it be to arrange syndication deals with entities like National Geographic or the New York Times when everybody in publishing thinks that SEED has no regard for the separation between editorial and advertising?

    We’ve had enough troubles sorting out the relationships among the different organizations and professions involved in the science communication biz. I can only see this making it worse.

    But something great will have been lost if that happens, and I do wish more people were willing to take a break from their nauseating self-righteousness to acknowledge that fact.

    Come on. You’ve been blogging for how long, and you expect bloggers to be anything other than nauseatingly self-righteous? What Internet have you been on, and how do I get there? :-/

  11. #13 Jon Claerbout
    July 17, 2010

    Little need for an oil industry blog. You’ll find almost too much high quality material at “The Oil Drum”.
    http://www.theoildrum.com/

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