The fallout from the Pepsi incident continues to suck all the oxygen out of science blogging, with the latest news being the departure of Bora Zivkovic. If you don’t have time to read his farewell novel, here’s the short version: Seed Media Group management are insufficiently attentive to the blogs, and stuck in an old-media mentality. They should’ve re-invented themselves as entirely a blog company, and scrapped everything else. Really, if you’ve read Bora’s stuff before, you can pretty much reconstruct the whole thing without reading it.
This post is being cited all around blogdom as incredibly perceptive and insightful, to the point where I feel like I need to respond to a couple of elements of this. This is partly my natural contrarianism at work, and partly a matter of wanting to correct a couple of misplaced expectations that are driving this whole business. This will have zero effect on the course of the discussion, but I’m starting to feel guilty about ranting at Kate about this, so I’ll put it up here, and then go back to talking about science.
My problems with Bora’s epic:
1) His main bit of support for his view of how Seed Media Group should’ve reconstituted itself is a graph showing the monthly traffic for scienceblogs.com dwarfing the monthly traffic for seedmagazine.com. This, he argues, is evidence that they should give up trying to produce original content, and be all about the blogs.
Of course, a similar line of reasoning would argue that we should all become ranty blogs about politics. After all, the top two blogs (out of 70+) on the network are Pharyngula and Dispatches from the Culture Wars, which together account for something like 55% of the pageviews to the site. If we’re supposed to redirect all our efforts to what brings in the pageviews, then that’s clearly the way to go.
And, well, no. It’s not like that doesn’t happen– we’ve all seen some blogs that used to be about science get sucked into ranting of one sort or another because that’s what brings the traffic. I sometimes get sucked into that myself. Those aren’t positive results, though, save in a narrow balance-sheet kind of thinking, and every time that happens we lose a little more of the science from ScienceBlogs, which is a shame.
2) The other problem with the graph in question is that it’s not plotting what Bora implies it’s plotting. He talks about that as if it’s a graph of cash flow, which it’s not. To be sure, the potential ad revenue from scienceblogs.com would appear from that to be vastly greater than the potential ad revenue from seedmagazine.com, but this graph does not necessarily tell you everything about the cash flow of Seed Media Group.
That’s an important thing to remember when people start pontificating about the management of Seed Media Group– we are not privy to their financial information. I don’t get to look at their books, and neither does Bora. Moreover, neither of us has any reasonable expectation of being allowed to look at their books.
Is Bora’s just-so story about their resource flow plausible? Absolutely. Is it true? We can’t say. There may be sound reasons why seedmagazine.com hasn’t been shut down or merged with scienceblogs.com. The two companies are set up as separate legal entities (as of a couple of years ago, when the change complicated my taxes)– there may be obstacles to shifting resources in the way Bora wants that we don’t know about. There may even be revenue sources that seedmagazine.com has access to that ScienceBlogs does not. We don’t have that information.
More importantly, we don’t have any particular right to that information. Yeah, yeah, the site wouldn’t exist without the bloggers. The Associated Press wouldn’t exist without a small army of reporters all over the world, and you can be damn sure that some stringer on the ground in the Middle East is not being consulted about the proper allocation of resources in the company as a whole. ScienceBlogs and Seed Media Group are set up as corporations, and the bloggers are independent contractors (again, that’s what it says on my taxes). While you can imagine a situation where the company would be set up to provide the internal financial statements to the bloggers, that’s not how things are set up, and everybody knew that (or should have known that) going in.
3) Bora gives the impression that there are vast resources being expended on seedmagazine.com that rightly ought to be serving scienceblogs.com. This is a bit of an exaggeration. The entire Seed Media Group operation appears (at least the last time I visited) to be maybe twenty people. Their tech support was supplied by the same single developer who did tech support for ScienceBlogs, as I understand it.
Would an extra ad salesman or two and half a tech-support person (presumably, we don’t need a few more editors) make all the difference between ScienceBlogs being what it is and ScienceBlogs being whatever Bora thinks it should be? Maybe. I kind of doubt it, but maybe.
But reading that giant manifesto gives the impression that there’s a whole office building worth of staff for the magazine sitting around twiddling their thumbs while the blogs are barely scraping by, and that’s just not the case. The grandiose name aside, the entire Seed Media Group appears to be very much a shoestring operation.
And again, we don’t have any solid idea of what those people are doing, or why those resources are allocated the way they are, because we’re not privy to that information, and have no reasonable expectation of being privy to it. That’s not the way things are set up, and while Bora might prefer it to be set up differently, they’re under no obligation to do so.
Do I think that things are all happy rainbows and unicorns? No. there are plenty of things in Bora’s manifesto that I agree with. I think the network is way too big and diffuse to be any kind of coherent entity, but that decision was made a long time ago and well above my pay grade. The technical support leaves a lot to be desired. The management could do a much better job of communicating with the bloggers about major site changes (though, again, there may be confidentiality issues there that complicate matters, that we know nothing about, and have no particular right to know anything about).
At the same time, though, I think a lot of what’s being said about ScienceBlogs and the management of the site is based on unreasonable expectations of how things ought to work rather than how things are actually set up. Throw in the fact that the dominant mode of expression in blogdom is hysterical overreaction and, well, you get what we’ve been reading for the last couple of weeks.
And that’s pretty much what I’ve got to say about this for now. I may very well get sucked into this quagmire again, but for now, I’ll put this aside, and talk about what I know you’re all dying to hear: Condensed matter physics!