Yesterday, the ScienceBlogs arm of Seed Media Group announced that they would be hosting a blog written by members of PepsiCo's research and development leadership team. From the Food Frontiers blog:
PepsiCo's R&D Leadership Team discusses the science behind the food industry's role in addressing global public health challenges. This is an extension of PepsiCo's own Food Frontiers blog. All editorial content on the blog is overseen by ScienceBlogs editors.
The opening post was written by ScienceBlogs "editor" Evan Lerner:
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. . .
. . .We have some exciting things planned for this project, including a video series that will begin with a look at the role the food industry plays in health issues, and how industry research into chemistry, physiology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, medicine, and nutrition can improve health outcomes around the world.
For the moment, I will set aside my objections to the presence on this network of a company that contributes to the explosion of obesity and diabetes among adults and children - a major strain on health care costs without even considering the increased risk of cancers. I'll also withhold judgment for now on the content of the blog that may be offered by its writers, some of whom are physicians and scientists for PepsiCo. In fact, I'm particularly interested in what will be posted by Dr. George Mensah, a cardiovascular physician who had been at the CDC for nine years before joining PepsiCo. And I'll hold back details of the little bit of vomit I felt at the back of my throat when seeing that Food Frontiers is posted within the "Medicine & Health" channel of ScienceBlogs.
I wish to focus my objections specifically on the breach of ethics and community represented by ScienceBlogs hosting this blog and accepting an undisclosed amount of sponsorship funds to do so.
When I joined ScienceBlogs four years ago last month, I was contractually promised complete editorial control over my content, including the right to ridicule anything ScienceBlogs does, and have never once been asked to adjust any of my writing. Never. Not once. Nor has a single blogger I know ever been asked to alter content. I specifically point this out because the Food Frontiers blog lists Evan Lerner as ScienceBlogs editor - he does not edit my content or anyone else's. When ScienceBlogs was originally launched, the position occupied by Mr. Lerner was called "community manager."
In return, ScienceBlogs puts advertising on the right sidebar for which they receive all payments. The advertising has now metastasized to above the masthead and several places throughout the frontpage such that, if you don't use ad-blocking plug-ins for your browser, are making this site look like a GoDaddy page. In fact, "The Promise of PepsiCo" ad routinely rotates above the masthead.
But I understand the need for advertising to keep a business afloat. And in return, ScienceBlogs pays us a small amount at a rate proportional to our respective blog traffic. For me, saving my earnings for two full years will probably allow me to buy a new MacBook Pro. The advertising also pays for the technical support of the blog, though sorely declining, and integration of content into the network and the ScienceBlogs frontpage and channels.
This has been an acceptable relationship and even allowed me to obtain certification from the Health On The Net Foundation for objective health information content after I clearly identified advertising content and the financial relationship.
But ScienceBlogs has now stepped over the line with the PepsiCo blog.
ScienceBlogs has become a respected outlet for science communication in the new media format. Their press release (PDF) from April notes that traffic to the network has increased by more than 50% each year since launched in January, 2006. There are many reasons for its success but I submit that it is due to the scientific content of many of the blogs and the engagement of concerned bloggers with their respective communities.
However, accepting paid content within the main blogging space of the network is a breach of ethics and a clear conflict of interest for a media organization. Even the most vapid print magazine will cordon off as "advertisement" corporate-sponsored content made to look like magazine text. But as of this morning, Food Frontiers contains no identifying text to denote that it is comprised of paid, corporate content.
But what makes me most angry - and hurts personally - is that ScienceBlogs would not have been able to offer such an attractive package to PepsiCo if not for the reputation and pageviews built by the bloggers who have written here over the last four-and-a-half years.
In the past, management would run any new business model past the bloggers in advance - not that they were required to do so but out of courtesy and understanding of the mutual dependence implicit in the relationship. In this case, we were all blindsided late yesterday by an e-mail from ScienceBlogs that Food Frontiers had been launched. No advance discussion. No consideration of how the relationship might affect how our readers view us.
Business may be business, but ScienceBlogs is making a mockery of itself and undermining the objectivity and reputation that we have all worked so hard to establish and maintain. The exodus of several high-profile bloggers and world-class science writers over the last 18 months speaks to the fact that ScienceBlogs is no longer the only such game in the blogosphere. And I am certain that this unfolding episode will make for great journalism ethics discussions in J-school classrooms around the world next semester.
For what it's worth, PepsiCo's Daniel Pellegrom stated at Food Frontiers that they will moderate comments and accept any that are "not defamatory or profane." And bloggers are already exercising their personal editorial control to attack this decision to host Food Frontiers, with at least one blog leaving and others threatening to do so. However, I will have to dig in to find out why GrrlScientist's post entitled, "Sucking Corporate Dick" has now changed to "Pepsi Ethics."
As usual, Orac at Respectful Insolence has a very complete discussion of advertising and hosted content at ScienceBlogs and a history of the blogging network and the community of bloggers.
As you might guess, this episode has stimulated for me a deep examination of conscience and consideration of why I blog - and why I remain at ScienceBlogs. Although I write with a pseudonym, my identity is clearly available here and elsewhere and I also have to consider my professional reputation together with the one I have built here with you as an objective source of information about drugs and dietary supplements. There are tradeoffs in any relationship and each blogger here will decide what is right for them.
But what is clear at this point is that completely independent of whatever content shows up at PepsiCo's Food Frontiers blog, ScienceBlogs has hammered many nails into the coffin of its reputation. The decision to host that blog is the current pinnacle of disrespect shown to the bloggers who have built the ScienceBlogs readership over the last four-and-a-half years.
actually, i changed the name of that post (the URL remains unchanged and thus, still reflects the original title, haha) because i think it offended my readers who follow on RSS -- my RSS subscription readership decreased by more than half overnight. while it is true that the RSS feed has its own set of glitches and reporting errors, i am not completely daft. i value my readers, their thoughts and even their sensitivities. and i admit the title was rather .. blunt.
that evil title was actually the working title, but i had forgotten that when i finally published it last night. i did realize my error about an hour or two later after i'd crawled into bed, but at that point, i was too exhausted to think of a more subdued title.
The PepsiCo blog now has "advertorial" in the banner. Does that change anything for you?
By the time I got around to looking, I only saw the new banner which makes the corporate nature of the content pretty damn clear. So I'm with Jeremiah- does this change things for you?
Abel, This is a Big Deal, and I hope ScienceBlogs hears it: "...ScienceBlogs would not have been able to offer such an attractive package to PepsiCo if not for the reputation and pageviews built by the bloggers who have written here over the last four-and-a-half years."
I wonder why PepsiCo wants to join a community that will be openly contemptuous of it, and whose readership will probably ignore it (I know I have no interest in reading).
I agree with Blake that it's the breeching of the editorial and advertising walls that annoys me.
I can't see how they won't act like corporate weasels. They've started already with a single comment and also restricting the discussion by having a long lag between submission and acceptance.
ERV and Orac both make good points about a wait and see approach though too. But I just keep heading back to Blake's viewpoint. The endpoint is that the science in scienceblogs continues to erode as the scientists depart.
Pepsi doesn't have the right to comment on anything to do with health.
I don't see how this changes much.
If Food Frontiers makes good posts I will read them. If they pedal corporate pablum and fail to deal with comments effectively I will avoid them. There are already bloggers in Scienceblogs that I seldom read. I generally go down the 24 hour listing and download all but the very few I don't find useful.
I would suggest all the bloggers keep doing what you do and let Food Frontiers rise or fall on its own.
sharon astyk of casauban's book has also retreated to her older, other platform blog[s] on "indefinite hiatus" in protest of the pepsico-cometh 'event'......
The pepsico blog does look like it'll be a heap of crap - but what do we have so far?
* A scienceless introductory post, with vague promises that there will be proper content soon.
* A 'moderator' who writes like a rubberstamp corporate moron, but does let some posts critical of the blog's existence through.
If Food Frontiers posts some real science, with zero corporate bullshit mixed in, it'll be a surprise, but it's not absolutely impossible.
Pepsico are quite capable of doing it - they employ real scientists and experts, who could write about their field informatively.
In short: For me, Food Frontiers is on probation until their first proper post.
I think it changes everything. Companies don't make good scientists because they will obviously put their own private interests before any sort of altruistic reverence for the truth. Besides, what game are Pepsi playing? Corporate PR masquerading as an independent science blog? Disclaimers aside, what we should be asking is WHY a profit-maximising soft drink manufacturer should feel it is in their direct interest to do something like this in the first place... Its actually pretty creepy when you think about it!