ScienceBlogs has made a distressing move: they've given PepsiCo a blog. It's called Food Frontiers and will feature content written by PepsiCo scientists. For now, I'm not going to get into PepsiCo's contribution to public health problems or what kind of content we might expect to see on the blog. Instead, I want to focus on how ScienceBlogs works and what readers expect and are entitled to.
ScienceBlogs, a venture of Seed Media Group, is a business. It looks for bloggers who are writing interesting science-related content and offers them a spot as part of the ScienceBlogs community. Bloggers get modest payments based on traffic; I've heard from some bloggers that they make enough to pay for their internet connections, but it's unlikely that the income will let anyone quit a day job. Celeste and I give our payments to our department at GW; the benefit to us is a wider audience for our writing and the chance to be part of the SB community. In addition to blogger payments, ScienceBlogs pays for the site infrastructure, hosting, and tech support and has a small staff that's responsible for the home page, special projects like the Book Club, and overall management. While we get plenty of support from ScienceBlogs, they have no say in any blog's content - bloggers have complete editorial freedom.
In order to do all this, ScienceBlogs needs revenue, which they get by selling advertising space. I was a reader of ScienceBlogs long before I was a blogger here, and while I might have disliked some of the ads, I never had any difficulty distinguishing between blog content and advertising. Similarly, I subscribe to print magazines, and I can easily flip past the advertising "articles" about a tourist destination because they're clearly labeled as such.
I appreciate that pretty much all online businesses are struggling to find workable revenue models, and that the recession is making it even harder for advertising-dependent media outlets to survive. It's not surprising that ScienceBlogs is looking for an innovative product to offer advertisers. But for them to blur the line between advertising and blog content is going too far.
ScienceBlog readers have developed certain expectations about what they'll find on the blogs hosted here. As an SB reader, I like the fact that ScienceBlogs has selected 80+ blogs "based on their originality, insight, talent, and dedication" - so, I can come to one place for interesting science content instead of wading through the 450+ blogs in the Technorati Science category, which are probably of uneven quality. I also like knowing that bloggers are writing about things that interest them - they're not doing it for the paycheck, and in a lot of cases the things they blog about don't even relate directly to their day jobs.
In short, readers have come to trust ScienceBlogs to provide a certain kind of content. By giving PepsiCo a blog in exchange for money, ScienceBlogs has violated that trust. Someone seeing a Food Frontiers post in her RSS feed or on the ScienceBlogs home page has no indication that it's not just like all the other blogs - and even someone clicking through to the blog itself could miss the fact that it's a PepsiCo blog if he jumps right into reading the post before examining the masthead and sidebar.
If ScienceBlogs decides to continue this advertising relationship with PepsiCo, they need to make it much clearer that Food Frontiers falls on the advertising side of the line, not on the content side. The blog's name should make it clear that it's a PepsiCo blog (e.g., PepsiCo's Food Frontiers) and the blog itself should be visually distinctive enough that no one would confuse it with other ScienceBlogs. It shouldn't be in the same channels (Life Sciences, Environment, Medicine & Health, etc.) and feeds as the rest of the blogs. Readers should be able to easily distinguish advertising content and ignore it if that's what they prefer to do.
UPDATE, 7/7: As I was finishing this post, I got an email from someone at Seed Media Group stating that changes to make it clear which blogs are sponsored and give readers the choice to read them or not.
UPDATE, 7/8: ScienceBlogs has removed Food Frontiers.
We can hope that the science at PepsiCo gets to come out on their blog. We can hope that their association with this wonderful collection of bloggers will lead their scientists, and their company, to better action, to greater public service.
But, yeah, it's troubling absent a great showing of high ethics coupled with good science, that we haven't seen yet.
In the meantime, will you guys keep doing what you do, please?
I'm very happy for ScienceBlogs to sell advertising - they have to make a living.
I'm very happy for ScienceBlogs to sell advertising to PepsiCo.
What makes me unhappy is ScienceBlogs giving PepsiCo carte blanche advertorial space which is what they've done. I think it's pretty obvious from comments elsewhere on the web that ScienceBlogs have effectively killed their 'brand' in a move that can only have been driven by short-sighted greed.
They've taken the blog down - it seems they realized pretty quickly that they made a big mistake. It's a shame none of those involved in setting up the deal realized that it would be such a blow to ScienceBlogs' reputation. They probably could've figured that out if they'd let bloggers know ahead of time.