Pass the politics, please: Science blogs peppered with commentary

You normally wouldn’t think of satisfying your jones for political and cultural commentary by visiting a “science” blog.

But a small network of writers at are trying to broaden scientific discourse by editorializing about everything from gay actors playing Christian characters to the embryo-worshipping antics of one Senator Fetus Fondler, more commonly known as Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania.

“Science doesn’t get a lot of comments,” said PZ Myers, a biologist and professor who runs the popular Pharyngula blog. “No, it’s the occasional post on atheism that gets people riled up.” was launched last January by Seed Media Group, publishers of SEED magazine. Seed recruited 15 of the best known independent science bloggers, offered to compensate them based on traffic, and set them loose to blog about whatever they wanted.

The result has been an idiosyncratic glimpse at our culture through the eyes of one philosopher, one physicist, a few writers and biologists, a former Senate staffer, a computer scientist, and various and sundry academics and science-minded lay people.

“[Seed] got the idea that blogs can’t work with restrictions,” said Myers, who is known for his humorous vilification of creationists, conservatives, and anyone who traffics in blatant idiocies. “There hasn’t been a peep from the editorial desk.”

Since its inception, the network has since grown to 19 bloggers.

Science + Religion + Politics = Controversy

There’s no shortage of pure science content on ScienceBlogs — comments on the disease vector Aedes aegypti and its role in the spread of the Chikungunya arbovirus, anyone? And there are several blogs, such as Afarensis and Gene Expression, that tend to stay away from cultural and political commentary altogether.

But a brief review of recent posts on some blogs reveals titles like “Science guy harshes creationists’ mellow,” “Your morning dose of unintentional creationist humor,” and “Keep your Prayers to Yourself!”

A first-time visitor to might assume the network was a bastion of liberal-only, anti-religion commentary, where the bloggers preach to their choir. But the bloggers, for their part, say there are a few conservatives who visit every now and then.

Ed Brayton, who writes Dispatches from the Culture Wars, said that his blog gets more conservative readers than other ScienceBlog destinations.

“I am a libertarian, which essentially means that conservatives think I’m a liberal and liberals think I’m a conservative, and they’re both wrong,” he said.

Tim Lambert, who writes the Deltoid blog, said his posts about the war in Iraq, especially, incite arguments. “When you have people disagreeing with you vehemently in comments, you sure don’t feel like you are preaching to the choir,” he said.

Tara Smith, who posts to the Aetiology blog, said anything that she writes about AIDS draws a wide range of dissenters, including people who deny the disease’s existence. She said the best she can hope for is that people learn from what she’s writing, whether they agree with her or not.

The conversation and arguments the bloggers generate seem to be working. The network is garnering anywhere from one to three million page views per month, according to editor Christopher Mims, who manages the blogs from the Seed offices in Manhattan.

The Benefits of Networking

More traffic means more money for the bloggers. But while the compensation can be a useful supplement, it’s certainly not enough to make a living on.

“It paid my cable bill,” said Smith, who works full-time as an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa.

“The draw wasn’t the money,” said Brayton, who also founded Michigan Citizens for Science and the popular science forum Panda’s Thumb. “Whether I make a nickel on it I’m still going to do what I do.”

Brayton said he was attracted to the blogging network because Seed takes care of the technical details. Prior to joining ScienceBlogs, he maintained his own site and server.

Brayton was concerned, however, about the editorial policy. He spent a few days negotiating his contract to ensure he had editorial carte blanche.

Smith and Myers also had concerns about editorial control, but were assured that Seed wouldn’t interfere with their posts. Both were attracted to the idea of Seed managing the technical aspects of blogging.

Another benefit of networking: increased visibility.

“I think the collective nature of this project improves traffic,” said Brayton, who said he’s seen the number of visitors steadily climb to about 4,500 hits per day.

Lambert said his traffic has increased 50 percent since he began blogging for He ascribes that increase to the quality of all the blogs combined.

The network effects extend beyond the sites themselves. Many of the bloggers knew each other, either professionally or through blogging, before starting to write for

Long-term view

Whatever success the bloggers have had so far, they’ve managed it without a big marketing or advertising push from Seed, which has allowed word to spread via the Web. Seed has run a few house ads in the magazine, and they took advantage of an ad exchange with the journal Nature to promote the blogs.

“We’ve seen a very positive response from the advertising community,” said Michael Tive, general manager of Seed Digital Networks. “We’ve seen a willingness to understand and explore blogs as a subset of digital media.”

Seed also operates a news aggregator called and the magazine site, They sell ad space on all three sites.

Currently is running Harper Collins ads, and has run ads from other large companies, such as Subaru. Tive said the blog format attracts young, educated readers who can be a very appealing audience for advertisers.

Seed expects to hire a full-time blog editor soon, and they’re considering a redesign of the pages.

As for the bloggers, they say they plan to continue blogging at for as long as the domain is active, and as long as it doesn’t become too much like work.

They credit with helping to make science more accessible to a wider community. Blogging, they say, hasn’t penetrated the scientific community to the same degree that it has technology and politics. But blogging at professional journals and magazines, such as Nature and Scientific American, is helping to legitimize the practice among scientists.

“In the scientific community, blogging is growing. It’s still kind of a fringe activity, still associated with teenagers and not really regarded as a professional pursuit,” said Smith.

“But it’s getting attention.”

What Ben Domenech can teach newspaper.coms

What should newspaper website editors learn from’s Ben Domenech debacle?

Well, if the initial response is simply “don’t hire bloggers,” newspaper.coms will miss an enormous opportunity.

The Post deserves credit for courting readers through blogging technology more aggressively than perhaps any other U.S. newspaper. When the New York Times put its op-ed content behind a subscription wall, the Post took the opposite approach, not only soliciting links to its still-free content from bloggers, but returning the favor through linkbacks generated with technology from blog search engine Technorati. The Post has demonstrated an understanding that Web publishing ought to reflect a conversation, unlike traditional, one-way print publishing.

Newspaper.coms that are beginning that conversation shouldn’t fear bloggers dropping gigabytes of criticism their way. If bloggers are complaining, that means they’re still reading. Publishers should fear, instead, the calm silence of an apathetic Web that doesn’t read your site anymore.

Ben Domenech was a lousy hire. Not because he was a blogger, not because he was opinionated. He was a lousy hire because his history of work online revealed a dishonest, shallow writer who added bluster, rather than insight, to his pages. His shrill parting shot at the readers who exposed his plagiarism only further demonstrated his immature self-importance.

Fortunately, Ben Domenech is as representative of online writers as Janet Cooke or Jack Kelley are of newspaper reporters. But, in my experience, too many newspaper reporters and editors continue to assume that most bloggers are just partisan media critics. Such views of the blogosphere ignore the wonderful variety of blogs and independent sites online, some even published by former print and broadcast journalists.

The lure of the voice

Blogs are attracting readers in not insignificant amounts. BoingBoing serves two million readers a day, according to one of its writers. DailyKos serves hundreds of thousands of daily visitors. People want information. They want it presented in an engaging and comforting voice. And they want the writers presenting that information to believe in it.

That’s why newspaper readers love great columnists. People respond to a friendly, authoritative voice. Even Domenech’s blustery RedState delivers its “news” with uncompromising certainty. That isn’t to say that writers shouldn’t put out something they’re unsure about. But they do need to be honest and transparent about what they do — and do not — know.

Popular bloggers speak with an authoritative voice, but not a disembodied institutional voice. Good bloggers engage their readers, becoming a real person whom a reader wants to have a conversation with. And the best bloggers know their topic, and deliver and analyzing information that a generalist can’t.

Newspapers don’t need to hire partisans from the blogosphere to find such voices. Newsrooms and journalism schools have been producing them for generations. And that ought to be the lesson from the Domenech incident. The journalism industry doesn’t need more partisan blowhards. It does not need to turn publications over to right-wingers to hold on to its audience. It does need, however, to better connect with readers who are overwhelmed with media choices.

In addition to encouraging new voices that will draw and maintain readership, newspaper.coms should consider a different style of journalistic writing. Why keep making your writers turn out third-person, inverted-pyramid, “Journalism 101” articles if the public responds so well to different formats? Journalism developed its publishing conventions in large part to support the technical needs of print and broadcast media. With the Internet those needs no longer always apply.

Ultimately, we’re in the communication business, not the 15-inch-four-source-article business. Why not try new formats in an effort to better communicate? Don’t stick to the established online formats, either. The biggest winners in business are those who don’t copy the competition, but who find something new.

In search of the truth

Of course, writing format is just one of the problems here. A larger issue, one that is potentially more troublesome, is politics. Ben Domenech is a conservative, and many conservatives complain long and loud about the Washington Post. To the extent that conservatives point out errors of fact and unsupported assumptions in news coverage, their views should be heard and the subject of their complaints corrected. But if conservatives — or moderates or liberals for that matter — don’t like the outcome of truthful news reporting or well-researched and argued commentary … tough.

As someone who trained in social and lab science research long before taking a journalism course, it drives me nuts the way this industry misapplies the term “objectivity.” True scientific objectivity doesn’t mean promoting all views, no matter how poorly supported. Nor does it mean refusing to take a stand, no matter how compelling the evidence.

News readers want the truth. They always have. Indeed, with so many media choices now available, they crave someone to do the hard work of sifting through this information and to tell them what can be believed. So, instead of turning over their webpages to partisans spewing the latest talking points, newspaper website editors ought to build their audience by doing what the partisan sites will not — sharp reporting. At the same time, they ought to let their writers deliver that reporting in freshest, most engaging and conversational formats possible. Even if that ticks off readers from one party or the other.

With millions of publishers now reaching the global audience, someone’s going to deliver that kind of coverage. Newspaper publishers will have to decide whether theirs will be among the sites that succeed at that new game.

Just what is a blog, anyway?

To blog or not to blog is no longer the question.

The question now: What is a blog?

Capturing the blogging beast is no small matter, not when everybody from the lonely scribe in Paducah to me-too mass media in Manhattan is trying to get arms and minds around the virtual blob now encroaching online. Nor is the act of definition without consequences, as individuals and corporations make plans (and even multimillion dollar acquisitions) based upon the momentum behind something they can no more easily define than a Rorschach splotch.

“I don’t care,” e-mails Jeff Jarvis, the veteran print journalist and prominent blogger behind BuzzMachine. “There is no need to define ‘blog.’ I doubt there ever was such a call to define ‘newspaper’ or ‘television’ or ‘radio’ or ‘book’ — or, for that matter, ‘telephone’ or ‘instant messenger.’ A blog is merely a tool that lets you do anything from change the world to share your shopping list. People will use it however they wish. And it is way too soon in the invention of uses for this tool to limit it with a set definition. That’s why I resist even calling it a medium; it is a means of sharing information and also of interacting: It’s more about conversation than content … so far. I think it is equally tiresome and useless to argue about whether blogs are journalism, for journalism is not limited by the tool or medium or person used in the act. Blogs are whatever they want to be. Blogs are whatever we make them. Defining ‘blog’ is a fool’s errand.”

If so, what fools we mortals be.

Defining blogs is neither the first nor the last act in the ongoing attempt to understand the particulars of the latest online eruption. With apologies to Jeff Jarvis, the only other choice is ignorance. If blogs encompass everything online — if they are truly indefinable — then they won’t add up to much of anything. To glean the DNA of blogs, in contrast, is the first step toward exploiting their essence.

“When you look up blogs,” says Tiffany Shlain, founder and chairperson of the Webby Awards, “they really grew out of personal websites that were very common at the beginning of the Web. It’s not a startling new thing but deep-rooted in the Web. Go back in the history and Justin Hall had one of the first personal blogs.”

Weblogics Inc. co-founder and chief executive officer Jason Calcanis also agrees that all blogging trails lead back to Justin Hall.

“Justin Hall was really the first online blogger — his home page — there was actually a ‘Home Page’ documentary film about him in 1994-1995,” Calcanis says.

The personal website or home page, like Hall’s, morphed into the online journal known as a “Web log” — the phrase that begat “blog.” The origin of the word blog is just about the only thing that bloggers new and old can agree upon these days.

“The definition of a blog is a changing,” says Howard Kaushansky, chief executive officer at Umbria Communications, a blogging market research firm in Boulder, Colo. “Originally a blog was defined by the service you used or the host or by the tool you used to create the posting. So if you used [hosts] LiveJournal or Blogger, that was a blog. If you used Moveable Type [software], that was a blog. The reason the definition is changing is that these tools have made it so easy that there are companies who use a blog rather than a website. … So it’s a little bit more challenging today to define a blog.”

Working Definitions

“I can define them for you very easily,” Jason Calcanis says. “There are three main features of a blog: the first is reverse chronological order, the second is unfiltered content — the second somebody filters or edits the author it’s no longer a blog — and the third is comments.” Calcanis’s insistence on a precise definition puts him clearly in a minority of blogging experts who mostly admit they can’t or won’t define exactly what constitutes a blog.

Calcanis might add a fourth condition: hypertext links to the world outside the blog. Not long ago, he wrote disparagingly on his blog of CNET for neglecting links.

“Recently,” Calcanis wrote, “CNET started a blog which was simply their bloggers linking to their own reviews! Hello!??!!? The idea of blogs is to LINK OUT to good things on the Internet. …”

Tthe tendency of bloggers to excerpt chunks of attributed text, sometimes at length, from other sources, could be a fifth defining characteristic of blogs.

A final identifying attribute of the blog might be the flip, informal, ironic tone so common to bloggers, perhaps best exemplified by Wonkette’s Ana Marie Cox on her personal blog: “I am the editor of Wonkette, a guide to DC politics and culture, sort of.”

But there are also blogs that eschew attitude and embrace journalism, like L.A. Observed, the site maintained by Kevin Roderick, a writer and editor at the Los Angeles Times for two decades. “I’m happy for L.A. Observed to be called a blog, a website, a news site, a web publication — anything you like,” Roderick writes on his site.

Roderick has a personal explanation for his lack of attitude: “Unlike many of my favorite bloggers,” he says on the site. “I don’t write L.A. Observed intending to persuade or to provoke discussion. If that’s what you get out of it, fine. It’s just not my concern. If the readers I am aiming for believe L.A. Observed to be informative and useful, and it appears that they do, I’m satisfied.”

Terms Of Engagement

So the elements that define blogs — reverse chronology, unfiltered content, comments, links, an informal attitude, and appropriated text — are not exactly rocket science. Even so, organizations that track, poll and praise bloggers for a living have a hard time defining a blog.

“We don’t have an official definition,” says a spokesperson for Technorati, the blog tracking service. “It’s something that’s created with blog software. I don’t know how to answer that question. We don’t get that question.”

The uncertainty extends further to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. In ongoing research, the project reports that 6 percent of the U.S. adult population (including Internet users and non-users) has created blogs. “That’s one out of every 20 people,” states a project press release. “And 16 percent of all U.S. adults (or one in six people) are blog readers.”

Bloggers might think that kind of data would require Pew to have a crisp definition. Think again.

“The Pew actually allows respondents to decide themselves,” says Pew project director Lee Rainie on the fine art of defining a blog. “I would say absolutely we’re dealing with a term that is not particularly well-defined because blogging is a platform. Blogs can be so many different things to so many different people. The definition needs to be more about structure than content.”

Jonathan Carson of BuzzMetrics, meanwhile, likes to point out on his blog that according to the latest data from Nielsen//NetRatings, almost two-thirds of blog readers don’t even realize they are reading a blog. And the fuzzy logic behind most blog definitions creates additional headaches even for those inarguably in the know.

In summer 2005,’s “Best of The Web” gave their blessing to blogs in 20 categories. One of its top political sites was writer Andrew Sullivan’s The site has many blogging characteristics — including reverse chronological order and from-the-hip attitude — but lacks the comments or instantaneous feedback features that Calcanis considers critical to a true blog.

The Drudge Report — not named one of the best by — is perhaps the best example of blogging’s lawless, malleable maw. Considered by many to be a top political blog, the Drudge Report is really nothing more than a set of links with attitude. There’s the occasional “developing” story on the site, presumably unfiltered, but no comments feature at all.

Pictures Tell The Story

As bloggers turn to multiple media — audio, video, photos, Flash — these interactive elements further tweak the definition of “blog.”

Lane Hickenbottom of the Sheridan Press in Wyoming, for example, has been posting photos to a photographic journal called VIEW since March 2002. The pictures are often breathtaking, but textual postings and comments are not at the heart of the site.

Four journalists at the Knoxville News Sentinel have extended the idea to video with Random This. The site defines itself as “a place where we post short movies that reflect our lives and our experiences in East Tennessee. So you’ll find a range of video (updated weekly!), that explores the curios and quirks we see in our lives and surroundings.” Web producers use digital video cameras to shoot then post short movies on their “vlog.” One short showed a producer learning to fire a gun at shooting range. And the site actively encourages viewers to submit their own videos.

Journaling Journalists

Defining “blog” can be especially daunting for a working journalist.

“We’re trying to … come up with a definition, a concept, a philosophy of how we want to do it and the best way to do it,” says Chicago Tribune online editor Ben Estes. “I can’t give you a definition because we’re still figuring it out.”

Consider the split-personality experience of staff writer Robert MacMillan on Random Access.

“I really like reading your blog,” a reader recently wrote to me.

There must be some mistake, I thought. Random Access is a column.

Well, a column or blog is in the eye of the reader. I’ve gotten plenty of praise and scorn for things I’ve written about in this space, but the name for this daily publication tends to vary depending on who’s writing. I have a blog, a column, a daily article, a story. …

To me it’s all the same. Some days this column comments on news that shows up in other publications. On others, all the reporting is my own. Sometimes, like today, I dispense with the reporting and just ramble.

Chicago Tribune columnist and blogger Eric Zorn has been pumping out his blog for two years, long enough to make him downright grizzled in a blogosphere that journalists in general are only beginning to grok.

“I look at it as a hybrid medium somewhere between broadcast and print,” Zorn says. “It strives for the immediacy of broadcast, with the elegance and accessibility of print. It’s very difficult for print people to get their minds around the idea of something with high standards but not as high as print. It’s OK to put something up on the Web with a typo — and that’s not nearly the disaster if you do in print because you can go back and change it. Blogs also allow closer to real-time information commentary. There’s a debate going on out there about whether it’s a new medium or the old medium repackaged. At some point, all forms of communication come from the same stump in the ground.”

Print journalists have a particular problem with blogging: the loss of control — embodied in multiple editing layers — at the heart of serious journalism. So some journalists have moved cautiously in opening their blogs to unfiltered commentary. After two years of blogging, Zorn just began taking comments that he checks before they go online.

The “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” goes behind-the-scenes with its The Daily Nightly blog, but eschews posts from the public entirely — there is no comment function.

In contrast, the editorial board at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., founded its Ask the Editors blog specifically with the intent to “answer readers’ questions about The Spokesman-Review’s editorial decisions and operations.” E-mailed reader comments and editors’ answers comprise the blog, in a Q-and-A format.

Then some sites, like Free Republic are specifically devoted to comments and dedicated not to any individual blogger but to the proliferation of politcal philosophy. “Free Republic is the premier online gathering place for independent, grass-roots conservatism on the web,” according to the blog.

Beat Blogs

Blogs will continue to morph as the ease and immediacy of blogging tools all but eradicate the barrier to entry. Corporate blogs are legion now, and marketers have realized blogging is becoming a power tool. There are companies like Weblogics Inc. and Gawker Media that are gathering variegated blogs together under one roof, the better to create critical mass and to attract advertisers.

But the heart and soul of blogging is the individual and/or the group of individuals opining on the fly and responding post-haste to one and all. In what might be the most lasting permutation for journalists, that focus has thrown blogging into beat coverage by an individual, a pair, or a team of reporters.

On, part of, the Austin American-Statesman Bevo Beat is devoted to “news and notes on all things burnt orange from our [University of Texas] Longhorn beat writers.” The St. Petersburg Times puts food coverage under the Stir Crazy blog written by food editor Janet K. Keeler and Times restaurant critic Chris Sherman. In the United Kingdom, Guardian Unlimited is focusing coverage around beat blogs as well.

The Image of Blogs

Because of the level of activity and creativity, the negative image of blogging in the mainstream media seems to be fading away as blogging becomes more popular.

“It’s definitely shifted,” says Bruce Koon, Knight-Ridder Digital’s executive news editor, about the negative image of blogs in newsrooms.

“There was skepticism at first. I approached my editor and editor in chief because they weren’t really up on it,” says the Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn. “This was two and a half years ago. They wanted to know what blogs were and how I could use them. They had to be convinced.”

Now, Zorn says, “I don’t hear negativity from colleagues.”

Tribune editor Estes is intrigued by the intersection of blogging and journalism — how each one can make the other one better under the right circumstances.

“One of the things we took a look at was what happened on the day of London bombings,” Estes says. “How organizations responded with blogging — with readers on the Underground submitting their photos, constantly updating that event. I’ve heard that in the same way [the terrorist attacks of] 9/11 solidified Web news coverage, that did the same thing for blogging — it really showed the promise of what you can do when you do it right. You have to figure out how to explore all the angles, and let your readers help you cover your own event, even when your own journalists are also covering the event.”

Lex Alexander, the citizen journalist coordinator at The News-Record in Greensboro, N.C., sees the melding of newsroom and community as having a profound long-term effect on both.

“We’re transforming from the traditional newspaper with an online component to a more cooperative newsgathering partnership between professionals on our staff and members of our community,” says Alexander. “Blogs are an important tool but part of a larger mission. … I think in the big picture, when the framers of the Constitution put in freedom of the press, blogs was what they had in mind. They understood freedom of the press not so much as a literal press but as a means of communication. Freedom of speech is the freedom to convey ideas by other means. Blogs are an individualized mechanism to do that.”

Jeff Jarvis illustrates his BuzzMachine blog with a mammoth newspaper printing press. Even in blogging, a picture is worth a thousand words.