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.”

Syndicate this! Linking old media to new

Blogs and newspapers have been getting cozy of late. The successful journaling experiments at dailies like the Greensboro News & Record and the Houston Chronicle, along with the launch of the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, are just a few examples that speak to the increasingly important role blogs play in newspapers’ coverage. Even the staid New York Times launched several blogs last year.

But perhaps the biggest sign that the turf battle between bloggers and journalists may be drawing to a close is the upcoming launch of a blog syndication network that will help newspapers republish existing blog content on their websites.

“I like to call it the AP newswire for blogs,” said Dave Panos, the CEO of Pluck, who quietly debuted the network, called BlogBurst, at a party in Silicon Valley last month.

Several large newspapers, including The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, have signed up as “lighthouse partners” in the network. Syndicated blogs will begin appearing on those papers’ sites in the next few weeks.

While blogs have previously networked together to achieve greater exposure — Pajamas Media being one obvious example — BlogBurst is apparently the first network that was created specifically to syndicate blogs directly to newspapers.

“You have a lot of great bloggers out there, and a lot of time they blog about a subject you may not be as strong on on your own site,” said Jim Brady, executive editor of, adding that the paper was interested in supplementing sections like food and travel. “We just thought we’d get on the front lines and see if it’s something that would work long term for us.”

Newspapers are only testing BlogBurst right now. But in theory, the service will work like this: Pluck signs bloggers to BlogBurst and examines each blog to see if the blog’s content and quality are appropriate for syndication. A list of approved bloggers is then made available to newspapers through an online interface, and editors can pick and choose which blogs they want to syndicate, and for how long.

The blog content will appear on the paper’s site, but will be embedded with the site’s look and feel. Ostensibly, newspapers will benefit by supplementing their coverage, and bloggers will profit from increased exposure. Pluck plans to eventually share a percentage of ad revenue with the bloggers.

“Historically, blogs have been very tech and very political,” said Panos, “But mainstream media’s interest is much broader — food, wine, travel, for example. BlogBurst will help them tap into that feature level content around the Web.”

Follow the money

Newspapers are also attracted to BlogBurst for the advertising revenue the blogs could generate.

“If we’re selling plenty of travel advertising but don’t have the page views to actually serve it all, then it might be a good idea to syndicate a really good set of travel blogs,” said The Washington Post’s Brady, by way of example.

Brady may be understating the situation. By most accounts, companies are lined up to advertise online like planes waiting to land at O’Hare.

Revenue for the online ad business was only about $12.5 billion in 2005, or around 15 percent of what was spent on print, but it’s expected to grow by about 30 percent in 2006 and reach $55 billion by 2010, according to analyst firm Piper Jaffray.

But directly increasing ad inventory by publishing more pages isn’t the papers’ only goal. If a newspaper can spark a conversation on its site by using syndicated blogs, it may be able to increase its traffic, and thus its ad impressions.

“Blog content is significantly better than message board content,” said Jim Debth, general manager of “Just the level of discourse is so much better. We expect the blogs [we syndicate with BlogBurst] to be very engaging. We hope readers will come back again and again.”

Seeders of clouds

Newspapers have been striving to engage their audience online for several years now. In syndicating blogs, newspapers are borrowing a page from the blogosphere’s playbook: Start conversations and build communities.

That goal was most recently iterated by Reuter’s CEO Tom Glocer in a speech to the Online Publisher’s Association last month. Glocer said media companies must be “seeders of clouds” by starting conversations and embracing responses by both traditional journalists and bloggers.

By inviting that community inside the tent of its brand, a newspaper could tap audiences and voices beyond its general readership, increasing its visibility and relevance to the blogosphere.

“If the [newspapers are] managing a bunch of syndicated blogs then there’s ultimately going to be a relationship between the papers and those bloggers,” said Jim Kennedy, director of strategic planning for the Associated Press. “That’s a good thing.”

But do newspapers need to rely on a vendor to help them build relationships with bloggers? Why can’t publishers hire an editor to pull in the best and most relevant content from the blogosphere, which is already easily and freely available through RSS feeds?

The answer is less one of ability than editorial control. Newspapers need to pre-approve content for fear of diluting their brand. BlogBurst provides the first filter in that approval process.

“It’s a newspaper’s job to add editorial value,” said Barry Parr, a media analyst with JupiterResearch. “It looks like BlogBurst will give them a level of control they didn’t have before.”

Can a stodgy old newspaper reciprocate, adding value to the blogosphere? Well, if numbers from a recent Gallup poll are any indication, the answer is yes.

According to Gallup, only one in five Americans, or about 40 million of us, read blogs. By comparison, more than 55 million people visited newspaper websites in November of 2005 alone, according to a Nielsen//NetRatings analysis conducted for the Newspaper Association of America.

BlogBurst won’t reach nearly that many people, at least not at first. But NYU journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen says that the syndication network is a first step in helping mainstream media readers understand and navigate the immense variety of blogs.

“It’s part of a bigger thing which is the rationalizing of the blogging system, which started out as no system at all,” he said.

Meet the new media, same as the old media

As bloggers become more acquainted with syndication, it should be interesting to see whether and how blogging habits change to accommodate newspapers’ publishing schedules and content interests.

There is a danger that syndication could change content expectations on both sides of the newspaper/blogger divide.

Clive Thompson noted in a recent New York Magazine article, “Blogs to Riches,” blogs are already becoming increasingly similar to traditional publications.

As for newspapers’ role in the relationship, said Rosen, “If it starts to become ‘blog this way because this is what we need from you,’ then I think it won’t be effective.”

Newspapers, meanwhile, will doubtless be wary of diluting their own voices by becoming effectively just another news aggregator in a media landscape populated by the same. Sites such as, and Tinfinger already have a head start, drawing over $45 million in funding in the last two years, according to VentureOne.

Regardless, experimenting with blog syndication is a good way for newspapers to learn more about the vicissitudes of the blogosphere. At the very least, they’ll be broadening the dialogue with bloggers everywhere.

“We’ve been talking to publishers for the last 15 months, and there’s been a relative sea change in how pervasive the mainstream media interest in blogging is,” said Pluck’s Panos. “They’re all going to adopt the format, the only question is when and how.”

Journalism 2.1? A new site tweaks the grassroots formula

Last October I traveled to the Argent Hotel in San Francisco to cover the Web 2.0 conference. As I was jotting down some notes between sessions, a bearded gentleman approached me and asked what I was doing. When I told him, he laughed and said, “You’re a reporter? Don’t you know you’re out of a job, bitch?”

My interlocutor meant to not-so-kindly imply that citizen media was ascendant, and traditional journalism nearly extinct. AOL had just purchased Weblogs Inc. User-edited site was becoming more popular every day. Online news cynosure Dan Gillmor was experimenting with the Bayosphere in San Francisco. All signs pointed to a future where reporters were marginalized by community-edited news sites, blogs and aggregation services.

Of course, this exchange happened at the Web 2.0 conference. But every reporter has heard the bugaboo about the post-scarcity, citizen-driven, small-is-the-new-big future of journalism. It’s a scary proposition, and as the mainstream media watches its revenue shrink year after year, it’s a future that looms increasingly large and real.

But despite all the recent hum and chuff about Web 2.0, there has been surprisingly little progress in “journalism 2.0.”

In the last few months, we’ve seen that pure citizen media projects aren’t panning out as proponents thought they would. Bayosphere is closing up shop. is struggling. The sites have little focus, and they’re completely dependent on the whimsy of their contributors.

Meanwhile, news aggregators are coming on strong. Sites like Digg, Tailrank, and reddit have received quite a lot of buzz. But while these sites are great for providing context for a larger story, they’re still purely reactive. They can’t pursue a story or break their own news.

Don’t look to mainstream media to correct these imblances. As Jay Rosen consistently points out, the traditional bastions of good journalism are actually withdrawing from competition online.

A potentially winning combination

Of all the startups entering the news marketplace in the last year, I’ve only seen one that could be a viable platform for online journalism.

Newsvine is a Seattle-based company started by former Disney and ESPN staffers. Their site launched an invitation-only preview beta in January. The site publishes news feeds from the Associated Press and ESPN, and then gives users the ability to comment on those stories, publish their own stories, write their own blog, and vote which articles should receive the most attention. (You can find a detailed overview of the site’s features on

By combining hard news with citizen opinion in a single site, Newsvine has built a powerful call-and-response mechanism that couples the culling power of news aggregators with the empowerment of citizen media. Each type of content provides a check against the excesses or omissions of the other. That focus on daily news then provides the clear organization and compelling presentation that can spur readers to involvement.’s international scope may also allow it to circumvent the traffic trap of hyperlocal coverage. Most experiments in online “news” focus on a specific region, or specific constituencies (memeorandum for tech and politics, for would-be writer). includes all the news.

The site is constructed so that users can create or read local coverage at, say, But they can also read and contribute in other regions as well. Navigating the regions, you get the sense that you’re using the journalist’s version of (Albeit with better design and much more personality.)

Finally, there’s’s carrot to users: Every contributor gets a share of the ad revenue generated on their pages. The more popular your contributions, the more money you’re likely to make.

Promising, but will it work?

The ad revenue sharing plan is a big part of Newsvine’s value proposition and speaks to the biggest hurdle the site will face: attracting a critical mass of passionate users.

Right now, the site is sparsely populated by a group of early adopters. (Traffic on beta launch day did exceed 100,000 page views, which is remarkable.) Getting user attention in the fragmented media marketplace will be difficult at best, as a recent report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York shows (to cite one example among hundreds).

Despite its beautiful design and robust features, doesn’t offer any features that a dedicated Web user couldn’t find distributed elsewhere on the Web. Bloggers can already share ad revenue using Google AdSense on their own sites, and they can comment on the news on their own blogs.

Even if Newsvine manages to attract enough users, they still need to attract those who will make positive contributions. As Dan Gillmor noted recently, participants need incentives. Otherwise, they’ll visit, read, and leave.

It’s not enough, on the Web, to offer a clean, well-lit place to read the news. If Newsvine is to be a successful news organization — not just a technology company — then they will need to invest in columnists, editors, and personalities. And they’ll need to tend their garden of contributors very, very closely


When I use Newsvine, I imagine what it would be like if or adopted this approach to news — an approach that sacrificed none of the legitimacy of traditional journalism while adding value from a diverse and interested public.

Mainstream media can’t compete with interactive media by deploying a few small blogs and setting up comment sections. Those are capitulations, not innovations. Likewise, interactive media can’t compete with journalism simply by adding RSS widgets and scraping news sites for headlines. Those are traffic-generating tools, not community-building tools.

Newsvine is in the sweet spot. The site’s conceit is worth paying attention to. By combining professional journalism with inspired citizen comments and blogs, Newsvine has the potential to keep the spirit of socially responsible journalism alive on the Web. That spirit is conversation.