Science Journalists Have Met The Enemy, And They Are Bloggers
    By Hank Campbell | February 21st 2010 12:24 PM | 31 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

    View Hank's Profile
    Attending the AAAS symposia on "Facing the Uncertain Future of International Science Journalism" I was stunned by something:   I am the most hated guy in every room I walk into.

    Donald KennedyPresident Emeritus of Stanford University and Editor-In-Chief of Science magazine, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) whose annual conference I am attending, was saying something a lot of people there were thinking - the Internet has given readers a sense of entitlement that everything has to be free and in a 'you get what you pay for' world, what people were getting was lousy work.

    Science media has gone from 'journals of verification' to 'journals of announcement'; by that he meant bloggers are just talking about the latest press releases rather than digging into substance.

    I'm going to dispute that shortly, and you are probably already doing that mentally despite the fact that you are not capable of critical thought and simply rehash what you found in a press release.

    First, I want to note obvious facts; science readership is up.  A lot.  Comscore surveys - and they are the authority in a 'you get what you pay for' world that old media likes, since they charge $50,000 per year - says the science readership is now 65 million people in the U.S. alone.  That's over 20% of America, even if we include children too young to read and the elderly without access to bloggers at all.  Yet science journalism jobs are down and budgets are being cut.

    The refrain is that evil corporations do not care about anything other than the bottom line.  I hope that is all they care about.   Media exists for readers and not to be self-serving platforms to keep people employed.   The plain fact is journalists lost the trust of the public.

    Pallab Ghosh of BBC News in London, who certainly knows old media, says he saw the cracks in the walls 7 or 8 years ago regarding climate change.   Climate scientists and journalists, who until that time had stayed fairly moderate in their zeal discussing and reporting on the issue, suddenly started responding to claims that Exxon was funding debunkers to go to conferences and talks and instill doubt, and adapted a mentality of 'we must get something done now' and the tone began to change.

    Pallab Ghosh BBC News
    Pallab Ghosh, BBC News.  "Ask the awkward questions."

    Today who is treated with the most skepticism by the general public?  Science journalists and climate scientists.  Even Big Pharmacy marketing departments who have found a golden egg in the vaccine industry have more trust among the public.

    Ghosh went on to say something that I know resonated with everyone in the room.  Journalists, he said, "do not defend science.  Ask the awkward questions."

    So Ghosh does not blame bloggers for the demise of science journalism, he seeks to get them back on the right path and once again become the "trusted guides" they once were regarding complex climate issues.

    With him on the panel was Mariette DiChristina of "Scientific American", who nodded at all the right places while he spoke, yet does not seem to realize that her magazine is a culprit along with the rest of them.   "Scientific American" is not a trusted guide, it is more like a tour guide in Istanbul who takes you on a tour that will always end at his brother's carpet store.   And with that decrease in credibility has come a decrease in readership and jobs while a magazine like "The Scientist" still has high regard among scientists and casual science readers alike.

    Kennedy had the most vitriol.  He did not dislike all blogs, he said, he read blogs on environmental policy and politics - in other words, he was willing to settle for opinion and lack of expertise on matters outside the science field - he just couldn't find a single one in science worth a darn.   Only large newspapers and high end journals deserve to survive.

    Yet when a stealth creationist paper using mitochrondria appeared in Proteomics, the peer reviewers missed it and so did science journalists.  It fell to bloggers to note first that not only was it a stealth creationist paper, it was almost entirely plagiarized.

    Jim Cornell, head of the International Science Writers Association and with a lineage in science media too long to recount here, noted that the Himalayan "Glaciergate" was not broken by old media western journalists at all, it was by a young new media journalist in India who was aghast that claims that had been published as fact by the media worldwide were actually just speculation by a student.

    Old Western media, at least when it comes to climate change, had lost the ability to "ask the awkward questions".  Bloggers have mostly taken that back for science.  Not in all cases.  I shared a beer with Bora Zivkovic, writer of Seed Media's Blog Around The Clock and community manager for PLoS One, and he mentioned that Scientific Blogging was 'unreliable' to him(1) because one casual blogger one time had written an article disputing the global warming CO2 dogma (2003 NASA Study: Soot fall in Arctic has 25 percent global warming impact), in that instance by saying soot was not getting enough respect because there was an irrational zeal about focusing on CO2 and a cottage industry in mitigating it.  In hindsight, the soot fellow was at least partially right and soot has gotten a lot more studies and credibility since, but we had a guy unafraid to 'ask the awkward questions' yet 1 article out of 50,000 made the site 'unreliable' to a science blogger who complains about that same treatment by old media, right after he complained that old media critics took the entire volume of the blogosphere and compared it only to the BBC and the NY Times so they used an unfair metric.

    So keep on asking the awkward questions, even if you turn out to be wrong.   If you write something controversial and the left wing or the right wing bloggers don't like it, it makes no difference at all.  I didn't agree with the slant of the soot blogger but I defended his right to take a stand and make the data prove him wrong.   Climate science is not a sacred cow, nor is string theory or dark matter or the selfish gene or anything else.

    We owe it to readers to try and slaughter sacred cows with awkward questions, because I have seen the future of science journalism - and they are us.


    (1) We have to give him a bit of a break, Evil Empire competitor bent on science blogging universal domination or not.  While his english is flawless and he is a master communicator, he may have meant 'unreliable at one time' rather than consistently.  But he is a also a forthright, pull-no-punches guy and, sharing a beer and wonderful conversation or not, he may still mean it today.   How he found that one article out of 50,000 is a mystery.  I had a hard time finding what he was talking about hours later and I have read nearly every article on this site.


    Excellent commentary, Hank.
    Don't you do your fact checking?

    Bora monitors the entire internet.

    That may have been true in 2008 but it can't be true now.  He was on a panel this morning talking about new ways for scientists to communicate outside newspapers and journals and he mentioned his blog (on Scienceblogs, owned by Seed Media, which pays him) (owned by Seed Media, which pays him) and PLoS (which pays him) but did not even seem to know we exist, despite the fact that we are the only site that anyone in that audience, regardless of popularity, can just sign up and write good science on.

    Maybe the Internet just got too big for him to watch it all?
    Maybe the Internet just got too big for him to watch it all?

    And we are all grateful that it did, if that's the case!
    So Ghosh does not blame bloggers for the demise of science journalism,

    Hem, sorry, but NOBODY blame bloggers for the demise of science journalism. Science journalism has enough of sins for himself, and mainstream medias had enough long-term problems (newspapers were losing readers long before Internet) without blaming bloggers.

    I recommend this highly related article: Adapting to the new ecosystem of science journalism.

    My highlights:
    "As a species, science journalists [...] have found themselves thrust into a new digital ecosystem that presents fresh challenges to their survival. [...] Seeking 'balance' by presenting opposing quotes regardless of the actual balance of evidence is particularly inexcusable online. [...] While the internet gives informed specialists a voice, it also simultaneously magnifies the presence of the worst kind of journalism - the cutting and pasting of unchecked and unevaluated material."

    What I never hear about in this discussion is co-existence. I see exert blogging by scientists and science journalism by trained reporters as two different, complementary things.  I'm willing to pay money to read a good science magazine like SciAm. There is a difference between lengthy, extensively edited feature pieces in a magazine, or the better pieces in a big paper science section, and the spontaneous commentary that blogging scientists write. They can co-exist.
    This Friday Ira Flatow broadcast Science Friday live from the AAAS meeting. One of the science journalists on the panel made an excellent point about online science reporting and blogging: you don't succeed in the same way that a big print newspaper or magazine succeeds. Critical to online success is having a good community, repeat readers who interact with writers and each other. 

    More so than with print publications, online readers can choose to read only things that reinforce their tightly held beliefs. If you want your science writing to be read by some people who might not otherwise follow science very closely, you need to build a strong but welcoming, not cliquish community. That's how your reputation spreads, how you draw in new readers, and to some degree, how you can maintain quality. Newspapers and magazines operate in a very hierarchical way (which is part of their selling point - they have editors to supposedly ensure quality). Online it's different, unless you're as big as the NYT or the WSJ. You need a good community.

    Those who rant against the unreliability or the alleged extremism of the blogosphere seem to just page through the online scene as if it were a magazine. They don't see how the best communities function to promote good science.
    What I never hear about in this discussion is co-existence. 
    That's a good point.  'You are with us or against us' talk was started by old media, along with the doomsday scenarios about brain rot, but once that happened over a period of time bloggers started to be defensive and react back.

    It is true bloggers do not have the same success yet that print has but that journalist was doing what old media often does - compare hundreds of years of history to 10 years of blogging and declare they are better. Well, of course they are in that light.    It's like being in 1947 and having the radio industry tell other nervous people they will not get the same audience in television.
    More so than with print publications, online readers can choose to read only things that reinforce their tightly held beliefs. 
    Ummmm, as among the most middle-of-the-spectrum guys on this site, I have to note that people who read the NY Times are only reading things that reinforce their tightly held beliefs.  It is not as extreme as Rush Limbaugh or things that are obviously entertainment and not journalism but the NY Times has a market and they cater to it.   

    I have to note that people who read the NY Times are only reading things that reinforce their tightly held beliefs

    No, that's not true, unless you're only talking about the opinion section, and even there you have David Brooks and Ross Douhat. You don't have to look hard to find liberals who think that the NY Times gives too much air time to the conservative viewpoint.

    And that's my point: you find more breadth in the NYT, the WSJ, Newsweek, US News, USA Today, than you do in more tightly focused online political communities. Compare the NYT to Talking Points Memo, and it's easy to see the difference.
    The generally unifying concept among all those purporting to give advice about science communication (which is what we are really talking about) is that "you" should do it "my" way.

    If biodiversity is so great, shouldn't "communicodiversity" also be good?
    Nice one, Josh.
    NYT to go behind a paywall and will (or possibly not) include their bloggers. Would you pay to read an NYT blog? No microcharging here, just one flat rate per subscriber. NYT also currently seem confused as to how many free pages the outsiders can read per day and what counts as free. The WSJ and FT are subscriber based but corporations and the wealthy keep those numbers up, but the NYT? This also means the NYT science section will also go behind the paywall. Good news or not?
    One of the things Kennedy said was that people were sold a bill of goods that everything had to be free - but that was a political/cultural mantra.  The WSJ has never been free and the NYT is and what they discovered is the people most likely to read them were happy to let it be free because it met their selfish interests and there was assumed to be a secret revenue plan that made it okay.

    We have had people object to writing here because we carry an ad.   Somehow the science is less pure if there is an ad that pays for the servers and the writers, I suppose.   But the researchers objecting to the ad were 100% - literally - being paid by either the larges of wealthy industrialists who were funding private research or using government tax dollars and they would use tools owned by Google, like Blogspot, because they appear to be 'free'.  Those are the kinds of people who read the NY Times in the last decade and the ones who will object loudest when it becomes paid again.
    If the NYT goes behind a paywall it will never again get cited by this blogger.

    The paywall experiment has been tried and it has failed: : Paywall Ain't Working.
      Ah well!  If at first an experiment doesn't work, keep trying until it does.  After all, that's what politicians do with economic theories.  D'oh!
    I would pay, and I did back when they had Times Select. I'll pay for good feature articles, book reviews, columnists, science reporting.  The big guys, like the NYT, WSJ, FT, The Economist can charge because they offer enough good content that people are willing to pay for. Smaller local papers probably can't pull it off. I'm willing to pay for the kind of  good content that can come out of an editorial process, and one that involves trained, full-time journalists. That kind of content costs more money to produce than blogging, and I'm willing to pay if the quality is good.
    Amateur Astronomer
    You can follow the advertisers to find journalism that is worth the time it takes to read it. I buy journals, but less than in the past. Many fell out from lack of circulation and advertisements, leading to high price and low quality. Sometimes I buy reprints of articles, but that is also decreasing. An article with original research and tables of new scientific data is sometimes worth buying. Ideas, theories, and a bit of mathematics alone are not enough to justify purchasing much of published science writing. The writer's market is changing and journalism will have to compete whether or not it likes the competition. Advertisers know where the value is.
    First of all, I have to say that it was great to finally meet you in Real Life, Hank, and especially to share a beer (or two) with you and chat with you longer than just a minute or two.

    I read this post on iPhone, which makes it difficult to respond (I am not much of a texter on mobile devices), so I waited to get home to respond.

    It is quite interesting what you say about never getting mentions - including by myself during the AAAS session when I easily trotted out, Nature Network blogs, Discover blogs, etc. Which made me wonder - why are you guys never mentioned in these kinds of contexts? I did not omit you because I don't know about the network - I've been following you for, what, three years now? It's not because I wanted to intentionally diss you. It's not because I hate you. Just because you had a couple of GW-denialist posts and a couple of sexist posts on the network three years ago does not mean that you do not have many great bloggers here writing posts of high quality. Yes, those posts made a negative perception of the network early on, when you were very new, and it is possibly the only thing some people remember.

    I did not mention you because I forgot. And I forgot, because your network is never mentioned by anyone in these contexts. And that may be due to you not having a large media company behind you, one with a PR department. Nature Network has Nature promoting it. Discover blogs have Discover promoting them. are promoted by Seed Media Group and, since very recently, also by National Geographic. There is a nice love/hate relationship or rivalry between NN and Sb which tends to drive new eyes to both network. We all tend to like Discover blogs. But nobody remembers you exist.

    So, if there is no powerful media entity to promote you, the only thing left for you is shameless self-promotion. Perhaps you don't do enough of it. How active are you (Hank) and other bloggers here on Twitter? How many aggregate their posts on How many are on the press list of PLoS? How many go to meetings (like AAAS or ScienceOnline or SciFoo or NASW or various Science Bar Camps) and do active promotion of the network? Perhaps you should do more stuff like that? Facebook page is not enough.

    Second, regarding the discussion of journalism and blogging, as I opened my presentation at AAAS with the statement that 'journalists vs. bloggers is over', I also provided examples of how the new science journalistic ecosystem is evolving and how optimistic I am about it. The take-home message from ScienceOnline2010 was not just potential for co-existence, but much more integrated collaboration - which is why I showed all those tweets between Cassie Rodenberg, Abel Phramboy and myself as an example of how this may work. And most of the people who attended the ScienceOnline2010 conference and followed mainly the "journalism track" of sessions went home with a similar feeling - check these links: for everyone's thoughts on that. The AAAS discussion the previous day (with Kennedy et al.) was a real throwback to some dark old ages - it really irked me, because we have moved on from there quite a while ago and these dinosaurs really need to catch up fast! Or go extinct.

    Press list of PLoS? This stuff may be fine for getting the attention of other science bloggers, but most of us here aren't writing primarily to be read by other science bloggers. Even though this site started much later than other major blog sites, and we don't have a major company doing PR for us, we have a sizable readership. How well we show up on your radar screen isn't a metric I'm overly concerned about.
    Pres list for PLoS turns a blogger into press - the audience are everyone BUT othee science bloggers. Other science bloggers already know about you and your post. Having your post linked from the paper you covered brings you exactly the audience that would have never thought to seek and read your blog.

    Likewise for - it is a place that accredits bloggers in a sense, delivering their best stuff to non-blogging audience.

    Individual bloggers will have different interests and goals, but none of the goals can be reached without having an audience. Without audience, you might as well just write in a paper notebook diary with a locket.

    So, if you don't have a company to promote you, you have to promote yourself. Any blogger who decided to leave Blogspot or WordPress and join a network did it to gain broader exposure. It is the duty of the network (both the owner and all the bloggers in it) to do the promotion.

    Having your post linked from the paper you covered brings you exactly the audience that would have never thought to seek and read your blog.

    And we get that without being on the PLoS press list. My point is that just because we're not on your radar screen doesn't mean we don't get read by people outside the Nature-Scienceblogs axis.
    Well, when I talk about science blogs, I never think of just the very small subset of them hosted by Nature and Seed, I think of all the thousands of science blogs, mostly independent, few on networks. I am not sure why you thought I'd so severely limit myself when talking about the blogosphere.

    So, if there is no powerful media entity to promote you, the only thing left for you is shameless self-promotion. Perhaps you don't do enough of it. How active are you (Hank) and other bloggers here on Twitter? How many aggregate their posts on How many are on the press list of PLoS? How many go to meetings (like AAAS or ScienceOnline or SciFoo or NASW or various Science Bar Camps) and do active promotion of the network? Perhaps you should do more stuff like that? Facebook page is not enough.
    Bora makes a good point here (and, in real life, it is easy to see why he has a following - his enthusiasm for science communication is infectious; he is, literally, impossible to dislike) and he isn't wrong in his analysis, even if it might make us bristle a little.

    We are rebel outsiders and we don't do any promotion.  I have said all along I originally expected someone at SB to become a public face, like a PZ or Bora, but that it never happened and that is due to our different culture.    When Sb was created it was kind of a Justice League of Science Blogging - they gathered the most popular bloggers and got them under one banner and they only let in new people who had already proven they could add to the advertising pool by bringing an audience.

    Our modus operandi is different.  Anyone can sign up, as long as you write about science, and that means our book authors and journalists and researchers are a little more casual in their approach - they want to do outreach but blogging is not in the top 5 things anyone here is doing.   No one is making PZ Myers money here.

    Our approach isn't wrong where it really counts - audience.  Henry Donahue doesn't break out blogging traffic separately but I don't think Discover can be ahead of us and Nature Networks certainly is not - and if you separate out PZ, the 60 or so consistent writers at Scienceblogs are doing about the same traffic as the 20 consistent writers here.  No question, PZ is a game-changer.  But all that has happened without any money spent on marketing or a sales force for advertising - we have no employees.  I built version 1 in my den.

    It also highlights a difference between blogging and journalism, though.    When a reporter at Forbes wanted to do an interview about successful blogging sites, he found us - if there is a model more economically successful than ours, I don't know of it and he did the research.    But Dennis Meredith (a terrific speaker as well, by the way) who spoke right before Bora and is the guy behind both Eurekalert and NASW (so he is used to Public Information Officers and public relations people finding him, or writers signing up for his organization) has not heard of us, I am sure, because we don't do any push marketing of any sort.   We are literally invisible to some people if we don't do marketing.

    But the audience does not find us on blogrolls or from AAAS seminars or the NASW.   In the AAAS press room I didn't even bother to introduce myself to people because, as sure as I was sitting there, I knew those were 50 people least likely to read this site.  But plenty of people introduced themselves to me because they had heard of us.

    Though maybe they got us confused with Scienceblogs??   :)
    our book authors and journalists and researchers are a little more casual in their approach - they want to do outreach but blogging is not in the top 5 things anyone here is doing. No one is making PZ Myers money here.
    PZ is certainly a huge factor. His output is closer to what you see from full-time professional bloggers (like those who write for news magazines), and he does spend a lot of time promoting this aspect of his career. And PZ has long coattails. To blog at that level takes a major time investment. That kind of time investment is difficult to manage for scientists at an earlier point in their academic careers, as well as for the more senior scientists here who also have active publishing careers.
    But the audience does not find us on blogrolls
    Hey, I'm out there on blogrolls! It's just that blogrolls don't seem to generate as much traffic as other methods of promotion.
    Hank, I thought you went to AAAS to promote SB, not to promote AAAS! :-)

    When I was going to similar events in the UK all I did was try to promote what I was doing, or trying to do. Had some breaks, made some friends, got some funding... eventually got stitched up (but that's another story!) but overall it worked.

    Do you have anybody doing online marketing now?

    Also, how has PZ Myers changed the game? He gets a lot of traffic from atheists so isn't a pure science blog - I first came across his blog from atheist websites, not science ones.
    I meant 'game changer' in the traffic sense, not the model of what writing is about or how it is done. He has been at this a long time and has earned his audience but there is no question that any site he goes to, including were he to create his own tomorrow, is automatically the number one science blogging site.

    Yes, a lot of their stuff is not 'science' like we are science, but we have 'blogging' in our name and are nowhere near as prominent in blogging as they are. So I guess it all evens out.

    P.S.  We have no one who does any marketing or self-promotion of any kind.   I assume individuals here appear on a few blogrolls but most people have just 'Scientific Blogging' whereas they might have PZ, Bora and some others itemized individually.  We are a community, though most cannot see those features unless they sign up, and they are more like a confederation; the writers make money by generating traffic so it is in their best interests to promote their own columns and I am all for capitalism and individual initiative.   They do have a business development person who pro-actively pursues their agreements, like with the NY Times, whereas with something like Livescience or Reuters, those groups called me because they had heard good things about us.
    "I am the most hated guy in every room I walk into."
    That's because I still find the U.S. visa or ESTA too complex, Hank. ;-)

    They're clearly annoyed because of purely personal, financial interests. And they don't want to acknowledge the reality of the market: some kinds of information simply did become incredibly cheap because of the Internet. They really don't cost much. The Internet won't be "uninvented", not even after its inventor Al Gore gets the electric chair, so this is unlikely to change in the future.

    There's still a lot of stuff that people would be willing to pay for. It must either be special information that the sources of press releases don't want to give to "everyone", or something with nontrivial work added into it - which may only be relevant for a small subset of consumers, but they may still pay enough.

    The science journalists in the previously prestigious media are just denying the reality, and use the more strict conditions on the market as a justification of their even lower quality of work, which makes them even more noncompetitive, and so on. They're already bad enough for me to actively support their demise along the dinosaurs' example. They will either do some nontrivial work that can't be done by generic bloggers - like contacting special people, getting sorting nontrivial information, or adding their special expertise - or they should die away.

    People just don't care about science that much, it's the fact, and they're surely not eager to pay for something that they can get for free - and unfortunately, the work of all the Nude Socialists hasn't gone too far beyond what can be obtained on the Internet for free. Their work sucks.

    "I am the most hated guy in every room I walk into."
    That's because I still find the U.S. visa or ESTA too complex, Hank. ;-)
    Let me know if I can ever help with that.   Outside scientists who write here, you are the person I most want to buy beer for.   If you blow people up in real life, and even more after some alcohol, I have to witness it.

    I think too many journalists are just what you describe - not the best, but rather young, cheap people starting their careers.  And a deadline is onerous to me.   Far too often people are rushing to meet a deadline because they didn't take the time as the story developed.   That is a hallmark of a student mentality not a 'trusted guide' who is supposed to separate science fact from hype.
    Dear Hank, when you're around here, I will buy a beer for you, it's cheaper.
    Of course, Communication is the 3rd least intelligent occupations (majors of undergrads) according to the GRE scores

    after public administration (Ban Ki-Moon from Harvard Kennedy School of Government etc.) and education. Communication (as a specialization of undergrads) which probably includes journalism has just IQ=112 according to the scale, just slightly above the average of the population (including non-college people).

    And yes, they try to do things simply, like typical students do. It's hard and they often can't do miracles. But even while being a normal journalist with an average IQ etc., one can still do the work more carefully and nontrivially and more sloppily. It can make a difference in the financial way, too. But of course, entertainment and confirmation of people's biases is what matters financially, too. Sadly.

    In average, including really everything, the blogosphere is of course even worse than the "classical" science journalists. But that can't justify anything. After all, the classical media and their science sections have to compete against the best things in the blogosphere and elsewhere - whatever the criterion is - not only against the average sources.
    I am a regular reader of ScientificBlogging, but haven't contributed as I am not a scientist, as such, but I feel compelled to interject here, to the criticism of this site's lack of promotion, and comparing it to paid blogsites
    I am a regular poster at Puppy Linux Forums:
    & I often link to articles from here which I think will be of interest to other users of puppy linux

    We too are a community of regulars & our popularity is based on people's perception of not just the product, Puppy linux, but the broad range of topics covered on our off-topic section, and open mindedness & helpfulness of our regulars

    It is interesting to me to see Luboš Motl, posting here, as his work is referenced in many posts in our discussions on global climate change, in all it's ramifications - a very heated topic, I might add, in more ways than one - yet the science on this topic is not completely without bias, unfortunately, so seekers of answers to scientific questions as to our options, are not to be found in true science journals, but blogsites such as Scientificblogging

    The quality of argument and out-of-the-box views are better promotion than some PR company's advertiser driven agenda, in my opinion - thank heavens!

    Keep up the excellent work, and I'll keep linking it! :)


    Hello, Aitch!  Good to see you here! :-)
    Thanks, Patrick!

    Looking forward to further humour - er, I mean, science articles :)

    What the heck - who said science had to be dull, anyway?