The Hottest Thing in Science Blogging

ScienceOnline2011 conference puts convergence of old and new media on display

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, North Carolina — The hot ticket for science bloggers and online writers this year was a once-obscure North Carolina conference with only about 300 coveted seats available. It sold out in less than forty-five minutes after a Twitter registration frenzy attracted eager participants whose ardor would have put to shame even diehard football fans looking for Super Bowl tickets.

Now in its fifth year, the ScienceOnline conference—held here over the weekend in the sci-tech nexus of Raleigh-Durham’s Research Triangle area—seems to have come of age at the same time that an amazingly diverse and growing international science blogging community is stepping into the void left by the diminishing breed of traditional science journalists.

While the American mainstream media’s Darwinian struggle for survival has endangered specialty science coverage at many of the nation’s newspapers and news magazines, the enthusiastic participation here showed that science writing is alive and well on the Web. Today, an expanding cadre of fiercely independent, talented, and often very young science bloggers is coming to grips with a new dilemma: Just how do they fit into the changing landscape of science journalism, and to what degree are they willing to incorporate some old media standards into their new media work?

“We’re all science writers, each using similar tools and learning from each other,” said Bora Zivkovic, an unbelievably energetic forty-four-year-old √©migr√© from Yugoslavia (now Serbia) who is one of the impresarios of the ScienceOnline meeting, as well as the burgeoning science blogging world. He claims to sleep, but is such a prolific blogger (at A Blog Around the Clock) and tweetaholic (@BoraZ has more than 34,100 tweets and counting) that many colleagues wonder how he finds the time.

Known in the past for harsh rhetoric about the mainstream media’s failures, Zivkovic—just call him Bora—has grown more temperate. That’s partly because he and other pioneering bloggers find themselves at the center of a new experiment in which a number of international media outlets, from the San Francisco-based Wired to the U.K.-based Guardian, are spicing up their websites by taking on outside blogs.

In October, Zivkovic himself donned a new digital hat as the editor Scientific American’s blog network, charged with creating a network of independent blogs to enhance the prestigious magazine’s already strong digital presence.

“I’m very happy to be at Scientific American. For 165 years it was cutting edge in the world of print. Now, it is cutting edge in the world of the web,” said Zivkovic, who now finds himself getting professional editing tips from some of the website’s seasoned pros on his monthly trips to New York from his Chapel Hill home.

The growth of several new and expanded science blogging networks was fueled in part by a dramatic exodus last summer from the popular community, following a decision by Seed Media Group (which owns the site) to host a nutrition blog paid for by Pepsi. Many community members considered it a blatant advertorial masquerading as an editorially independent blog. Dubbing the affair “Pepsigate,” a number of well-known bloggers schooled in traditional journalism left and many others followed. Some of the best landed at “mainstream” media outlets like Wired and the Guardian.

In addition, new blogging networks have sprung up at places like the Public Library of Science (PLoS), an open-access scientific journal, and new, independent communities like Scientopia have emerged. Discover, which helped start the trend in mainstream outlets’ acquisition of independent blogs back in 2009 (picking up Web favorites such as The Intersection, Not Exactly Rocket Science, and Bad Astronomy), has also seen a sharp rise in traffic.

The ScienceOnline2011 conference drew a mix of professional and amateur writers who had come to know one another through tweeting and commenting on each other’s blog posts, but many had never met their “virtual” colleagues in person. That “face-time” seemed to be a large draw for participants. About half of them were newbies (like me), with female attendees slightly outnumbering men (more stats about the participants are available here. Since its inception in 2007, when about 140 took part, the meeting has evolved from a small gathering of bloggers mostly from the Research Triangle to an international event. This year, it attracted a hardy band of science writers from thirty-five U.S. states, Canada, the U.K., and five other countries.

Live tweeting extended the global reach of the meeting. According to What the Hashtag, there have been over 10,000 tweets with hashtag #scio11 over the past seven days (see Ideonexus for some clever computer-generated maps that bring those tweets to life), and live video streaming was added thanks to a $10,000 grant from the seventy-five-year-old National Association of Science Writers (NASW).

“We’re all struggling to figure out the future of our craft. It’s hugely helpful to see how other people are experimenting with new forms,” said NASW president Nancy Shute, a Washington, D.C.-based science journalist who now blogs and tweets with the best of ‘em after a career editing and writing at U.S. News and World Report. [Disclosure: I am president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, which co-hosts an annual ScienceWriters meeting with NASW].

“Five years ago, blogging was still an oddity and not part of ‘real journalism.’ Obviously that’s changed,” said Carl Zimmer, a seasoned freelance science writer whose multimedia work makes him a prominent example of the multiple hats many wear today. “Journalists have become part of the mix here.”

Zimmer writes frequently for The New York Times and other media outlets, has authored several prizewinning popular science books, and writes a science blog called The Loom for Discover.

“There is much more collaboration between mainstream media and bloggers,” said Ed Yong, a twenty-nine-year-old British science writer who works by day at a cancer research society and moonlights as the author of the prize-winning Discover blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science. “We’re increasingly becoming each others’ watchdogs and sources. Those roles are intertwining.”

Like many here, Yong eschews labels like science journalist or blogger in favor of the broader and more neutral term “science writer.”

A number of participants, quoting Zimmer, stressed that blogging is just software that is part of the science communication toolkit—along with video, podcasting, graphics, and animation—that can be used by journalists, scientists, students, educators, librarians, programmers, and others.

“It’s over. These distinctions between blogging versus journalism are irrelevant,” said independent science writer and book author David Dobbs, whose blog, Neuron Culture, was picked up by the new Wired science blogs network after he became one of the first to defect from

Dobbs, currently living in London, noted that, in the past, bloggers had grown frustrated not only because the mainstream media was no longer doing its job well, but also because they felt unappreciated and thought that “the press should recognize [our contributions] and stop making fun of bloggers in pajamas.”

Now that mainstream media is paying attention to the power of blogging to attract interactive audiences, and blogging itself is becoming a more professionalized part of media outreach, some of that tension has started to dissipate. The new alignment of major media outlets and bloggers will inevitably bring ongoing challenges related to editorial independence, however.

Longtime newspaper science journalist Maryn McKenna, who is based in Atlanta, is part of the growing cohort of mainstream media converts. She turned to blogging, in part, to “declare my turf” while writing her book Superbug (her blog of the same name is now at Wired). The reporting help she got from scientists and patients while blogging pleasantly surprised her. It also “taught me to write in a different way,” she added, “putting myself in my writing” rather than speaking in the “third person, distant, excessively evenhanded newspaper voice” in which she had been trained.

The atmosphere at ScienceOnline2011 was far more collegial, however, than the snarky, or even hostile, interactions that often erupt on the Web.

“My feelings on the blogosphere are mixed… It offers a valuable exchange but doesn’t always build a constructive dialogue. It’s going to continue to evolve,” said Texas-based scientist and writer Sheril Kirshenbaum, who runs The Intersection blog at Discover with Chris Mooney. She is also the author of the just-released book, The Science of Kissing, which she found to be a fun way “to get people talking about science and why science is relevant in our lives without force-feeding them.”

Another ongoing issue is the economic difficulty of sustaining professional blogging, since so many bloggers are still unpaid, or paid a pittance, and may hold down other full-time day jobs as well.

“We’re at an incredibly wonderful place. We have a richer ecosystem of science presentation than we’ve ever had before,” said veteran investigative science reporter Steve Silberman, who writes the NeuroTribes blog pro bono for the new PLoS network. But he is worried that “a lot of the enthusiasm and experimentation is happening in part because people are willing to work for free. That is unsustainable.”

Indeed, the burnout factor is an issue among these premier multitaskers, who often spend twelve to fifteen hours a day working at various jobs as well as keeping up with their online community.

At a closing session of the ScienceOnline conference, the issue of remuneration came up again, making several speakers from the various blog networks obviously uncomfortable. Afterward, Amos Zeeberg, the young online managing editor at Discover, initially ducked a question about compensating his bloggers, telling me “I’d rather not say.” When pressed, he responded that his media company pays outside bloggers “hundreds to thousands each month,” based in part on traffic. A source at Wired said that monthly pay there is lower and more likely to be “in the mid-hundreds.”

Some bloggers are prominent working scientists with salaries that support them, like John Hawks, who has a widely read personal blog on paleoanthropology, genetics, and evolution in addition to his teaching and research duties at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He noted in one session that blogs are a vital source of information not only for the public, but for scientists as well. “Most of my colleagues learn about their fields through science writing,” he said, with “online conversations feeding back into the scientific community in a way that traditional journalism hasn’t.”

The competition to get into this year’s conference had founders and co-organizers Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker (a blogger who is also communications director at Duke’s Department of Medicine) facing a challenge for what to do next year. They are in the midst of booking a bigger conference space and are thinking about how the event can grow and still preserve the informal, eclectic, counter-cultural persona they have carefully cultivated during the past five years.

They are proud of their two-and-a-half-day “unconference” approach, in which the program is collaboratively constructed beforehand via a community wiki and “designed to foster conversations and discussions rather than a more traditional lecture approach.”

There was a casual, and sometimes wacky, atmosphere at the conference, with session titles like, “Keepers of the Bullshit Filter: How to Crowdsource Accountability and Accuracy in the New Media World.” The discussions were serious, but the entire enterprise also had a sense of humor, with frequent science book prizes, a popular science comedian at the banquet, and decorated sugar cookies in the form of research flasks, test tubes, and even little, white lab mice (cuter as cookies than in real life). There was even a citizen science project on “belly button diversity.” (Like many others, I volunteered to swab mine for bacteria and am awaiting the test results.)

Current plans, says Zivkovic, are to increase next year’s attendance to about 450 and have the flexibility to go even higher if demand warrants it. He expects that, as usual, it will be the vigorous discussions on Twitter and in the science blogosphere that do the most to promote ScienceOnline2012. But if you want to go, you’ll have to be quick. Having made it in off the waitlist after missing the opening of this year’s registration by only a few hours, I feel lucky to have attended ScienceOnline2011 at all.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter. Tags: , ,