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 émigré 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 ScienceBlogs.com 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).