Scientific American has rebuilt its blog network to “create an improved balance of topic areas and bring in some new voices,” the editors announced Dec. 15th. The move will cut the number of blogs and bloggers roughly in half, said Curtis Brainard, Scientific American’s blogs editor.
That means that some familiar names will no longer be part of the network. I haven’t been able to get a list of the dropped bloggers, but the blogs page now lists farewells from several current bloggers, including S.E. Gould, Janet D. Stemwedel, Hannah Waters, and Shara Yurkiewicz. Others, presumably, will follow. No new voices will be added until some time next year, Brainard said.
He told me in an email that the editors “looked at a variety of factors, including traffic and frequency of posting,” in deciding which blogs to drop. And indeed, some of the departing bloggers acknowledge in their farewells that they’ve been too busy elsewhere to tend to their blogs. “I’m not much of a blogger anymore (four posts a year doesn’t quite cut it),” wrote Psi Wavefunction, author of The Ocelloid blog. “Over the last year I’ve had less and less time to spend on writing and researching blog posts,” wrote Gould, the author of Lab Rat. (For more on who’s going, see this post by Matt Shipman. Brainard listed the blogs that are staying in a comment attached to the announcement.)
SciAm has also published new guidelines for its blog network, which give the magazine significant control over content on the blogs. Bloggers will be required to stick to their areas of expertise. If they decide to depart from that–and especially if they plan to write about controversial topics–“they should consult with the blogs editor and seek editorial feedback and support as needed.” Blogs are expected to “abide by Scientific American’s editorial standards,” meaning they must be accurate and transparent about sources of information, among other things.
Brainard told me that “there will be more internal communication and coordination around upcoming content as well as more editorial feedback and collaboration on things like effective headline writing, creative use of multimedia, reporting and writing strategies, and developing bloggers’ unique voices.”
The guidelines also note the following:
In cases where a post that does not adhere to guidelines must be removed either temporarily or permanently, Scientific American will make every attempt to notify the author before removing the post, and it will replace the text of the post with an editor’s note explaining the reason(s) for removal. Scientific American also reserves the right to add an editor’s note or statement of concern to any post that it feels does not meet its editorial standards.
This calls to mind the concerns raised in October, 2013, when Scientific American deleted a blog post by Danielle Lee that dealt with a personal experience of harassment by an editor (not at Scientific American). The post was later restored, and Scientific American escaped what could have been a devastating blow by quickly and clearly explaining what it had done and why, and what it could have done better.
Scientific American clearly thought hard about how much freedom to give its bloggers. The editors acknowledged this by quoting Dave Winer‘s idea of what a blog should be, a description I hadn’t seen before:
“If it was one voice, unedited, not determined by group-think — then it was a blog, no matter what form it took. If it was the result of group-think, with lots of ass-covering and offense avoiding, then it’s not. Things like spelling and grammatic errors were okay, in fact they helped convince one that it was unedited.”
That’s an “honorable notion,” the editors wrote, but not always right for news outlets that “have unique responsibilities to their readers and to the public and as such their standards must differ.” Nevertheless, bloggers in the network will not be edited before they post. The magazine will “review all posts carefully,” but “we trust those we choose to write for us to meet editorial standards and expectations.”
That’s smart. The magazine will edit its staff-written blogs, but allow its network bloggers to post on their own, as long as they meet the requirements in the guidelines. (Disclosure: I’ve written for Scientific American in the past and talked to the editors about doing so in the future.)
And I go only part way with Winer: I’m against ass-covering and offense-avoiding. But I’m against bad grammar and poor spelling. What convinces readers that a blog is unedited and ought to be read is the quality and originality of its ideas–not its bad grammar.
-Paul Raeburn(Further disclosure: Scott Huler, the 2014-2015 Knight Science Journalism project fellow, writes The Lawson Trek blog for Scientific American.)