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Sept. 7, 2010, 10 a.m.

“A completely new model for us”: The Guardian gives outsiders the power to publish for the first time

Last week, the Guardian launched a network of science blogs with a goal that perfectly mixed science with blog: “We aim to entertain, enrage and inform.”

Now, on the paper’s website, you can find hosted content from four popular and well-respected blogs: “Life and Physics” by Jon Butterworth, a physics professor at University College of London who does work with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN; “The Lay Scientist,” the pop-science-potpourri blog by researcher and science writer Martin Robbins; the science policy blog “Political science” by former MP Evan Harris; and “Punctuated Equilibrium,” by the evolutionary biologist known as Grrrl Scientist.

The idea is both to harness scientific expertise and, at the same time, to diffuse it. “This network of blogs is not just for other science bloggers to read; it’s not just for other scientists,” says Alok Jha, a science and environment correspondent who came up with the idea for the network and now — in addition to his reporting and writing duties — is overseeing its implementation. The network is intended to reach — and entertain/enrage/inform — as many people as possible. “We’re a mainstream newspaper,” he notes, “so everything we do has to come about through that prism.” The network also marks another small shift in the media ecosystem: the media behemoth and independent bloggers, collaborating for audiences rather than competing for them.

If that sounds familiar, it may be because the new network is a direct response to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger‘s goal of journalistic “mutualization.” (Okay, okay: mutualiSation.) “It’s good to have criticism from scientists when we do things wrong,” Jha notes, “but it’s also good to have them understand how we write things — and give them a chance to do it.” Guardian reporters don’t spend days in the control room at CERN; someone who does, though, is Jon Butterworth. Having him and his fellow scientists as part of an extended network of Guardian writers benefits both the paper and its readers. “The science desk here will essentially become a channel for these guys to report from their worlds they’re all seeing,” Jha notes. The scientists “are going to lend a bit of their stardust to us”; in return, they’ll get exposure not just to a broader readership, but to a more diverse one, as well.

Exposure and payment

The Guardian network comes at time when science blog networks populated by writers with particular — and highly focused — areas of expertise are proliferating. Last week, the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit publisher of open-access journals emphasizing the biological sciences, launched its own 11-blog network. PLoS Blogs joins Wired Science, Scientopia, and others. And, of course, science blogs have been in the news more than usual of late, with ScienceBlogs and the scandal that was PepsiGate. That scandal — in which PepsiCo tapped its own “experts” to contribute content to the otherwise proudly independent blog network — didn’t precipitate the Guardian’s own foray into science blog networking, which has been in the works since this spring. However, “it certainly accelerated everything,” Jha says. “I think there was soul-searching going on among the bloggers out there: ‘What do we do next? How do we do it?’ And that, in turn, gave us the sense that, okay, now is the time to do it.”

The general value proposition here is the most typical one: “more content” on the side of the media outlet, and “more exposure” on the side of the content providers. Many scientists are interested in writing, Jha points out; but there are far fewer who understand the mysterious alchemy required to successfully pitch stories to news organizations. The blog setup reframes the relationship between the expert and the outlet — with the Guardian itself, in this case, going from “gatekeeper” to “host.”

The upshot of all that, for the scientists, isn’t exposure in the Huffpostian sense (getting your name out there = money). The Guardian pays the bloggers for their work. Which is a matter of principle as much as economics: Even though some of the scientists were already writing their blogs without compensation, Jha notes, “we thought we can’t possibly just take a blog for free, because it would be exploitative.”

The solution: a 50/50 ad revenue split. The Guardian sells ads against the bloggers’ pages; the bloggers, in turn, get half the revenue from the exchange. But this being an experiment — and web ads being notoriously fickle, even on a high-traffic site like the Guardian’s — the arrangement also includes a kind of financial insurance policy for the bloggers: If ad revenues fall below target, they’ll revisit the deal.

“Independent of all interference”

Though the blogs’ flags vary, they feature, in their Guardian presentation, a uniform tagline: “HOSTED BY THE GUARDIAN.” Which is a way of clarifying — and reiterating — that, though the blogs’ content is on the Guardian’s site, it’s not fully of the Guardian’s site. “The idea is that this is not an internal reporters’ or editorial blog,” Jha says. “It’s these guys — it’s their thoughts, independent of all interference.”

And “independent” really means “independent.” The blogs aren’t edited — for content or for copy. Unlike some other newspaper/blog hosting arrangements (see, for example, Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight is licensed by The New York Times — and whose content is overseen, and edited, by Times staff), the Guardian’s science blogs are overseen by the bloggers themselves. For these first couple weeks, yes, a Guardian production editor will read the posts before hitting “publish.” But that’s a temporary state of affairs — a period meant to work out technical kinks and to foster trust on both sides. The goal, after this initial trial period, is to give the bloggers remote access to the Guardian’s web publishing tools — something, Jha notes, “that no one apart from internal staff had been able to do before.” The vision — a simple one, but one that’s nicely symbolic, as well — is that the bloggers will soon be able to publish directly to the Guardian site, with no intermediary. “It’s a completely new model for us,” Jha notes — because, at the moment, “nothing here is unedited.”

Jha is well aware of the potential for legal headaches that accompanies that freedom — a potential that’s particularly menacing in the U.K., whose legal system plays so (in)famously fast-and-loose with libel. “As a news organization, we’ve been very careful to be on the right side of the law,” Jha says; then again, though, “we’d never try and censor.” Balancing freedom-of-expression concerns with their organizational imperative to protect themselves from liability is something Jha and his colleagues have spent a lot of time discussing in the run-up to the network’s launch. Ultimately, though, the vision won out over the caution. “We always err on the side of ‘let’s publish’ rather than not,” he notes; and, as far as the site’s new bloggers go, the goal is less top-down authority, not more. “Eventually, we do want them to have complete control,” Jha says. “That is the ambition.”

POSTED     Sept. 7, 2010, 10 a.m.
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