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Oct. 28, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Ed Silverman of Pharmalot on building longevity — and audience loyalty — in blogging

The popular blog on the pharmaceutical industry has lived many lives since 2007. It’s starting its next one at Stat, the new life sciences site from The Boston Globe.

It’s only fitting that a blog about pharmaceutical companies would be adept at staving off death.

For almost a decade, Ed Silverman has gained a reputation for his encyclopedic knowledge of the world of drug manufacturers and his ability to keep Pharmalot, his one-man blog dedicated to that subject alive.

But it’s been a long journey. Pharmalot started life as an early example of newspaper blogging by the Newark Star-Ledger. “The editor was looking for ideas of some sort, to create new sites. I wasn’t sure if he was looking for a full website or something else. But I suggested something about the pharmaceutical industry,” Silverman told me. In 2007, Pharmalot officially launched; a year later, as newspapers reeled from the financial crisis, Silverman took a buyout.

The story could have ended there. But over the years, Silverman (and Pharmalot) have had many homes and sponsors — as an independent blog, then as part of UBM Canon, and under The Wall Street Journal until this summer. Now Silverman and Pharmalot are moving again, to Stat, the new health and life science site produced by The Boston Globe, set to launch this fall.

At each point in its life cycle, Silverman fought hard for Pharmalot, negotiating to keep the rights to the name readers recognized. “I happened to suggest Pharmalot at the right time, if only because there were a lot of shifts and opportunities to start something new,” Silverman says.

At a time when even longstanding blogs can be shut down in an instant, that Silverman has been able to keep Pharmalot alive and develop a loyal audience is remarkable. Silverman says he still hears from people who were readers back in the Star-Ledger days, eight years ago.

I recently spoke with Silverman about what it took to keep Pharmalot growing, how blogging has changed over the years, and what information readers expect on drug makers and the agencies that oversee them. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: How would you describe the mission of Pharmalot?

Ed Silverman: I see it as a vehicle for providing a mix of news and analysis, a little commentary and conversation. There’s a place for people to comment — sometimes that kicks in and other times not. That’s how I see it overall.

Ellis: Why continue on with it? There were several times you could have gone in a different direction.

Silverman: Well, my larger calculation was this: I’ve been a journalist for a few decades and I’m in a stage in life where I’ve got experience and some professional visibility. I still have one child at home. I have one who’s out of college, one who’s halfway through, and I think he’s more or less taken care of. Candidly, it’s not like I’m ready to retire.

I suggested Pharmalot at a time when the Internet was really starting to change the newspaper business and journalism — the media business as it’s called now. I happened to suggest Pharmalot at the right time, if only because there were a lot of shifts and opportunities to start something new. At a newspaper, before they were cutting back, there was a willingness to start something. It didn’t cost anything.

I saw this as a career path. I would not necessarily have the same cachet or calling card as if I remained, essentially, a specialist. Even within a large organization like The Wall Street Journal, you’re looking at a collection of people, many of whom are specialists in a way. Now, within an organization, people move around, but there’s value to be had if you specialize and continue to generate ideas that have meaning to the audience you’re aiming at.

I felt that if I continued on this path, I could more readily have an opportunity to remain in journalism, if there was continued opportunity to track the topic I’ve been covering all this time. And I’ve been covering pharma for 20 years now. Or, on a related note, perhaps that expertise and skills could position me for a related career change — working off my knowledge of the industry and related health matters, should I want or need to do that.

Pharmalot itself developed into a brand name. As I said to people, I didn’t have the financing to build a niche site that could become like a TechCrunch, because TechCrunch itself is pretty broad — it covers technology, and technology is pervasive. Pharmaceuticals is an extremely far reaching and important industry. It’s not, on the other hand, politics or sex or sports.

I didn’t build it into a multimillion dollar business. But on the other hand, I did build a valuable brand name. And, selfishly, it has value. It’s provided me with an additional calling card. For better or worse, I’m closely identified with it.

Ellis: You’ve been covering this industry — drug makers, research and development, the FDA — for a long time. How has the beat changed?

Silverman: Like any industry, it changes over time, but that’s to be expected. When I started covering it 20 years ago, companies were fat and happy. They made money, the stock prices went up, the profits went up. Then other issues emerged. Safety issues with certain drugs, which led to a different, more interesting and troubling issue about disclosing side effect data properly, whether that was known through clinical trials or adverse event reports.

Then pricing starts to become an issue, because of generics and access to medicines in poor countries, and seniors taking buses to Canada. We know in the last dozen years what’s happened with pricing. It’s just continued to become more problematic and contentious.

So the industry itself has changed a lot. The big companies lost patent protections on the biggest sellers and had to cut back. There were some mergers as a result, or as a notion that it could solve problems. The industry is transforming in some ways its business model, gradually. And there have been, through it all, some new, important — if not breakthrough — discoveries that are finally starting to change health care.

If you put aside pricing issues for a moment, it is pretty remarkable we have something that can effectively take care of hepatitis C for most people. We have new cancer treatments that are showing signs of truly making a difference for at least some patients, depending on the type of cancer.

That all puts pressure on the FDA. It’s put pressure on employees. It’s put pressure on lawmakers. Because there’s more clamor for more medicines faster. People want more medicines faster, they want access faster. They want affordability. It’s all inter-connected, of course. The pressure that’s been placed on the industry and regulators has been an interesting story to tell.

Ellis: Is there a greater demand now for information to make these things clearer to people?

Silverman: Newspapers for the most part are not in the same position they were to provide the same quantity or quality of information. They’re trying to do certain things well.

Then we have other forms of media on the Internet that are picking up the slack. And while they may not consistently cover something, they’ll suddenly appear with a story that’s worth reading. Whether that’s Vox or Quartz or Business Insider or Salon. They may not all cover health care, let alone the pharmaceutical industry, regularly, but they’ll seize on a particular story or topic and write something interesting that you file away and say, Hey, that contributed to my understanding.

It’s fragmented and faster-paced. But people want more information. The flip side to having more access to information means you’re getting more information — and then you want more and more to explain what you’ve read.

Ellis: How has your reporting changed as a result of writing Pharmalot for so long?

Silverman: When I first started it in early 2007, the pieces were shorter and I aggregated as much as I wrote something of my own. By aggregate, I mean I’d see something interesting on Reuters or The New York Times and I’d condense it to four grafs and hit the publish button.

I would put up eight, nine, items a day. But after a while of doing that, I realized there was no longer much value in trying to outgun websites, Reuters, Bloomberg, the Journal, and say I could do it faster, if not better. To say: “I can do it just as well” and see if I can get it out there 20 minutes before them. At the end of the day, it doesn’t quite matter that much, because the stuff circulates and you have to have something different to bring to the party beyond the same headline everyone has. But just to do it for the sake of it meant less.

That evolved, over the years, to the point where I don’t do six to eight items a day. Most days, I just do two or three. Because there’s so much on the Internet: Reuters, Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, they have teams of people. If the Journal team is busy, they still have a spot news desk. So the news gets out there, it gets picked up on Yahoo Finance, even if it’s only a four-paragraph item. But that’s maybe the same four paragraphs I could have done. So do I spend all that energy?

What I’ve gradually done is go for items I think are more informative. The notion of an impact story, I think, is becoming a bit overused. We know that it means “something lots of people will hopefully notice.” There’s nothing wrong with that. Not every item I can do on Pharmalot is going to be an impact item. But what I can try to do is cover topics that aren’t covered elsewhere, or aren’t covered much at all, or they’re overlooked gems. I have to search for other ideas or angles of my own to provide understanding and move the ball forward.

One other change that was part of that was my little morning roundup post, instead of just having a few headlines for links, I actually flushed it out to something that isn’t quite a newsletter, but there’s quite a lot of stories to read and link to.

I’m trying to compensate and provide a useful take on the industry, and then go off and do the items I think hopefully have enough value. That also gives me a chance, if I get organized, to get out once in a while and meet people and learn stuff that is just impossible when you sit in front of your computer all the time.

The pace has changed a lot. I remember after the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, Twitter took off. Twitter pretty soon after that started transforming coverage. Until then, most people weren’t using their own instantaneous way of exchanging links or issuing information.

Of course, Twitter has really transformed the way everyone digests information. But for those of us in the media business, at least for me, it changed the way I go about looking for information, disseminating information, and helping me fine tune my choices when it comes to what to cover, or how to cover something. Because I have to always be mindful of what’s already out there.

Ellis: How has your audience grown? Have they followed you across publications?

Silverman: I still get notes from people. During my transition this year from the Journal to the Globe, I’m getting notes from people saying, “Hey, it’s good to see you back. I remember you from the Star-Ledger.”

I can’t assume because I’ve revived Pharmalot, people will find me. To get up on Google Alerts, you have to have good search engine optimization. With The Wall Street Journal, it was really easy because I was on The Wall Street Journal platform. I had WSJ.com in the url. Now, I’m starting from scratch in the sense that it’s just Pharmalot.com and I’m not part of a big machine. So that’s got to build over time.

So how are people finding me? I try to be as aggressive as I can: I use Facebook, I use Twitter, I use LinkedIn. I send out reminder emails to about a gazillion people so that they’ll know I’m here. And a lot of have written back and said, “Yeah, I know! I’ve seen your stuff already!”

My Twitter following is one way of measuring it, and there’s more over time. And I’m getting comments from people who have been commenting since 2007.

Every time I enter a new iteration, I can’t assume people follow me. I have to be patient and recognize that it takes time to get their attention again and land on their radar in the right way.

Photo of pill bottle by Charles Williams used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 28, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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