More details emerge on ScienceBlogs-National Geographic deal

Yesterday, we reported that National Geographic had bought ScienceBlogs. We’ve now obtained a recording of a conference call between various members of National Geographic senior management, ScienceBlogs management, and ScienceBloggers — aka Sciblings — that adds some details.

What we’ve learned is that Nat Geo plans to assume control of operations, editorial content, and ad sales by June 1 of this year. And while a post from PZ Myers post said “basically, we’ve been bought,” and we had further confirmation last night of the contents of yesterday’s post from someone familiar with the situation, we want to make sure to point out, high up, that one of the first things that SEED CFO and vice president of finance and operation’s Vera Scavcic said on the call was that SEED would maintain ownership:

From this point forward, it will be National Geographic leading the charge and managing the website on a day-to-day basis, while ownership of the property remains with SEED media group.

So there may be some daylight between what we reported yesterday — that this was an acquisition — and the official version of events. The description on the call of how things would proceed certainly sounds like National Geographic is assuming 100% control of ScienceBlogs. But we’d be happy to clarify the situation further and await comment from both parties.

As Martin Robbins pointed out on Twitter yesterday, Nat Geo has partnered with ScienceBlogs since late 2009, trading content and selling ads for the site. At the time, Nat Geo took a minority stake in ScienceBlogs. (In fact, Robbins predicted, shortly before we posted, that Nat Geo was the buyer described by Myers.) John Caldwell, president of National Geographic Digital Media, reminded those on the call about that partnership, and talked about next steps:

In this new agreement, it is a pleasure to welcome all of you to National Geographic’s extended editorial family and to say how thrilled I am to say we’re going to be able to continue the work that SEED Media started, and focus our resources on improvements that will grow the audience and the quality of this amazing blog network.

SEED’s Savcic, from the call:

At its most basic level, this partnership is about operations, editorial content and ad sales. In each area, your contact in all respects will be our assigned team at National Geographic. National Geographic will manage the day-to-day operations and will report the results to SEED. Your monthly payments will continue to come from Scienceblogs and will be paid timely. Over the coming week, National Geographic will take over the technical aspects of the site and will work directly with you to overcome current issues that you’re facing.

David Braun, vice president of news and editorial service at National Geographic Digital Media, said on the call that the company’s magazine, website, TV channel, and other properties reach a combined 400 million people around the world. The daily news service, he said, has 6.6 million unique visitors per month. (At another point on the call, Scavcic said the Nat Geo site overall has 15 million uniques per month.)

Its mission, he said, is:

to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge and to inspire people to take better care of the planet.

Braun also discussed National Geographic’s many scientist grantees. While he noted that 600 of the 8,000 stories the daily news service has published in 10 years have been about those grantees, he reassured Sciblings that the site was not about publicizing such work.

I’m looking forward to working with ScienceBloggers – Sciblings, I believe you call yourselves – to complement what National Geographic and ScienceBlogs do. I know that you’re respected in your blogging fields.

One of the issues that is likely to be contentious — and certainly was for Myers, who is no stranger to invective — was that of standards and practices. Braun:

It is important to debate freely and robustly. National Geographic has a gold standard reputation for quality. National Geographic values and standards apply to all of our content, wherever and however it is received. With our respect for freedom of expression, we are also sensitive to the way we communicate. We are sensitive to our worldwide audience’s expectations of our brand. So we avoid unjustifiable offense and are sensitive to generally accepted standards.

The subject later came up in a question from Scibling Ed Brayton, who noted that he posts an item called “Dumbass Quote of the Day” and does not shy away from sharp words on politics. Braun responded that material has to run through their standards and practices:

I don’t want to sit here and comment on a case-by-case basis but I do want to work with you to work this out. We do stand for freedom of expression. We want to aim for a higher level of debate that is respectful and doesn’t offend in an unjustifiable way.

We suspect this will be an issue as Scienceblogs is integrated into Nat Geo.

Ross Goldberg, Nat Geo Digital Media’s vice president for strategic development, said on the call that National Geographic plans to have operational control of technology, reporting and communications of Scienceblogs by June 1. Longer-term, Scienceblogs will be co-branded with National Geographic’s logo

to offer greater advertising opportunities and integration with our main site. The hope is to increase exposure to your work.

Nat Geo is also planning to shift Scienceblogs off of Movable Type to WordPress, which is happening at Nat Geo’s main site now. They’d also look into redesigning the site.

We will work with SEED media to ensure they are part of these longer-term initiatives.

In the Q & A, in addition to the question about standards and practices, a Scibling asked whether there would be any changes to copyright and ownership in blog material. The Scienceblogs contract apparently leaves both with bloggers. Braun said that Nat Geo would probably have to rework that contract:

We’re not sure that we have this figured out right now.

Then there was a response to a question which probably explains the silence from Nat Geo and SEED on this deal so far. Here’s Ellen Stanley, of Nat Geo’s communications department, responding to a question from one  Scibling about how much of the call he could blog:

We are asking everyone not to blog about this immediately because we have one chance to make hay of this announcement with outside media. And we want ot use that to our collective advantage with trade media as well as consumer media. We’re not quite ready. We will soon be able to encourage everyone to blog about it, but not yet.

Goldberg added:

The optimal moment is when National Geographic’s brand appears on the website. We will communicate when that’s about to happen. That will get the attention of the media.

But with all due respect: Trying to keep a secret among a group of bloggers and their dedicated following is, well, impossible. Which we were happy to demonstrate.

Update, 3:20 p.m. Eastern, 4/26/11: National Geographic has just posted this on their press site:

National Geographic has assumed management of day-to-day operations for, expanding a relationship with Seed Media Group that started when National Geographic took on ad sales responsibility for in 2009.

22 thoughts on “More details emerge on ScienceBlogs-National Geographic deal”

    1. I almost blogged about this one. Here’s the statement from the royal society:

      Subsequent to publication of the above paper in Proceedings of Royal Society B, the authors were made aware of a recently updated and more comprehensive fishing effort data series. The authors requested access to the new dataset so as to re-run the statistical models and check the results. The new dataset failed to uphold the previous conclusions in that while a trawling effect is still evident, it is much less conclusive. Consequently, the authors feel that they can no longer make the firm statements about trawling effects on fish condition that form the main result of the paper and have requested to retract this manuscript.

  1. I would expect that the Sciblings who have, errr, full and frank discussions on non-scientific matters such as politics and religion will be encouraged to have subsidiary blogs for that purpose. How that will work out for Pharyngula is anyone’s guess. I can’t see PZ splitting the audience, somehow.

  2. “We want to aim for a higher level of debate that is respectful and doesn’t offend in an unjustifiable way.”

    Good luck with that. I think you’re going to see a number of bloggers leave based on this obvious limit on freedom of expression.

  3. It’d be interesting to know if this deal got hammered out at the NG Digital Media level (John Caldwell & others on the conference call), or if the SB team heard anything (guarantees? reassurances? words of welcome?) from NGS CEO John Fahey. For a media exec, he’s a (disturbingly) quiet guy:

  4. So if I understand this correctly, somehow SEED managed to sell content and content providers it neither owns nor edits to NatGeo, and will continue to receive a stipend for its continued nonparticipation. Nice!

    1. There is no money changing hands in this. They are taking over operations because (presumably) Adam would like to not do it any more but he can’t sell Sb because of the $20M in debt on SEED’s books – it’s the only thing of any value in the company and, as you note, it is intangible because it is at-will participation.

      I think this will go fine. Most Sb people would like to have a rep for science and less for culture and politics.

      1. “Most Sb people would like to have a rep for science and less for culture and politics.”

        Somehow, I really doubt you speak for even SOME of them, Hank.

  5. still has some very good writers but they’re crippled from a business perspective. If you look at the dollars/traffic it’s basically the PZ Myers show, yes? I don’t know how NatGeo embraces Myer’s schtick, and I don’t know how Myers accepts the “wholesome restraint” of such a squeaky-clean brand. Wilkins is basically right.

    The NatGeo folks aren’t stupid, tho – has great Google Juice and I’m wondering if they’ll use the online property the same way Discovery networks uses Treehugger.

    the other thing to think about here is the sheer proliferation of science blog networks. SciAm’s network hasn’t even launched yet. is it possible we’re going to see a science blogging “glut?”

    1. With a science audience of 65 million just in the US, and science blogging reaching a tiny fraction of that, I don’t think a glut will happen any time soon. In many ways, competition creates a bigger market. Politics and economics are much larger in the blogosphere because so many people do it and if science gets that same level of participation, it would happen here also.

      1. Totally agree with Hank. The science blogging audience hasn’t even been touched yet. I’m still amazed at how oblivious academics are to science on the internet. There’s plenty of room here, and even more uncaught eyes.

      2. I think these claims are wildly optimistic. Blogs offer few benefits for the careers of academics. You can’t put them on your CV, they won’t help you get a permanent position, tenure/promotion, or even the next grant.

        These are the things that matter to research academics. Many don’t even read the front-matter of Science or Nature, let alone their society journals. Which, in general, have a much higher S:N ratio than blogs.

      1. Bora – I just read your exit Sb post, and found myself wondering: Do you think this marriage with National Geographic will work?

        I’m thinking especially of your comment: “It makes sense in the existing ecosystem in which is The Borg and everyone else is biting the dust. But the ecosystem is changing…. The trick is to find the Goldilocks solution – just the right size.” .

        National Geographic clearly is not a Goldilocks solution. It’s more Borg, isn’t it? … If what you say is true, then why would NG dive into an endangered ecosystem?

  6. @Alan Mairson
    I touched on that a little bit more in a couple of follow-up posts immediately after the Farewell post…

    I was referring specifically to the size of a network in terms of the number of individuals who blog independently on a network (not including various editorial and news blogs that the site may also have).

    This number will vary dependent on the model. A self-organized collective has to be small. Once you reach a treshold, there will be strife even among the nicest people, and if there is nobody from the outside, e.g., an editor or a cat-herder, to put a stop to it, the community may implode.

    A network like Psychology Today can have as many bloggers as they want, as there is no apparent community there – just a bunch of people using the platform to write.

    SB was a pioneer in giving total editorial freedom to bloggers, so the effectiveness of the cat-herder is somewhat limited. And it most definitely was a community – the importance of the backforum cannot be emphasized more. We still, even though many of us left, still call each other SciBlings: that is a strong feeling of belonging. I think SB just got too big.

    NG has a news blog right now – and apparently some bloggers (though nobody knows about them, really). It is not the size of NG, but the size of the network – in this case acquired SB – that is important.

    NG can have a large network if it can control bloggers editorially. In which case, I am not sure if the SB bloggers are the right kind of bloggers for them to have – those are fiercely independent people.

    I am worried about the clash of cultures: the family-friendly NG and the fierce SB do not look like a perfect marriage. But I hope it works out in the end (I assume some bloggers will leave, new ones will be invited, etc.). As I said in my posts at the time: more the merrier.

    I agree with Hank and Brian above that the market is far from saturated, and I see networks and indy bloggers as working on the same goal – science promotion – rather than being competitors.

    I cannot or should not say more at this time as I am preparing a launch of a new network soon, but you can be sure I took all of these things into consideration, including the optimal number of people on a network as a function of the type of network, its ownership, its mission, its editorial control (or lack of it) and its intent to foster community and not just serve as a writing platform for a bunch of writers.

    1. Great insights, Bora. And I agree re: “I am not sure if the SB bloggers are the right kind of bloggers for them to have – those are fiercely independent people.”

      As a National Geographic magazine veteran (1990-2008), I would suggest that the NG microphone is only yours to use if you play by a certain set of rules. Those rules are fine for some — but I have a hunch that folks like @pzmyers will chafe under such editorial limits; NG is not known as a home for writers who can “say any damn thing I want.”

      Also: the Sb brand was largely a function of its talented community of bloggers, many of whom are well known in their own right; they can leave Sb and take their audience with them. Whereas NG is a brand that’s bigger than any individual; virtually all the contributors are unknown, working to serve Big Yellow. Food for thought…

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.