why should professional science blogs be taboo?

Alt med skeptic David Colquhoun warns professional bloggers that money will taint their coverage, vastly estimating how much blogging pays.
money and gold

In the wake of the ScienceBlogs meltdown over Pepsi’s attempt to buy a blog on the network, skeptic and alt med watchdog, David Colquhoun, wrote a gentle rebuke to science bloggers who get paid to blog, arguing that the publicity alone should be enough and that the money generated by being in a blogging network could lead to conflicts of interest. At first glance, it seems hard to argue with any position focused on enforcing every blogger’s independence from conflicts of interest or undue influence by advertisers and ad networks who are more than happy to exert it if they feel threatened or annoyed by the blogs with which they partner. But there’s a major problem with Colquhoun’s argument, one that will require insight into blogging economics to point out, an insight that David didn’t seem to have until he finally heard from a few professional bloggers in reply.

Like I mentioned before in several posts, science bloggers aren’t paid that much. Unless we have a lucrative revenue sharing deal and several million views a month, the money we’ll get from our blogs usually amounts to little more than a bit of extra cash at the end of the month, or quarter. To give you some idea of the sums in question, placing ads on one’s blog with a healthy 50,000 view a month or so, might yield about $15 to $20 a week if you have really great ad placement. And believe it or not, this is the best case scenario. Most science blogs on the web don’t get that many hits and those that do, often deal with mass pay per click campaigns of extremely poorly targeted and low paying ads. Ad networks paying for impressions usually pay about a dollar per thousand ad views so even with a million views a month, you’d make a rather nice bonus, but nothing all that spectacular. And again, just try and build your blog to a million views a month. And this brings us to blog networks like ScienceBlogs and the bloggers who work for them.

As was pointed out to Colquhoun, while the networks do pay more than just ads, they’re not all that generous, relying on very cheap labor from interested bloggers to keep them in business and generating traffic. The rate for Sb is usually $100 to $200 a month plus a $25 bonus for every 10,000 views. So if we were to take our run of the mill, decent, but not huge, science blog with 50,000 views a month to Sb, we’ll probably be looking at the less than princely sum of $225 to $325 a month. My stint at True/Slant was somewhat more generous but not by all that much. Syndicating my content, on the other hand, does bring in a little more than being in a network, and allows me to pay Weird Things’ bills for hosting, stock images, licenses for some design tools, etc. When bloggers join networks, they mostly do it because they want the exposure to the traffic the network itself brings in on a regular basis to boost their readership, and they don’t want to be their own IT department. Few science bloggers can afford to drop their day job and rush to fix their blogs should something go wrong. By contrast, a network has an IT staff tasked with solving any and all technical issues as quickly as possible.

So where am I going with this abbreviated lesson on how much blogs make? Well, simply put, there’s just not enough money flying around blogs to create massive conflicts of interest for many bloggers. I highly doubt that Colquhoun has such a low opinion of Sb’s denizens that he believes any of them are willing to shill for anyone and anything for a few hundred a month. In the case of the goliath that is Pharyngula, which is making a good chunk of change with the whole blogging thing, we could argue that it could go independent, but it would need to pay at least $100 a month to support its vast user base and retain someone to handle IT problems. All of a sudden, a fun project yielding a very good bonus at the end of the month becomes a notable expense. And on top of that, PZ’s very vocal when Sb does something of which he doesn’t approve. At his level, the network has to listen to him since his traffic keeps the stats nice and high month in, month out.

So as a professional blogger, you’re either in a situation when you’re just not paid enough to sell out, or you’re in a position when you have some serious sway on the blog network and if you don’t want to do something the management proposes, they can’t force you. Let’s remember that bloggers, even those who join networks for inclusion in Google News and bulk RSS feeds to attract more traffic and reach more readers, aren’t employed by the networks they join and are treated as independent contractors. The vocal outcry coming from virtually all of Sb during the Great Pop-Pocalypse should’ve tipped Colquhoun off to that…

# science // blog / blogging / science journalism

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