The Niche Blog Network: Lessons From the Past, Visions for the Future

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Is the heyday of science blogging networks really over?

If so, then people must have been dozing at the wheel for the past six weeks.  Although ScienceBlogs has had its problems, new networks are popping up daily, and – starting today – PLoS will be one of the crazies barreling down this dimly lit road.

Won’t all of these new networks suffer the same fate as ScienceBlogs, (re-)learning the very hard lesson about the volatility of the blogosphere ecosystem?

Perhaps.  But I believe networks can also learn equally important positive lessons from the past.  There are clear examples where networks have thrived by bringing bloggers together, and in the process, they devised a detailed recipe for success.  Their approach proved that networks aren’t inherently destined to fail, and bloggers and organizations can co-exist.

These networks were successful because they took a great deal of time to define their vision, addressing tough questions like: What is the purpose of this network?  How are we different from network X?  What kind of content are we looking to host?

A detailed vision allowed these networks to find the right bloggers – people that heartily embraced the particular approach.  It’s not just about getting people with skyrocketing page-views.  The bottom line is you have to find people that you respect and trust.

When an organization spends this much time upfront figuring out an approach, good things tend to happen.  Take Discover Blogs, for instance, which followed this recipe.  In many people’s minds, including mine, Discover was the true gold-standard solely due to its content and brand.  Rather than try to be the one-size-fits-all answer to science blogs, Discover found its niche: hire top-notch writers – like Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer – to report the intricacies and beauty of science.

In the wake of what happened at ScienceBlogs, we here at PLoS met several times to discuss what, if anything, we could do to help provide an alternative during this period of disarray within the science blogosphere.  The team at PLoS that discussed our options spanned the company, involving our community manager (yours truly), our Directors of product strategy (Sara Wood), marketing (Liz Allen), IT (Rich Cave), publishing (Mark Patterson), and PLoS ONE/Community Journals (Pete Binfield), as well as our CEO (Peter Jerram) and COO (Steve Borostyan).

We knew media outlets were the likely candidates to step up and build the next generation networks, and we expected to see them jockey for position to snag the bloggers that had left ScienceBlogs.com.  But PLoS isn’t a giant media outlet.  We’re a non-profit open-access scientific and medical publisher that gives away T-shirts with hamsters on them.

In all seriousness, we’re extremely good at what we do.  We have a stable of highly-regarded journals.  We’ve been a leader in open-access publishing since we started.  But one of the legs of our mission is to reach the general public with scientific and medical information.  No matter how hard we try, technical manuscripts that are written by experts for experts just don’t meet that need.  Blogs, on the other hand, provide a type of mid-level technical content, somewhere between a manuscript and a headline.  They make science accessible to the lay reader.

Despite our good intentions, if we entered this new space, we expected people to ask: What does PLoS really know about running their own blog network?

And it’s a fair question.

But, see, PLoS has always had a thing for blogging.  Starting with the launch of our main blog, plos.org, back in 2006, PLoS staff quickly realized how informal chatter can draw readers in.  As the popularity of our flagship blog grew – both in the blogosphere and within the PLoS offices – people soon expected more.  Following suit, PLoS ONE launched their journal blog, everyONE in March 2009.  Two months later, the editors of PLoS Medicine started Speaking of Medicine to interact with everyone interested in global health, in its widest sense.

PLoS’ enthusiasm for the blogging efforts of its staff is unique, since very few academic journals support their own blogs, or see the need to do so.

Still, if we proceeded down this path to expand our blogs and bring independent bloggers onboard, we needed the right vision for our new network — this “PLoG” network.

There’s been a lot of chatter in the blogosphere that any networks that spawn in the wake of #SbFAIL have to be one flavor or another:  If you’re an organization, you’re only going to recruit writers with large, notable brands; on the flip side, if you’re a smaller grass-roots network, you won’t be able to snag those big names in the first place.

We weren’t quite sure how PLoS squared with this logic.  We’re not a deep-pocketed corporate organization, but we certainly have a well-respected brand.  We embody a certain grass-roots vibe, yet we have strong technical, administrative, and marketing support.

I guess the most important lesson we’ve learned in the past six weeks is that theory goes out the window when you actually set out to build a network.  We didn’t want to become another ScienceBlogs, or another Discover Blogs, for that matter.  So we finally said screw it and did our own thing.  We set out to create our own niche network.

Right out of the gates, we decided that we won’t have any advertisements on our blog network.  None.  Not even PLoS ads.  We may change these elements in the future, but for now, both PLoS and our “ploggers” feel that this is an appropriate approach for a blog network run by a non-for-profit organization such as ours.

We also wanted all of our content to be open-access under a CCAL license.  Our bloggers would be granted full editorial control of their site, and wouldn’t be required to meet any sort of minimum posting requirement each month.  We decided that the only way PLoS would interfere with content was by setting some very liberal community guidelines upfront,  but we’d hold our bloggers and users to the exact same standards.

In the spirit of openness, we wanted to find new and interesting ways for blogging networks to work together.  To prove this, we are going to prominently feature content from other networks and media outlets on our Blog home page.  Look to the right-hand side of the screen, and you’ll see featured content from recognized media outlets (Ars Technica, Scientific American, and Wired).

We also wanted to promote the use of ‘best’ standards for science blogging.  And although we wouldn’t tell our bloggers what to write, we would encourage them to make use of services like researchblogging.org, as well as referencing DOIs whenever discussing research articles, which would also allow their content to figure into other PLoS products, such as article-level metrics.

We would aim to recruit bloggers whose interests align with what PLoS publishes.  To say PLoS journals cover an extremely broad range of topics is an understatement.  Just take a gander through the PLoS ONE table of contents if you don’t believe me.  Knowing we wanted to launch with a small and nimble network, we spent a great deal of time researching and recruiting top bloggers who were as diverse as our publishing focus.  We enlisted the help of blogger extraordinaire, Bora Zivkovic, to guide our choices.  But we didn’t stop there.  We also wanted to shake things up a bit by placing an equal mix of practicing scientists and writing pros side-by-side within a well-supported network.  And we’d require – yes, require – people to have fun.

With a great community at its back, our crew would be poised to tackle diverse issues in science and medicine and cite examples where our lives and culture overlap with the lab.  If our idea worked, we’d have a real chance at taking science communication in a whole new direction.

And with that, we finally felt we had distinguished ourselves from what had been done in the past.  As we patted ourselves on the back for a job well done, one rather large question remained.  Would bloggers buy into it?  Would we be able to recruit the people we wanted?  Gulp.

As we started nervously dialing our way down a very short list of people we felt were best aligned with what we were trying to do, our fears subsided.  Those we spoke to instantly acknowledged that this mash-up of experts was in fact something unique. They understood that diversity makes us all smarter.  Our network would allow these scientists and journalists – who typically live in their own little petri dishes – to cross pollinate.  Our bloggers felt this experience would simply make them better.

On our network, you’ll find an exciting mix of award-winning journalists and prolific researchers.  You’ll find people reporting breaking news and dissecting scientific studies.  You’ll meet bloggers whose previous homes were stretched across the blogosphere.

We know we’ve assembled a top-notch core of bloggers.  So much so that their bios deserve their very own page on our site.  But we aren’t above name-dropping either (listed in blog name alphabetical order):

Body Politic: hosted by Melinda Wenner Moyer

Genomeboy: hosted by Misha Angrist

Gobbledygook: hosted by Martin Fenner

Neurotribes: hosted by Steve Silberman

Neuroanthropology: hosted by Daniel Lende & Greg Downey

Obesity Panacea: hosted by Peter Janiszewski & Travis Saunders

Speakeasy Science: hosted by Deborah Blum

Take As Directed: hosted by David Kroll

The Gleaming Retort: hosted by John Rennie

The Language of Bad Physics: hosted by Sarah Kavassalis

Wonderland: hosted by Emily Anthes

On behalf of the entire PLoS family – both staff and our new blogger pals – we welcome you to PLoS Blogs.  We’ve all anxiously awaited the launch date, and are thrilled to have you join us.

follow me on Twitter: @bmossop

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