Why I exposed Seed

I wrote a piece in the Guardian this week exposing the lack of editorial independence at the science magazine Seed – an article I wrote for Seed was rejected out of fears that it might upset one of their potential advertisers.

My article followed a furore in the science community over the decision by ScienceBlogs – owned by the Seed Media Group – to host a blog on nutrition written by the food giant PepsiCo. ScienceBlogs, home to some of the world’s top scientific minds, swiftly bled some of its star writers in response. Scientists were angry that the integrity of the site they had helped to develop had been compromised by the too-subtle inclusion of a promotional blog by the fast food company.

Adam Bly, owner and CEO of the Seed Media Group, has now removed the offending ‘Food Frontiers’ blog, no doubt concerned at the backlash.

So why did I add my piece? It goes against everything I believe in to kick a man while he’s down – even if he acts like a twerp without integrity. I really don’t like to deliberately upset someone (who does?), and I knew this would probably further damage his reputation.

And I have to declare a conflict of interest: Seed treated me pretty badly, not paying me for months and months, and very nearly ended the journey that I left my well-paid and well-respected job for. So am I doing this as some sort of revenge?

No, I am not. Seed is not the only company to have treated me unprofessionally or to have not paid me, sadly. But by not running the Bhopal story for the reasons they gave, Seed displays utter lack of editorial independence, or journalistic integrity. They not only treated me badly, by backing out of paying me for the article, they treated the Indian people still suffering the effects of the world’s worst chemical disaster badly: preferring to appease their potential advertiser, Dow Chemical, than publish this story of how impoverished Indian people are still suffering 25 years on. And the ridiculous thing is that my article was not some new reveal of Dow Chemical’s involvement – this is accepted and widely known information.

My reason behind telling this tale is that some people think that the ScienceBlogs fiasco has been a lot of fuss about nothing. That Seed was just trying to make a buck and went about it in a rather gauche way. That the scientists who left the site in response are blowing the whole thing out of proportion.

Freelancing, as I have discovered, after years of being an editor, is a vulnerable occupation and it can be almost impossible to earn enough to get by. Those who left the security of ScienceBlogs may not have jeopardised their entire earnings, but it was a brave decision and I want to let them know that they were right – this is not some one-off by Seed, the company is grubby and without integrity. And it should be revealed as such.

Journalism is not often held in high regard. But I am certain that my fellow reporters went into this profession for the same reason I did, to bring truths to a wider audience: to tell an honest story. In many of the fields that I report on, including climate change, medicine and social issues, I feel a great responsibility to tell an honest story both to accurately represent the people in the article and to provide a true picture of the issue to the reader. In my previous roles as an editor within a publication and as an editor of a publication (when I edited a small, soon-folded magazine), I felt the added responsibility of ensuring that the reporter’s account was represented.

The way that Adam Bly responded to the ScienceBlogs upset showed me that he has not understood this basic tenet of journalism, and that he has grossly underestimated the integrity of his ScienceBloggers.

As I watched the fiasco unfold, I realised that I was in a rare position to be able to back those brave scientists who had given up their secure platforms on a principle.

Nevertheless, it was a big decision for me. Journalism is a small, inter-dependent industry. Science journalism, like every specialism, operates in a particularly small world and I knew that by telling this story, my colleagues may close ranks behind Seed. I also considered that out of all my colleagues there is only one who I think might do the same as me were they in my position. Which is a lonely position.

But in return for all the times we journalists ask others to blow the whistle and expose corruption, I know I must be willing to do the same. And because I visit countries where receiving ‘the honest story’ from the media is impossible, where my international colleagues undergo far greater hardships in order to deliver a true story, and where I interview people about corruption in their lives, it would be incredibly hypocritical for me to shy away from my small contribution to truth now.

I have been touched and bolstered by the kindness and support that my colleagues, twitter friends and scientists have shown me in response. Just as Adam Bly appears to believe that everyone operates according to his principles, so I believe in the inherent compulsion of people to know right from wrong.

And I have learned of many more examples of Adam Bly’s lack of integrity, of his desire to appease advertisers to the detriment of the honest story. I have also heard, from those who have worked closely with him, about his empire built on the labour of unpaid interns and of others who also waited months for payment.

And now to respond specifically to comments made by Seed editors in response to my Guardian article:

The first response came from Lee Billings, senior associate editor of Seed magazine (aka Bly’s nanny/rottweiler?), who in a series of tweets, wrote: “that the Seed editor in question is no longer with the company”…”for what should be obvious reasons”, and “Behavior unacceptable”.

So, to Lee, I say: yes, it is unacceptable. The individual who wrote me the email detailing Seed’s edvertorial policy rejecting my piece, while reproachable is not ultimately responsible. All responsibility for this must and does rest with the CEO Adam Bly. And to imply, as Lee Billings does in his tweet, that the individual is no longer with the company because they were sacked due to their lack of editorial integrity, is a pretty serious character assassination that I doubt bears out. I say, grow up, stop blaming the fall guy and accept responsibility for your company’s actions.

Lee Billings’ further response in a comment to my Guardian article, details some articles published by Seed that criticise companies, some of which advertise with the Group. “It stands to reason,” he says, “that if the supposed editorial policies Ms. Vince claims are endemic here at Seed actually held sway, none of these articles would have ever seen the light of day.”

So, firstly, I didn’t suppose any editorial policies in my article, I merely retold my experience – having heard since from other people, I know understand that my experience was not a one-off, but that such editorial policy likely is endemic. Anyway, I don’t have the time or inclination to read the articles Lee lists, suffice to say that all that might be reasoned from them is that Seed has also published material that is critical of its advertisers.

Now to Adam Bly who has commented on his own blogsite:

Firstly, he says: “The Guardian article is ridiculous” before deferring to Lee Billings. But he does eventually manage to speak for himself, to call the rejection of my Bhopal article “an isolated mistake”. Is that an apology, Adam? He then tangentially asks whether any of my “other big employers have made any mistakes”, which is a rather bizarre response to being caught with your pants down in the ethics office. I can’t answer for other media I’ve worked for, of course, except to say: not in my experience.

Adam Bly’s second par, complains that “the Guardian article is not balanced” – er, it’s not supposed to be balanced, Adam. It’s a blog, an opinion piece. I have no doubt that the Guardian would afford you your right to reply, should you choose. The rest of the paragraph boasting your “editorial freedom” is another bizarre irrelevance in my opinion.

In terms of this being “a malicious attack”, I don’t intend malicious sentiment, but the facts do paint an unflattering light on your character and editorial decisions.

A proper response to my article (and to the ScienceBloggers), would, I think, be an unreserved apology and a recognition of why your actions have caused such offence.

And now I think I’ve said everything I should on this subject!

15 thoughts

  1. Adam’s reply to your letter in the Guardian was truly bizarre.

    I find it disheartening that a site and organization that I had some warm fuzzy feelings towards turns out not to deserve those feelings.

    But I can’t imagine what those bloggers who have spent years building their blogs there feel.

  2. I have to tell you, I was one of maybe 3 people who sided with Adam on the Pepsi thing – because I don’t think industry writers are inherently less ethical, having known too many unethical academic people, and they never got to write(and blogging is not journalism). I just thought he had lost his way by taking money for it, in a pressure-filled economic climate trying to keep his baby afloat – and we all have to give it to the guy, he raised money time and again to keep Seed going, which is commendable. He believes in it. But a one-off lapse would be no big deal, he did his best to undo it.

    But your disclosure blew me out of the water so I have to retract my support because this sounds endemic now.

    Luckily you got your piece printed. Unluckily the experience has made you jaded about trying to get stories out there. Keep fighting the good fight. We don’t buy content, our articles are all written by researchers/book authors/journalists who don’t want to keep their own sites and like our community, but if we ever do pay for articles, whatever you write will be at the top of the list.

  3. Gaia,

    I take my hat off to your guts and integrity. It has given me pause for thought about outing a previous employer, which I may do when I’m ready.

    Quite apart from that experience, I have seen all sorts of sneaky rubbish in this industry. A lot has to happen quickly, editors will consider events from different points of view and, yes, mistakes will be made. But there’s no excuse for the email that your editor at Seed sent you.

    I should add… as a science journalist who has been edited by Gaia, and indeed on one occasion complained about her to her (!), I can only praise the way she wanted to hear all of my comments and address each of them clearly, honestly and carefully. She wasn’t defensive, angry or in any rush to get on with her millions of other duties. I left that meeting thinking, “Geez, I wish every editor had the respect for their profession and their writers to do that.” I don’t type that lightly.

    Keep it up, girl!

    1. Aw Anna, you’re a sweetheart, thanks so much! And I’m with you all the way, should you decide to fight your own hideous battle, or not, of course.

  4. Let that be a lesson to you. Every commissioned article should have built into its contract a kill fee: if the magazine (or whatever) declines to publish the finished article, the writer gets the kill fee, which is about 50% of the expected payment for the published article. So you won’t be working for nothing. If the CEO is serious about the rejection being a mistake, he can rectify that mistake and publish the article. If he doesn’t want to publish it, he should send along the usual kill fee of a standard freelancing contract.

    Good for you standing up to them.

    Oddly enough, I’ve subscribed to the printed version of Seed twice. The first time I got, I think, one issue. The second time I didn’t get any.

  5. Thanks for doing this. As a print newspaper reporter since 1984, I’ve never personally encountered this type of b.s. but know of it. I would clock my editor if he or she spiked a story based on offending an advertiser. That is supposed to be a sacred, inviolate wall, which is the only reason readers can trust what we write. But the wall is often broken by folks like Mr. Bly and the only way to stop their juvenile behavior is to call them out in public, as you have done.

  6. Props to you for going public on this, it matters. Keep up the good work (have had quick look, and will come back for more), and hope you can make it pay!!

  7. I admire you tremendously. Thank you for what you did. Integrity is a scarce resource these days.

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