Pharmalot’s first year: a conversation with Ed Silverman
When I spoke with him last week, Ed Silverman was in transit, taking the train into midtown for a meeting. I asked Silverman, the man behind the pharmaceutical news megablog Pharmalot, if he usually blogs on the train, and he said yes, when the signal permits – and then admitted he’s been known to take his laptop with him to the hospital.
PS: Before being editor for Pharmalot, you were a reporter for the Star-Ledger of New Jersey. Was pharma your first beat? Your dream beat? How did you get here?
ES: I was at New York Newsday until it closed in 1995, and then I went over to the Star-Ledger. I’ve been a business journalist my whole life, so when I got to the Star-Ledger, I was assigned the pharma beat, and I did that ten solid years, part of the time covering it all on my own, part of it with someone else. I got a great education, covered all sorts of things, but by the 10-year mark, we were all at a crossroads, me, the paper.
I suggested something like Pharmalot to the editor, who liked the idea as a vehicle to grow into the future. So I spent 2006 talking, planning, and pitching to folks. The Newhouse family, who owns many media outlets, the Star-Ledger biggest among them, really liked the idea.
PS: For such a new media idea, why did you need old media backing?
ES: I didn’t have to go out on my own, which meant I was able to keep my health benefits and retirement benefits from the paper. I have tech support and the legal support (I haven’t needed that, but it’s there) of a big paper. It also gives me a certain credibility that is harder to attain and maintain on my own in what is still, for the moment, an old media world. I am journalist with a large newspaper, and I can still trade on that cache. It’s easier to establish yourself that way.
But I’m no longer a cog in a wheel. What I’m doing is challenging, fresh and unique, and I’m kind of my own boss. I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder, I do answer to someone, but I have an opportunity to grow a business that I wouldn’t have had if I’d remained in the newsroom.
PS: How did you conceptualize Pharmalot when you were pitching the idea?
ES: I envisioned something that looked in different ways at different things about the pharma industry. It didn’t have to smell like or look like a blog, it just had to be some sort of launch pad.
PS: Do you have more access to stories than you did as when you were a reporter? Less?
ES: It’s a funny thing. The Star-Ledger is a big paper, by the numbers, but it’s right across the river from New York, and has always been overshadowed by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times when it comes to business news.
Even though we’re right in the heart of the pharma industry, geographically, physically, it’s harder to compete with reporters in Washington. For instance, if you are working for the FDA, you check two papers: the Washington Post and the WSJ. There are a few go-to places based on what you do and where you are.
It’s taken months, and I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone, introducing myself to people, sometimes again. But the influence and reach [of Pharmalot] is growing in ways I never could have at the Star-Ledger. I have more readers in Europe, and a growing number of readers in India.
The Times of London named Pharmalot one of the best 50 business blogs last year, which was very flattering and completely out of the blue. When I was writing for the Star-Ledger, no one but the one guy I know in London knew what Ed Silverman wrote last week. And now I guess they do.
PS: With so many readers and such a wide story base, are you accused of having a bias?
ES: Sometimes I’m accused of being pro-pharma by people, and sometimes I’m accused of being anti-pharma by other people. The reality is that I’m a journalist. This is an industry that’s going through enormous change and challenge, and as journalist, I follow the tension. I don’t feel the need to inject myself — the site is not about me.
PS: On average, how many posts do you make per day? Do you have a number you shoot for, or does it vary a lot?
I do about 8-10 posts per day, and that’s a strategic number. You should do several things a day that add up to the most interesting blog.
A lot of people think of blogging as sounding off, but I don’t necessarily do that in every post; it’s a mix of news and views. As Bob Dylan said, if there’s an original idea out there, I’d sure like to hear it.
I have experience, but in the end, I’m still just a journalist, I’m not the executive at a pharma company. So, if we’re going to have a site people want to go to, it has to be more than commentary.
On the other hand, if you are just regurgitating news and linking to other places, that’s only useful up to a point. This is a brave new media world, and there’s always a new aggregator out there. To get people to think about something everyday, you have to give them something everyday.
PS: How many visitors do you get per day?
ES: We started in January 2006, so we’re closing in a year. I can’t be specific, but several thousand a day. We haven’t advertised — it’s all viral and word-of-mouth. By three measures — RSS feeds, email subscribers, and daily visitors — Pharmalot is growing incrementally and steadily.
PS: What are the pressing issues you see facing the industry and its consumers?
ES: Safety-patents-pricing-generics-advertising-lobbying-litigation. And it just goes on.
PS: When you write about the leaves falling outside your window, is that actually happening? When you do the pharmalittle coffee break, do you actually get a cup of coffee, or change the wash?
ES: I didn’t have time to put something on my site that I’ll be on a train to Manhattan this afternoon, but sometimes I’ll do that. When I say that the dog has pooped and the kids are off at school, that’s accurate. Or if I’m going to a lunch meeting, I’ll put a picture of the type of food we’re going to have, just a hint. It’s all a little tongue in cheek.
PS: Some reporters have a book in the drawer, or a book they aspire to write. Do you?
ES: No. Actually, in my previous life, I did have an agent and one book proposal out, but I have not pursued anything since then.
Of all the books out on the pharmaceutical industry in the past two years, and most of them that I know of are good, none of them have gone anywhere commercially. I just wonder how much appetite there is for reading that material in that kind of detail.
PS: Does it bother you when you read the phrase “tipping point”? I hear and read it everywhere now, but what were people using to describe this phenomenon before 2000?
ES: Nah, I see so much jargon, it all goes by me. So long as I know what people are saying when they write, I’m fine.
And there were bad ones before. “Pushing the envelope.” Remember that one? That was terrible.