MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.
Today, we're talking about the mommy blogs. Now, back in the day, parents might have looked to their parents for tips on how to raise their kids or neighbors or books. But these days, many moms and dads go online for that information, to chat rooms or blogs. But as these blogs have become more popular, some are wondering if they are becoming too popular with corporate sponsors, everybody from Wal-Mart to Frito-Lay. More and more companies are looking to sponsor popular parenting bloggers or to supply them with free stuff, all in exchange for - what else? - endorsements.
So some are wondering whether that sponsorship love is compromising the blogosphere. We have invited a roundtable of mothers who blog to talk about that. Joining us now is Jamila Bey. She's a reporter for public radio station WAMU in Washington, D.C., and she blogs for the WashingtonExaminer.com. Christine Koh is the founder and editor of the blog BostonMamas.com. Catherine Sabonis-Bradley blogs about her parenting experiences at ThisMattersThisDay.blogspot.com. And Kelly Wickham is an assistant high school principal in Springfield, Illinois. Her blog is MochaMomma.com, not to be confused with the Mocha Moms. That's a different organization. Ladies, moms, welcome, thank you for joining us.
Ms. JAMILA BEY (Reporter; Blogger WashingtonExaminer.com): Thank you.
Ms. CHRISTINE KOH (Founder, Editor, BostonMamas.com): It's good to be here.
Ms. CATHERINE SABONIS-BRADLEY (Blogger, ThisMattersThisDay.blogspot.com): Thank you.
Ms. KELLY WICKHAM (Assistant High School Principal; Blogger, MochaMomma.com): Thank you.
MARTIN: Now Christine, I know you have a concern about the way advertising has - I don't know what word to use - has become so connected to the mommy-blog world. Tell us about that.
Ms. KOH: You know, one of the things that's been troubling to me, you know, as I've seen the mom blogosphere evolve is lack of disclosure. And that's a big problem that moms have been talking about and, you know, in this blogging community. And for me, on my site, you know, the ads are very clearly marked and, you know, are not merged with editorial in any way. That's just, you know, my policy, and the disclosure, you know, policy is very clearly laid out.
MARTIN: Do you take stuff? Do they give you stuff? Do they try to give you stuff?
Ms. KOH: Well, you know, I, like a lot of mom bloggers, if I'm going to review a product, I actually need to test it. So, yes, I do need to see something. It needs to come in the door. But that being said, even if it's sent, that doesn't necessarily guarantee editorial. You know, it has to go through a testing phase either with me or one of my contributors, and then we go from there.
MARTIN: Kelly, what about you? Do you have either advertising or sponsorship?
Ms. WICKHAM: I do not have sponsorship, and I'm taking it that you mean being sponsored to attend events.
MARTIN: Or getting stuff.
Ms. WICKHAM: Or getting stuff? There are things, yes, that I have gotten and I am transparent in the fact that, you know, I was asked to try this, and here's what I think of it. Most of the time, it is in a positive review because I'm not going to accept something that I would not normally use as a consumer anyway. For example, cleaning products. You know, I want a cleaning product to be non-toxic. I don't want to bring that kind of stuff into my house. So I'm already going to be looking for that.
Whenever I do a review, I do it on a separate page on my blog, and there's a disclaimer at the top that either says this is compensated or this is a paid review. And I don't even always point my readers to that page directly because I know that my readers come to me for the content of what I was going to talk about in the first place.
MARTIN: Catherine, what about you? You're relatively new at the mommy-blogging game. Do you have either advertising, or do you take stuff?
Ms. SABONIS-BRADLEY: I am brand new. I don't advertise and I don't - I haven't had any cause to have advertisers on my site. If I were to be asked to review something, I would - I mean, I would do so if it was something that was relevant to me already.
MARTIN: Jamila, now you were a journalist before you became a mom and before you started blogging.
Ms. BEY: Indeed.
MARTIN: And so - and I should mention that you've been a producer on our program, as well.
Ms. BEY: Indeed.
MARTIN: So how do you see this, as a person who both is a journalist and is a blogger?
Ms. BEY: Well, as a blogger, I am already corporatized. I blog under the examiner.com brand. So any product reviews or whatever, that's not really my purview. There are policies in place that deal with that and I, as a new blogger, too, with Examiner, I haven't had to cross that bridge.
But quite frankly, anyone who's ever used a free email account, anyone who's ever gone into a supermarket or another store and gotten a sample of anything, as an American, we are constantly marketed to. And I don't divorce that knowledge from my decision to go and look at a blog or read a Web site.
I am under the assumption that these people, whoever they may be, are trying to either sell me something or - and that's not a bad thing. A lot of times I want to know, well, what is a good product?
But I don't feel that it taints the experience at all. I don't know that it's necessarily a bad thing and I don't know that most moms don't sort of expect that they're going to be marketed to in the first place.
MARTIN: Christine, I'm going to ask you this.
Ms. KOH: Sure.
MARTIN: What if you get something and you don't like it, you hate it? Is there some agreement not to blog about it or not to mention it? Or do you come out and say, you know what, this thing is terrible?
Ms. KOH: Yep.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KOH: So, you know like Kelly, I have a pretty high - you know, I get hundreds and hundreds of pitches. And, you know, so I'm pretty stringent about what I'll even let in the door. I mean, that's why I don't even put a general mailing address on the site. I don't want people to waste their time and effort sending things that I'm not interested in. But you know, there have been times when things haven't worked out. They've had a funny smell.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KOH: They've, you know, broken or just have not worked out well. And you know, I think constructive criticism is great and that's essential and that's important. And so the thing I ask myself and my contributors rather is, you know, one, is this cool enough that I would recommend it to a friend? And two, you know, would I go out and buy this, you know had I not just received a review sample?
And in the cases where those two criteria are not met I go back to, you know, the company and I say, you know, I'm sorry, we're not going to feature this. At one point I had grappled with this issue the first time I had an item that just wasn't going to cut it.
And, you know, the vibe of my site is very positive. I want to feature things that are interesting and useful, and so there just wasn't the space for, you know, sort of a really negative review on something. That's just the approach that I decided to take.
MARTIN: Kelly, what about you?
Ms. WICKHAM: I was thinking the same thing. I'm all about constructive criticism, but I don't want to do a product review and just say that I don't like something. I always want to offer, here's how it could be better. For example, the things that I haven't liked are makeup. Makeup for women of color doesn't seem to ever really match our skin.
Ms. WICKHAM: And so if I'm going to get some samples of some lip gloss, don't send me pink.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WICKHAM: It's not going to look pretty.
MARTIN: But what I'm asking is, is there an explicit or is it an implicit agreement that if you don't like something, you either - you won't mention it? Is there that?
Ms. WICKHAM: That is implied. Absolutely.
Ms. WICKHAM: Because if someone's going to give me a product and I don't like it and I wouldn't spend my own money on it, why would I even write about it and give it any press whatsoever? If you send me mascara and I really like it and I'm going to go out and purchase it with my own money, I feel like I should have the integrity as a person who puts their authentic reflection of their daily life on my blog anyway to say, you know what, I am going to spend money on this. And here's why I think you should, too.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about whether Mommy bloggers taking on corporate sponsorship or accepting advertising somehow changes the relationship with the readers of those blogs and whether this is ethical or not. And we're talking to a group of Mommy bloggers, Christine Koh, Jamila Bey, Catherine Sabonis-Bradley and Kelly Wickham.
I have a question. Is - why not just buy the stuff to begin with? That way, Christine, that way, you know…
Ms. KOH: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: …you buy up front what it is that you want to test. That way you can say, well, I bought it, I like it, I don't like it, and you can donate it if -to somebody if you don't like it.
Ms. KOH: Yeah. That does happen. You know, a good portion of, you know, products and, you know, things that are featured on the site are things that I or my writers have just tried and loved on our own. So there is, you know, not everything is - not everything that gets reviewed is something that's been sent to me. Some are just things that have organically sprouted up and we've really loved them.
MARTIN: Catherine, what about you? What do you think though as a relative new blogger about the whole question of product and - you know, it's sort of funny we're talking about this because nobody has any money to buy anything anyway.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: We don't have any money? Are you kidding me?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SABONIS-BRADLEY: I still shop.
Ms. SABONIS-BRADLEY: But yeah, for food.
MARTIN: But Catherine, are you and I know that you're new to this, but are you surprised by the sort of the ferment over the whole question of advertising and product? Or was that always part of it when you got into the game?
Ms. SABONIS-BRADLEY: It had kind of nothing to do with my getting into the game. I think that there's a condescending tone to it that I'm not always comfortable with. There…
MARTIN: What do you mean? Give me an example.
Ms. SABONIS-BRADLEY: I feel like talking about the Mommy bloggers as if it's a single voice or a single mentality or a single approach, I think, you know, it's a diverse community that - whose voice is also diverse.
MARTIN: What's a better term, if you don't like that term?
Ms. SABONIS-BRADLEY: I'm not sure. I mean, I'm not sure. It's not the term itself that I have a problem with. It's sort of the connotations of it when it's spoken of in one bucket. I mean, does anybody else know what I mean or?
Ms. WICKHAM: This is Kelly. I would say I both agree and disagree. Yeah, I don't want to lump everyone together. However, there are a lot of women out there who are using the moniker Mommy blogger, and what they're doing is I think they're doing some of this marketing and PR stuff wrong. I'm very embarrassed about some of these sites that I've seen out there.
These women are standing on the beach with a picture of themselves standing on the beach asking for $1,200 to go to a conference. Well, I'm sorry but if you can pay to go on a vacation to a beach, I don't think I want to give you any money to attend a professional conference. So I'm probably one of those voices of those women who is - I'm very upset about the way we're all being portrayed in this if we're going to use that particular term Mommy blogger.
MARTIN: Well, I don't know. Jamila, what do you think about that?
Ms. BEY: Respectfully friends, I completely disagree. I hear Mommy blogger, I think it's a mother, she blogs. There are as many different Mommy blogs as mommies there are. There are as many different points of view of women who are mothers who blog. What, again, you know, Michel did it best, what else would we be called then?
MARTIN: Well, good because we're getting a little bit far afield from the question kind of in front of us, which is this whole sponsorship advertising piece. At the BlogHer conference, at the annual conference in Chicago, I think there was something like 1,500 women bloggers.
Ms. BEY: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: They're not all parenting blogs or mom blogs. There was a site pledge in which the bloggers promised to disclose material relationships and policies, and business practices. And as of I think a week or so ago more than 880 blogs had signed the site pledge. So Christine I just wondered, are you one of them? And is this…
Ms. KOH: Yes.
MARTIN: Does that suggest that there is a concern within the community about whether sponsorship asks for the things that…
Ms. KOH: Yeah. I assume that you're referring to…
Ms. KOH: I assume you're referring to Blog with Integrity?
MARTIN: Yes, the Blog with Integrity. Yeah.
Ms. KOH: Yes. Which to be fully transparent, I actually helped design that. I designed the site and I, you know, I did sign a pledge both under Boston Mamas and also under my personal blog, PopDiscourse.com. And I think it just was - it just felt like there was this right before BlogHer, which is when it went live, there was just this sort of wave, this feeling that, you know, people needed to be able to identify around the fact that, you know, they did still care about ethics and they did still care about, you know, being professional.
And I think going back just, you know, briefly to the Mommy blogger label, I think some of the discomfort with being labeled as a Mommy blogger has come from a lot of the sort of distasteful or potentially unethical behavior that sprouted up. And they just, you know, a lot of it happens to be around the mom blogger community.
MARTIN: There was one woman who, the founder of Momdot.com had a proposal that the Mommy bloggers undertake a PR blackout.
Ms. WICKHAM: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: To take a week without writing about any products or services. What do people think about that? Jamila, what do you think?
Ms. BEY: I personally don't like it. I go to Mommy blogs to find out, well, what's a good service here and there? For example, I cloth diaper my son and I knew of cloth diapers 30-plus years ago when you put plastic pants on the kid and, you know, hoped not to stick him with a pin.
MARTIN: With a huge pin.
Ms. BEY: Exactly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BEY: You know, and now they've evolved so much. All of my research was on these different Mommy blogs. Well, what do you like? What works for your family? How do they sleep all night in the things? And I found that there's a whole other community that sprung up of, tell it like it is reviews. But, you know, just if you love it, great; if you don't like it, great. And I found that I got better information from those because their whole point is, we tried baby diaper brand X. The thing gave my kid a rash.
MARTIN: Oh, okay. Catherine, what do you think?
Ms. SABONIS-BRADLEY: I think there's definitely - you can see the self-regulation. And I think that that adds certainly a layer of believability or integrity to the content itself. To Jamila's point, when you come to comments on something and you see that other people have responded to it you know that there's legitimacy to it.
MARTIN: So do you feel pretty much when you - that you're getting the real deal from the other parents?
Ms. SABONIS-BRADLEY: You get the real deal in comments. Whether it's the real deal in content or not I think you can generally discern if you approach it with a sort of a suspicious eye, I think.
MARTIN: So Christine, you've sort of taken a first step in trying to bring more integrity and transparency to this whole process. Any further steps that you feel are called for?
Ms. KOH: The one thing that I really liked about, you know, the Blog with Integrity concept, I think it's something about really the fact that we're taking our community back and being really proud of it. And it makes me really sad that there's been a lot of sort of bad press about mom bloggers. I mean, I am identified as one.
And I think that the key issue, you know, just tracking back to your issue about the MomDot PR blackout is that I feel like the bottom line is if you do not feel beholden to anybody else on your blog, if you're writing for yourself, if you're writing about things that you're passionate about, you know, there shouldn't be a problem. The problem is when you without any sort of, you know, without setting any boundaries, if you're just reposting press releases, which I do see…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KOH: …and you know, saying yes to every single thing that every single PR person pushes at you, there's a real problem with that. And I think that bloggers need to step back and follow their instincts on, you know, what they're going to blog about, and feel, you know, get back to the basics and feel really passionate about it, and basically not feel so beholden to other people with their own blog.
MARTIN: Kelly, final thought from you? Are there any other steps that you'd like to see people take, especially not other than like not holding up a sign on their beach vacation demanding money?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WICKHAM: Oh, no.
MARTIN: And also - can I also add another one, sending out chain letters demanding money.
Ms. WICKHAM: Yeah.
MARTIN: Hate those.
Ms. WICKHAM: I too have signed the Blog with Integrity pledge. And as an educator, the way I look at things is that we don't design things for kids who aren't going to follow the rules. We design them for what's in the best interest of all the kids in the hope that they'll follow along and do it.
So what I see Blog with Integrity doing is, I feel like that's the new radical act of Mommy blogging. It's asking for accountability and it's just saying, please be up front with what it is that your content is. And I'm either going to read a story that's well written or I'm going to read about a product that you like and I need to know the difference between the two.
MARTIN: Kelly Wickham is an assistant high school principal in Springfield, Illinois. Her blog is MochaMomma.com. She joined us by phone. Catherine Sabonis-Bradley blogs at ThisMattersThisDay.blogspot.com. She was kind enough to join us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Christine Koh is the founder and editor of the blog BostonMamas.com. She joined us from WBUR in Boston. And Jamila Bey is a reporter for the public radio station WAMU in Washington, and she blogs for the Washington Examiner.com, and she was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Ladies, thank you all so much.
Ms. KOH: Thank you for having us.
Ms. WICKHAM: Thank you.
Ms. BEY: Thank you
Ms. SABONIS-BRADLEY: Thank you so much.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: And now we'd like to hear from you. Are you less trusting of parenting blogs that take corporate sponsorships? Or are you able to separate the corporate promotion from good product reviews? If you are a mommy or daddy blogger, where do you stand on accepting free products in exchange for writing reviews?
To tell us more, you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again is 202-842-3522. Or you can blog it out at the TELL ME MORE page of the new NPR.org. There you can also find links to our previous conversations with our panels of moms.
And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.