The Atlantic, a 156-year-old publication, has been at the forefront of digital media. Its diverse blogs (I read James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates) and online projects (InFocus, Atlantic Cities and the Atlantic Wire, for instance) have helped the Atlantic lead the push into the new media environment, all while making the publication profitable again. That’s what makes Jan. 14’s missteps, publishing an ‘article’ sponsored by the Church of Scientology in the same format as the Atlantic’s online news, so confounding and laughable.
Here’s what happened: The Atlantic is experimenting with models of funding online journalism. The Atlantic decided to start running paid content in line with its regular reporting, the first of which was something called “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year” (archive of article with a few comments) posted at 12:25pm on Jan. 14, 2013. This article and some associated sidebar content looked indistinguishable from regular Atlantic content (and showed up in searches of the Atlantic’s online archive), though they were marked with the words “sponsored content.” The Atlantic’s marketing team was monitoring comments on the Scientology article and deleted a number of negative comments. Criticism of the article spread across social media. And at 11:35pm, less than 12 hours after it was published, the advertorial was removed from the site and links to it forwarded readers to a message stating, “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads” and saying “We screwed up.”
Advertising content that looks like editorial content is nothing new. You can see “special advertising sections” in many newspapers and magazines. The Chinese and Russian governments have been particularly persistent with advertorials that look like news reporting in international news publications, including the Washington Post and New York Times. But the Atlantic’s Scientology debacle was a step too far for readers, not least because the Church of Scientology has a reputation for being a threat to democracy and unfriendly to those reporting or sharing information about the church.
For more about the Church of Scientology, make sure to read the New Yorker’s piece about director Paul Haggis and the Tampa Bay Times series investigating the inner workings of the Church.
And in the vein of editorial independence in online media, earlier this week a CNET writer resigned after CNET’s parent company CBS forbade the writer from giving a technology award to a company that CBS is currently suing.