The Atlantic has done so many things well in its move online that I was among the many readers and journalists flabbergasted when it teamed with the Church of Scientology to repeat a mistake that had already been made more than two years ago, in almost exactly the same form, when Seed sold a blog spot to Pepsigate. Some of the Atlantic’s writers struck back fast and cleverly, posting nice reviews of Lawrence Wright’s new Scientology expose, for instance, so that those links ran right alongside the advertorial, which the magazine soon pulled. The Atlantic — they’re smarter than that, right? I suspect they are. But as they say in grammar school, someone made a bad decision and needs to think about what they’ve done.
Meanwhile, some watchers asked just what was so wrong about the advertorial anyway? It carried a sort of prominent yellow banner that said “Sponsor Content”; wasn’t that enough to declare it an advertisement?
Well, no. If the Church of Scientology wanted to run an ad, they’d buy an ad. But they wanted something more: They wanted some of the credibility that goes with being editorial content at the Atlantic. That’s the whole point of sponsored content or advertorials whose design mimics that of the magazine or occupies layouts that are, by design, meant to tell the reader that This Is The Magazine (or website): to pass as editorial content, or something very much like it, and thereby borrow — no, steal — some of the credibility that writers and editors have worked hard to grant that space.
Whoever made the call at the Atlantic should know this, as this was an almost exact repeat of the Pepsigate scandal at Seed. That affair drew a lot of attention in the journalistic blogosphere, but someone high up at the Atlantic clearly missed, dismissed, or forgot it. What I wrote about Pepsigate 27 months ago (3 months after fleeing Seed when the magazine sold a chair at the editorial table to Pepsi) applies perfectly to the Atlantic’s slip if you simply substitute Scientology advertorial for Pepsi blog:
[J]ournalism has long recognized that it’s vital to have clear distinctions between advertising and editorial, and the entire point of the
Pepsi blogScientology advertorial was to blur those lines, and give a commercial message some of the dressings of editorial content. It let Pepsithe Church of Scientology buy a credibility that should be earned otherwise. In doing so, it threatened the credibility of the bloggerswriters who established ScienceBlogsThe Atlantic’s reputation. In that sense it was a zero-sum game that created winners and losers: Pepsithe Church of Scientology bought the right to siphon credibility from SB’s bloggersThe Atlantic’s writers and editors. That’s what that giant slurping sound was.
And in this case the sound, audible all the way up here in Vermont, of Alexis Madrigal and James Fallows and company retching down in D.C. A publication’s editorial space has credibility because its writers write there from personal points of view rather than corporate or organizational perspectives, and — the vital element — their allegiance is first and foremost to their readers, not to their subjects, much less whatever outfit wants to pony up big to buy the space. The writers may (will) get stuff wrong. They may hold stinky or ill-formed opinions. But they write to communicate, not to sell.
That’s the fundamental promise of editorial space, and at a publication like the Atlantic, a writer earns the right to occupy that space through merit, not a sheaf of twenties slipped to the editor. (This is one reason that when a writer and an editor go to lunch, the editor, God bless her, always picks up the check.) That space and that credibility comes hard earned. And the particular design and layout conventions that magazines and website use to designate editorial space are meant to tell the reader: We find this writer, and what she wants to communicate, important enough to bear the expenses of bringing you her work; and this writer will try to inform or sway or entertain or move you, but she will not try to sell you something.
A banner at the top is not nearly enough to overturn all the conventions that make this announcement, for aside from the banner, everything else about the presentation is designed to tell the reader, The goods are in the ads; this here is a place in which a writer we trust will seek to have an intimate conversation with you. Editorial space, folks, is editorial space: It’s a sitting room, an intimate booth, a bedroom. It’s dishonest, and a huge betrayal of writers and readers, to turn it into a sales room.
Why I’m Staying Gone from ScienceBlogs | Wired Science | Wired.com
A food blog I can’t digest | Wired Science | Wired.com
The PepsiGate linkfest – A Blog Around The Clock
ScienceBlogs, PepsiGate, and Institutional Content – Newsweek and The Daily Beast