The collective fury of the media chattering class was in full force yesterday evening as journalists, ad folks and casual readers alike sounded off on Twitter over a sponsored post about Scientology on The Atlantic's website.
@morningmoneyben Cause they ran an ad. And publications are supposed to fund themselves based on magic money trees.— Joseph Weisenthal (@TheStalwart) January 15, 2013
Am confused. Scientology bought a clearly marked advertorial on the Atlantic site. So what? Good for them.— Ben White (@morningmoneyben) January 15, 2013
So people are just NOW getting angry about sponsored posts because of Scientology? Not sure why it's any better when McDonald's does it.— Will Leitch (@williamfleitch) January 15, 2013
Online journalism has some serious, serious problems right now— Jared Keller (@jaredbkeller) January 15, 2013
For a publication like The Atlantic, whose reputation rests on trenchant, thought-provoking journalism, the promoted post from an incendiary organization like The Church of Scientology rankled a subset of readers unfamiliar with the world of native advertising as well as those who felt that the paid religious content bordered on "blatant propaganda."
While the nature of the Scientology-based content is bound to spur its own journalistic ethics debates, from a business perspective, the greatest sin of The Atlantic (which took the post down pending a review of its policies and posted this apology) may be licensing uninteresting and bizarre content that falls well outside the walls of the magazine's brand. Shafqat Islam, co-founder of the content licensing and syndication platform NewsCred, argued that the post may not even qualify as native advertising. "Atlantic readers don't find that content interesting," he said. "To me, it was a mistake and not an example of native. Readers don't come to The Atlantic for that."
Cases like this one show the kinds of growing pains one can expect when traditional publications tinker with established business and editorial models. There is no doubt, though, that the flare-up last night left many wary of 2012's most-hyped publishing strategy. Sites including BuzzFeed, which has been widely thought of as a pioneer in the native field, declined to comment this morning on its sponsored post strategy and standards, perhaps a sign that many are reluctant to weigh in on a still-emergent process.
While the initial outcries over the post lamented that the Scientology post wasn't clearly delineated as a sponsored post (despite the label reading "sponsor content" that sat atop the post), those concerns are likely to dwindle as readers become familiar with and recognize sponsored content as a means to fund the journalism they consume and appreciate. "Probably, mainstream viewers were confused [as] to what was going on, not because it was sponsored but because it was a bizarre article," Islam told Adweek.
More than anything else, the incident illustrates that online publishing is still going through great change and uncertainty. While the nature of sponsored journalism will continue to feel foreign and concern traditionalists, last night's debacle almost certainly educated some new readers about sponsored posts while publishers will ultimately learn a vital lesson: Native advertising, above all else, has to feel at home in its host publication to have any chance at being successful.
"Ultimately, a publication needs to think about its own integrity and brand," Islam said. "Sponsored posts will most certainly stay around, but not at the expenses of the integrity of a publication as storied as The Atlantic."