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The Atlantic pulls ‘sponsored content’ on Scientology’s ‘milestone year’

 

I saw this article tweeted several times before anyone reacted to the fact that it is not a news story:

David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year  (The page was removed after The Atlantic campaign was the subject of much criticism on social media. See more below.* )

If you hover over the bright yellow button that says “sponsor content What’s this?” you see

“Sponsor Content is created by The Atlantic’s Promotions Department in partnership with our advertisers. The Atlantic editorial team is not involved in the creation of this content. Email advertising@theatlantic.com to learn more. “

Scientology paid content in Atlantic

Well, that sounds like advertising to me. Is the yellow button enough of a label to distinguish this story about unprecedented David Miscavige and his role in the growth of Scientology from news and other opinion on The Atlantic? I don’t think so.

It looks like members of Scientology or their friends were geared up to comment on the piece. And there are other, very positive comments from people who don’t declare whether they are members or not.

This is not the first sponsored spot on the site. Also on The Atlantic categorized as “sponsored content” are:

Yet, there is a big difference.  On those two sponsored articles, the author is clearly identified at the top of the piece, right under the headline.

As you can see (to the right), there is no explanation about who wrote the Miscavige piece.

WHERE WERE THE EDITORS?
I have no idea how much money customers pay for “sponsored content” on The Atlantic, but editors should be included in decisions about such clear public relations material being passed off for editorial content.  Before we allow businesses to buy space on news sites to tell their own version about their success, the editorial side of our business needs to have a say in protecting our assets.

This is such an important issue on the business desk. Editorial staff need to be involved in “advertorial” and other “paid content.” We know that our credibility is the most valuable thing we have.

I suppose a very observant reader might possibly see the following image at the bottom of the article (which is adorned with photographs of new Churches of Scientology around the world), but I’m not sure:

The Atlantic Church of Scientology

(* After receiving an outpouring of criticism on social media, The Atlantic removed the Scientology page and replaced it with this note: “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.”

Much of the criticism was focused on The Atlantic accepting such advertising from Scientology.  I believe that criticism misses the point.  There are bigger issues here involving blending paid content and editorial content and how you allow comments on advertising.

As news business models continue to be hammered out, editorial staff need to make sure they are involved.

Erik Wemple, of the Washington Post, did a tick-tock of The Atlantic’s Scientology problem, start to finish

And this all comes in the same week that CNET’s Greg Sandoval quit because of what he called dishonesty over the relationship between CNET, it’s parent company CBS and rival DISH Network. )

About the Author

I am digital director at the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism, which I joined in 2009. Before that I was Online Community Manager for azcentral, the online site for The Arizona Republic. Before arriving in Arizona, I worked at Newsday where I was Deputy Business Editor. I was the small business editor at BusinessWeek Online. I teach journalists to use Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools to expand and manage their networks. And I am a cofounder of #wjchat, a weekly Twitter chat about web journalism. You can reach me at Email: Robin.Phillips@BusinessJournalism.org OR RobinJPhillips.com OR @RobinJP

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