The Atlantic Apologizes

Jan 16 2013 @ 11:05am

In a classy way – and they are reviewing the entire strategy. That’s great – and the swiftness and clarity of their apology does indeed, as my old friend TNC notes, show that their integrity endures. That matters to me because I deeply love the institution and respect its writers. But the more I have read about new advertizing strategies online the more relieved I am that we are trying – and trying is the best I can say so far – to stay out of this advertizing business.

Obviously sponsored content from Scientologists, with Atlantic employees systematically removing negative comments, is self-evidently awful. But I have to say I tend to agree with Pareene: why is the Church of Scientology more objectionable as “sponsored content” than, say, Shell or Intel or IBM? Here’s a video entirely provided by Shell:

This is corporate propaganda, not journalism. Yes, it is identified as such – but on the video page, actual journalism by brilliant writers like Alexis Madrigal is interspersed with corporate-funded propaganda. You can easily mistake one for the other.

Here’s another screen shot that troubles me:

screenshot_atlantic

The author of the second article is one Martin Duggan. What’s his journalism background?

Martin Duggan is the vice president of market strategy, responsible for
driving strategic efforts across IBM’s Cúram product portfolio and
evaluating new markets. He has 20 years of social enterprise experience
working in a variety of delivery, strategy development, and consulting
roles and is viewed as a social services thought leader around the
globe.

On the same page, we have two other ads by IBM, an infographic by IBM, two more stories written by IBM, three links to IBM pages, and one IBM video. It’s made legit by a tiny box up top, which you have to roll over to find out that:

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.

Did IBM also provide the art? Then I went to Quartz, the company’s new global business site. Two out of the first ten pieces I saw on the main-page last night were written by corporations, Chevron and Cadillac, presumably in collaboration with the Atlantic. (The Cadillac has now gone, replaced by another identical Chevron “piece”.) I’d like to know as a subscriber and former senior editor who exactly on staff helped write those ads, and how their writing careers are different than that of regular journalists. Jay Lauf, for whom I have immense respect, said this about the strategy of “native ads” – or what I prefer to call enhanced advertorial techniques:

“A lot of people worry about crossing editorial and advertising lines,
but I think it respects readers more. It’s saying, ‘You
know what you’re interested in.’ It’s more respectful of the reader that
way.”

Read this piece and see if you agree.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that readers do not expect great magazines to be artfully eliding the distinction between editorial and advertorial with boosterish ad campaigns from oil companies. Usually, those advertorials are in very separate sections in magazines – “Sponsored By The Government Of Dubai” or something – but integrating them in almost exactly the same type and in exactly the same format as journalism is not that.

I can understand companies sponsoring real journalism in inventive, dynamic, interactive ways. Magazines need advertizing to survive. I also understand how banner ads are useless for many big companies. I also realize that keeping the Atlantic alive requires herculean efforts in this tough climate. But please, please, please remember that the most important thing you have at the Atlantic is your core integrity as one of the great American magazines. I see no evidence the editorial staff has compromised that in any way and regard their writers and editors as role-models as well as journalists and friends. But there comes a time when the business side of a magazine has to be reminded that a magazine can very gradually lose its integrity in incremental, well-meant steps that nonetheless lead down a hill you do not want to descend. I know they are principled and honorable people there; and I know they understand this. But please know that this stuff makes an Atlantic reader grieve.