I’m thrilled there was an opportunity to be a poor freelance blogger … I would have done it for free. Putting CNN, The Atlantic, and Fast Company on my resume gave me extraordinary access to the top rungs of the business and political world. I was addicted to meeting fascinating people and writing (hopefully) compelling stories. It eventually gave me the credentials to get my first paid gig back at Fast Company.
I’m a libertarian. If it’s all voluntary, I don’t have a huge problem per se. What I would like to know, though, is: who is being asked to work for free on the business side? Or how many times does a business honcho there ask another businessman to donate his services for free? The question answers itself. And you know what that tells you: the management of the Atlantic now cares more about money than writing – and in the process, they are damaging the most precious commodity they have, editorial integrity. That’s been clear for a while now, as has the silencing of dissent among writers and commenters. Clay Shirky puts the systemic problem well, in a reply to Alexis:
I think you missed another of the reasons this blew up yesterday (the one you and I talked about in email a while back.) We don’t trust the Atlantic as much as we used to.
Your willingness to rent out your brand to Scientology, and then to silence the readers who tried to comment on that bit of infotainment (which, the official apology notwithstanding, was not a marketing mistake, but a conscious decision to censor your readers on behalf of your advertisers) put a bunch of us on edge, and we began to ask ourselves whether that was an out of character fuck-up, or a culture slowly going to shit.
I hope for the former, as you know, but you have to understand that when something like this happens, it’s not just that something went awry, it’s another thing that went awry at The Atlantic. I know the issues are complex and the editor was new, but there was a lot of circumstantial pleading for the advertorial cock-up as well. You guys have very little slack before people start publicly unsubscribing.
Here’s one personal anecdote.
The Atlantic.com reads, at times, like an IBM propaganda sheet (see the screen shot above – where, yes, the “sponsor content” is from IBM as well as the banner ad and video). Throughout the site, there are ads after ads by IBM, videos after videos, and “sponsored content” posts of horrible prose and worse jargon promoting the latest corporate management bullshit. And then I’m reading the new Atlantic cover-story on robotic medicine, by Jon Cohn, a superb journalist, edited by great editors. I do not doubt for an instant that this piece was fully ethical.
But then, on the first page or two, for the first time ever reading the Atlantic, my doubts arose. Why? The whole piece is centered on … wait for it … IBM’s super-computer Watson. Money quote:
IBM’s Watson—the same machine that beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy—is now churning through case histories at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, learning to make diagnoses and treatment recommendations. This is one in a series of developments suggesting that technology may be about to disrupt health care in the same way it has disrupted so many other industries. Are doctors necessary? Just how far might the automation of medicine go?
From the piece itself:
IBM didn’t build Watson to win game shows. The company is developing Watson to help professionals with complex decision making, like the kind that occurs in oncologists’ offices—and to point out clinical nuances that health professionals might miss on their own.
I still trust that the Atlantic did not run this cover-story as a way to curry favor with an advertiser that is also running “sponsor content” articles extolling their innovation. I do not believe this was product placement. But I can no longer say that those who wonder about that are crazy. When you rent out your name, prose, font, logo and pages to corporations’ “sponsored content” and then write cover-puff-pieces about the technology of exactly those companies, a reader has every reason to wonder whether they can trust a magazine that was only recently almost a symbol of such trust. As a deep lover of the Atlantic, it’s distressing, to put it mildly.