Updated with statement from The Atlantic.
Yesterday afternoon, the Atlantic posted a sponsored story titled “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year,” purchased by the controversial church, highlighting “a milestone year for Scientology, with the religion expanding to more than 10,000 Churches, Missions and affiliated groups, spanning 167 nations — figures that represent a growth rate 20 times that of a decade ago.” It was not journalism, but as an “advertorial” — clearly marked sponsored content that reads like a regular article — it looked something like it. The company’s real writers were not pleased.
The decision on the part of the Atlantic to give a platform to Scientology and its leader, Miscavige — whose alleged abuses and questionable fund-raising tactics have been the subject of intense scrutiny over the past few years — sparked a furor on Twitter last night. Several Atlantic staffers vented their frustrations in public, with social media editor Chris Heller tweeting, “I am furious.”
“I didn’t know about it,” wrote senior editor Alexis Madrigal. “Let me see what I can find out.” James Fallows chimed in: “Thanks for asking! Yes, I have seen our ‘sponsored’ feature. I have things to say about it, but not tonight.” And Jeffrey Goldberg not-so-subtly posted a glowing endorsement of a new book investigating Scientology, which was retweeted and reiterated by several other star writers, including Madrigal, Fallows, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Several hours later, the post was pulled, replaced with a statement by the Atlantic: “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.” (Comments on the post were heavily moderated, requiring approval before being posted, unlike most content on the site.)
Editorial staffers were quick to blame the business side of the Atlantic for the embarrassment, claiming they were caught off guard by the post and the ensuing uproar. A source familiar with the matter tells Daily Intelligencer that the editorial staff at the Atlantic was “blindsided” by the debacle, leaving many in the newsroom “livid.” This source described employees as “horrified” by the post. It remains unclear what editorial scrutiny, if any, sponsored pieces have undergone in the past. Bob Cohn, editor of Atlantic digital, has not responded to a request for comment.
This kind of advertising has become increasingly commonplace among online news sites eager to find new sources of revenue. (See also: HBO’s “15 Instagrams That GIRLS Will Surely Regret” on Buzzfeed, or “Inspiring Women” from last month on TheAtlantic.com.) Indeed, the Atlantic has been “doubling down” on native advertising as opposed to traditional banner ads in recent months. Adweek noted that the first step for the Atlantic was to “Make the ad on-brand,” which this one was decidedly not.
In September, publisher Jay Lauf detailed the strategy, emphasizing native advertising as “more relevant, engaging content,” in an interview with Digiday. “A lot of people worry about crossing editorial and advertising lines, but I think it respects readers more,” Lauf said at the time. “It’s saying, ‘You know what you’re interested in.’ It’s more respectful of the reader that way.”
Update: The Atlantic released a statement Tuesday afternoon:
We screwed up. It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we’ve made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way. It’s safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand. In the meantime, we have decided to withdraw the ad until we figure all of this out. We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising, but acknowledge—sheepishly—that that we got ahead of ourselves. We are sorry, and we’re working very hard to put things right.