The truce between advertising and editorial has always been uneasy at best. Its most advantageous form was likely the New Yorker policy that took shape under its founder, Harold Ross, and his successor, William Shawn. The ideal was an absolute separation of ad sales from editorial. That allowed writers and editors a free hand to write honestly, without discouraging them from addressing topics that might scare off advertisers. It allowed a measure of integrity in an industry where economic demands sometimes encourage publishers to mislead their readers.
Once you understand the power of that ideal, it’s easy to see why so many people were up in arms over an ad posted to The Atlantic website last week. The content of the article was provided by the Church of Scientology, an organization that has faced an ongoing public relations challenge, to put it mildly. Though it was labelled as “sponsored content,” its similarity to other articles on the site might easily have been persuaded readers that it was an article written to Atlantic standards. Which was, of course, very much the point.
The Atlantic is far from alone in experimenting with sponsored content. Sarah Lacy of PandoDaily points to BuzzFeed as an example of a publisher taking a smart tack on the trend. “It’s still disclosed and flagged as sponsored content,” she explains. “But they encourage advertisers not to write about themselves and to post content in the style of a fun, grabby BuzzFeed list — the kind of stuff people are coming to the site for anyway.” Even that may not be the safe ground Lacy supposes. Journalism training ground Poynter recently called BuzzFeed out for possible breaches of copyright in its sponsored content. Yet, it’s a mark of the disrupted state of publishing that another Poynter article, this one far more complimentary, echoes Lacy in citing BuzzFeed as perhaps “the best example of this in action.”
BuzzFeed makes for a complicated example, though. While it sometimes runs long-form reports, like its suggestion of a crisis within the Church of Scientology, posted synergistically on the heels of The Atlantic‘s faux pas, the bulk of its content is pop culture detritus. Nearly everything they publish, serious or otherwise, is rehash. On the front page today, for example, is an excerpt from a forthcoming book by the recently deceased Internet activist Aaron Swartz, an unsourced timeline of the Algerian hostage crisis, and an article—amounting to little more than a Cinemark press release and photos lifted from other publishers—about the reopening of the theater where the Aurora shooting took place. Those three (relatively) substantive pieces are jammed in between dozens of lists and pop culture retreads like “32 Surreal Stock Photos Of Kids With Guns,” “21 Life-Size Edible Objects Made Out Of Chocolate” and “How Well Do You Know ‘Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion’?”
All is to say that the BuzzFeed strategy, while every bit as clever as Lacy suggests, only works if you publish a relatively low standard of content. Sponsors run very little risk of ruining BuzzFeed‘s credibility simply because credibility is so rarely a factor in what BuzzFeed publishes.
Nor does it scale. In the second, more favorable Poynter article from above, Jeff Sonderman writes that, “if advertisers want the advantage of playing in your content space, they ought to rise to meet the higher standards it demands.” That’s feasible when your standard is a slight improvement over content farming, and few advertisers will need to reinvent their marketing department to produce passable BuzzFeed content. Producing competent and substantive journalism, though, requires time, training, tenacity. It isn’t a skill most marketers are likely to have tucked away on their resumes, and developing it will be prohibitively expensive for most potential advertisers. And after all, what they really want is the appearance of professional integrity.
When complaints began streaming through social channels, the Atlantic‘s editors removed the Scientology article and initiated an internal review of their advertising policies. ”We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising,” The Atlantic‘s media relations contact, Natalie Raabe, wrote in a widely circulated email, “but acknowledge—sheepishly—that we got ahead of ourselves.”
Probably, that mea culpa should signal the beginning of the end of The Atlantic‘s adventure in sponsored content. Chances are, though, they’ll adjust their strategy and try again. The status of online publishing is simply too tenuous for now. “Native ads” as they’re euphemistically called, now count for more than half of the site’s ad revenue, according to Digiday. Publishers need to remain profitable, and advertisers have the upper hand.
That dynamic imbalance is a result of the history of online publishing, which came as a disruption to a financial model that print had, by the end of the 20th century, brought to a high pitch of sophistication. Not that journalism was ever entirely safe around advertising. Even in the glory days of the truce, publishers needed advertisers. At times, that relationship of necessity lead to an attitude akin to worship. “The ads were God,” said David Simon, the former news reporter who turned to books and television for greater authorial control.
As the publishing industry consolidated into ever fewer conglomerates, editors felt pressured to concede more to advertisers in order to maximize profits. A destabilizing force like the Internet could not have asked for a more perfect opportunity. As the number of Web destinations expanded, opportunities for advertising increased, which meant less competition over ad space. At the same time, Web advertising promised to create unheralded opportunities for interactive (and presumably more effective) advertising. Any prior advantage the publishers may have had quickly dwindled. If one publisher balked at using pop-up ads and embedded videos, advertisers could always find a hungrier publisher willing to put aside such scruples.
Nevertheless, there are reasons why publishers like The Atlantic should hold out. ”It’s all about trust,” went the title of Josh Stearns’ coverage at Free Press. In terms of maintaining a reputable journalistic brand, trust is, indeed, the primary concern. “Advertisers want their sponsored content to have the look and feel of the news organization — similar in tone, visuals, etc.” he writes.
In this way, they’re not just buying placement; they’re also buying the right to piggyback on the newsroom’s brand. The goal is to make the advertisement as indistinguishable as possible from other news on the site. But can news organizations sell that kind of access without misleading their readers?
It’s about more than trust, though. It’s also about the future of online publishing. The Atlantic is one of the most trafficked online magazines in the country. The industry as a whole is watching how they adjust to digital, in hopes that they’ll find a reliable way of paying for journalism. Thus any successful financial experiment The Atlantic conducts has the potential to become the model that pays not only for The Atlantic, but also for other sites like it. In that regard, it has the opportunity to help set not only an example, but also some boundaries.
And Web publications desperately need boundaries at the moment. Many publishers are so cowed by forecasts of the end of journalism that they’re unwilling to resist any advertising scheme, even when those innovations are clearly to the benefit of the advertiser over the publisher and its readers. If the ads are gods, then online advertising is a veritable theocracy, complete with a priesthood of advertisers calling the tune to which the rest of the world must dance.
So where does that leave a comparatively sophisticated magazine like The Atlantic? If they adhere to their standards, it leaves them back at square one, looking for a way to make online publishing financially viable. No doubt that’s a scary prospect, but there are worse places to be. If flagships like The Atlantic chart the wrong course, we could all find ourselves there.