The Atlantic’s big mistake in the Scientololgy “debacle” has been variously described as:

1. Running an ad in the first place for a strange and predatory money-obsessed cult (as opposed to inviting Goldman Sachs to star at a lucrative conference).

2. Not marking it clearly enough.

3. Heavily moderating the comments while other posts aren’t.

There is merit to any of the above arguments. But the one that got me thinking the problem might not be with this particular ad for this particular cult organization, but with native ads in general, or at least as they pertain to journalism, was this post from Adweek’s Charlie Warzel:

Debacle proves that above all else, native ads need to feel native

That is to say:

While the nature of sponsored journalism will continue to feel foreign and concern traditionalists, last night’s debacle almost certainly educated some new readers about sponsored posts while publishers will ultimately learn a vital lesson from all of this: Native advertising, above all else, has to feel at home in its host publication to have any chance at being successful.

The post quotes Shafqat Islam, co-founder of the content licensing and syndication platform NewsCred, who argued that the post may not even qualify as native advertising:

“Atlantic readers don’t find that content interesting,” he said. “To me, it was a mistake and not an example of native. Readers don’t come to The Atlantic for that.”

Which raises an existential question for native ads. If these are defined, as this Mashable post has it, as “a form of media that’s built into the actual visual design and where the ads are part of the content,” the problem is that journalism is defined by the independence and “integrity” —in the dictionary sense of being “whole, entire, or undiminished”—of its own material. But a “native” ad, the way it’s conceived, is only native if it becomes “part of the content.”

In journalism, that’s not going to work. Okay, I’m not going to say it definitely can’t ever work under any circumstances. But the potential problems become apparent. The native ad, at least as defined here, seeks to become part of content that is itself defined by being separate, apart, independent, attached to nothing, and beholden to no one. That’s the ideal, what everyone is shooting for. The native ad wants forever to be part of —to integrate itself into—something that wants nothing to do with it.

That dynamic is problematic. Editorial will forever be the cat, and native advertising, Pepe Le Pew.


See what I mean?

Maybe the relationship can be managed. Certainly, it will require much coordination between the ad and editorial sides, which can be good. Or not.

TNR’s Marc Tracy, for instance quotes a person at The Atlantic who says “editorial had no input in this advertorial, which is S.O.P. at media outlets.” Maybe that, in fact, was the problem.

The Atlantic’s case is an interesting illustration of the confusion that seems inherent to the model. For one thing, no one is sure exactly what The Atlantic did wrong. Tracy makes a good point, even if I disagree with his conclusion, that there’s not much wrong here at first blush:

[T]he advertorial was an instance of the Atlantic, a for-profit magazine, accepting money in exchange for an advertisement. Just because it was written and designed in the style of a (poorly written and poorly designed) Atlantic post does not make it any less an advertisement than the banner ads that adorn virtually every media website you visit, including The New Republic’s.

Even The Atlantic isn’t sure yet what it did wrong:

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.

I say the problem starts with the format: the jarring thing about the Scientology “article” is that it looked like, mimicked, aped, a genuine, bona fide Atlantic article. And the more that it looked, felt, and read like an Atlantic article, the more successful, the more “native,” it was.

In that, it was no different from the IBM post, which Tracy found, that was also sponsored content.

It was an attempt by an outside organization with its own agenda to pass itself off as a “part of the content,” native to the site.

But it’s not. And it never can be.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.