A strange thing happened Tuesday. The New Republic had just launched a new “Environment & Energy” blog on Sunday, and it had already hit a bump in the road. Just below the blog’s masthead was a small, green logo with the words, “Powered by BP.” Within a day of the launch, TNR readers had begun to complain about irony of an oil giant (even one that has been trying to burnish its green credential for years) “powering” (most assumed sponsoring) a blog about issues such as climate change and the development of renewable fuels.
Just as I was reading the blog’s inaugural posts and its readers’ comments I refreshed the page and, lo and behold, the controversial BP logo had disappeared. Below, an editor’s note explained the vanishing act:
You may notice that this blog looks a little different. The phrase “powered by BP,” which appeared in the banner when we launched yesterday, led to some (justifiable) confusion about the blog’s relationship with BP. But TNR’s agreement with BP was and is purely an advertising deal, and the company never had any say in our editorial content. Today, the TNR business staff and BP decided to remove their logo placement to make sure that relationship is clear.
The decision to remove the logo was quick—but not immediate. On Monday, just one day after the blog’s debut, its lead writer, Bradford Plumer, had posted something of an explanation in response to complaints from readers:
Lots of commenters have raised concerns about BP sponsoring (er, “powering”) this blog, and I wanted to chime in, too. Oil companies, as we know, have been trying to influence the energy debate for a long time—famously, the American Petroleum Institute hatched a scheme in the late 1990s to fund pseudo-scientists who could sow doubt about whether climate change was man-made or not. So I have a lot of qualms about an enviro blog that’s “powered” by BP, even if none of us bloggers have anything to do with TNR’s business side, and even if were hoping to keep this blog running after the sponsorship ends
Now, does BP dictate our content? No. Would we shy away from criticizing them? No. For one, I’m in favor of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade regime to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and BP has been pretty shamefully working behind the scenes in Congress to oppose strong climate legislation.
Readers’ responses to Plumer’s note, posted in the comments section below it, mostly accepted his explanation and reaffirmed readers’ faith in the publication’s integrity, but they were also steadfast in their opinion that the logo sent the wrong message and “distorted” readers’ expectations. According to New Republic editor Franklin Foer, the consequent need to remove it entirely was obvious. “It’s a pretty simple thing,” he told me a couple days later. “The phrase ‘powered by’ was confusing and implied that the relationship was more intense than a normal advertising relationship, which is what it was.”
None of the advertising revenue from BP was specifically earmarked to support the Environment & Energy blog, according to TNR’s publisher, Elizabeth Sheldon. The logo’s “launch sponsorship” position in the masthead was part of the larger placement package that The New Republic presented to all potential advertisers. The package also included more typical placement in the magazine (including the current special issue on energy and the environment) and online. After all, green marketing is all the rage at the moment, with companies from Dow chemical to General Electric investing heavily in an environmentally friendly image.
Foer likened BP’s deal with TNR to the marketing strategy that goes into designing many of the “Green Issues” that magazines like Vanity Fair publish every spring. Sheldon declined to comment on whether or not pulling the logo lead to any financial/contractual complications with BP, but according to Foer, the decision to do so in light of the negative reaction was mutual. “[BP] didn’t want to be perceived as influencing our content,” he said, “and likewise, we certainly didn’t our content to be perceived as having been influenced by them. It’s the reaction of our readers that is meaningful to us.”
Indeed, it was TNR’s readers that had led the publication’s editors to create the Energy & Environment blog in the first place. In December and January, they had launched a survey (designed for marketing purposes), which asked readers what they wanted to read more of. The number-one answer: the environment. In addition to such surveys, Foer said, he tries to read every comment made online. “It’s good to know where your readers minds are at,” he said. “And that’s so easy now. One of the best parts of TNR is that a lot of readers like to think of themselves as being on the staff. They have opinions about everything and they express them livelily.”
As attentive to readers’ concerns as any publication may be, however, The New Republic is certainly not alone in facing up to obstacles as it tries to figure out its image, presence, and business plan online. TNR’s dedicated readership seems willing to forgive and forget the logo incident, which is a good thing. The new blog has great writers and, in its first week, has been producing a lot of good content unrelated to and in between explanations of its advertising deal with BP.Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.