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Knight Center


Recent paid content strategies threaten to blur the line between news and advertising, analysts say

Screen shot 2013-01-15 at 4.17Screen shot from The Atlantic's offending Scientology paid content advertisement

On Monday, Jan. 14, The Atlantic raised some eyebrows with the publication of a "sponsor content" article on its website celebrating the Church of Scientology. The magazine took the article down within hours following outcry from readers and journalists, reported Poynter. As media organizations search for ways to leverage their brands online, critics warn about blurring the lines between news and advertising.

The article paid for by the Church of Scientology venerated David Miscavige, the religion’s leader, and highlighted “ideal” churches built around the world. The article mirrored a typical post on and included a “sponsored content” button at the top of the post highlighted in yellow. According to the Guardian, the Atlantic’s marketing team moderated comments on the article before taking it down. 

Click here to download a PDF of the original article as saved by Gawker. 

The magazine published an apology on Tuesday, Jan. 15, admitting it “screwed up:”

“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.” 

Last September, The Atlantic’s publisher Jay Lauf told Digiday: “A lot of people worry about crossing editorial and advertising lines [regarding content-based ad formats], but I think it respects readers more,” Lauf said. “It’s saying, ‘You know what you’re interested in.’ It’s more respectful of the reader that way.”

Josh Stearns disagreed in his column for Free Press. The media critic argued that the whole idea behind this style of advertising was to blur the boundaries between the newsroom and ad sales, and called for greater transparency from news organizations when identifying paid content: 

“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?”

While The Atlantic ended up with egg on its face over “pay-for-play” advertising this time, it is not alone when it comes to experimenting with the new marketing model. Relatively low revenues for online advertising compared to more lucrative but shrinking print ad sales have prompted media organizations to look for new ways to get readers and advertisers’ attention. 

Poynter and Digiday reported that besides The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, Forbes, Gawker, The Huffington Post and The Boston Globe are all experimenting with sponsored content or “native advertising.” Last week, the Associated Press posted two tweets per day on its Twitter feed during the International Consumer Electronics Show paid for by Samsung, according to a press release from the organization. AP Managing Editor Lou Ferrera said in the press release that the company had developed guidelines that provide a good experience for advertisers and readers without compromising its journalistic mission

The tweets drew criticism from @AP followers, according to a Storify piece by Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon, with some calling it an “abuse of its Twitter followers.” Nieman Lab pointed out that other Twitter followers appreciated the full disclosure offered by the all-caps “SPONSORED CONTENT” phrase that preceded Samsung’s paid tweets. 

Advertisers’ influence over media coverage cost a journalist his job in Colombia late last year. In November 2012, the journalist criticized the lack of disclosure over a Canadian oil company’s practice of paying for favorable news coverage. The firing prompted the Colombian Federation of Journalists to call for a national conversation on the role of advertising and the media


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