The Atlantic magazine made a fairly large mistake recently when it ran some "sponsor content" from the Church of Scientology. What ran was something resembling an article from the Church about all the great things going on there. The Atlantic initially moderated the comments in a way that seemed to be cheerleading for the Church. Then when people around the web noticed they took the article down, plainly said "we goofed," and added that they would be conducting a review of what happened. (All were good moves.) That review was evidently completed, and the results were summarized in a memo that became public today. I've linked to it.
I see three problems.
One: why is this a memo to staff (which was leaked) rather than a public statement by The Atlantic about what went wrong with the Scientology deal? I'd love to know. Seems to me there are almost no advantages to making it an internal thing and many plusses to going public. Well, it became public anyway, a completely predictable event because the writers were pissed!
Two: The memo from Atlantic president Scott Havens says that there was nothing wrong with the idea of selling "sponsored content" to the Church of Scientology. The error was in "the execution of the campaign." More specifically, "we did not adequately work with the advertiser to create a content program that was in line with our brand." This suggests that there was a way of giving space to the Church of Scientology to tell its story that would be line with the Atlantic's editorial brand, but the business staff just didn't execute well enough.
I question that claim. The Church has been extremely hostile to journalists. Its attempts to intimidate the press and prevent facts that don't fit its narrative from coming out are well documented and would be well known to the Atlantic's editorial staff. See:http://www.lamag.com/features/2012/12/18/the-tip-of-the-spear
It's also extremely aggressive in promoting an unblemished image of the Church. The idea that Scientology was a good candidate for "sponsored content" but the Atlantic just didn't execute well feels far fetched to me, especially in a memo that says: "Our highest priority is The Atlantic’s reputation and credibility." Scientology was a poor candidate for sponsored content, exactly the kind of client that should be turned down because of the likelihood of reputation harm.
Three: The memo makes a point of warning the writers, critics and bloggers at The Atlantic, who speak their minds about almost everything: "And we most certainly should not speak to the press or use social media to attack our organization or our colleagues. We are a team that rises and falls together."
What actually happened is that some writers for The Atlantic said on Twitter that they were not on board with this decision, had nothing to do with it, and they were concerned about it. That's not an attack. It's an alarm. It may be uncomfortable and embarrassing for the organization, but if the highest priority is the Atlantic's reputation and credibility, then the people who run the magazine should be grateful for writers who say publicly, "the team erred."
Let me add that I am a (paid) subscriber to The Atlantic, a loyal reader of theatlantic.com
, and a fan of many of the magazine's writers. I want its reputation to remain high. The decision to go forward with the Scientology feature was a mistake from which The Atlantic and the journalism world can learn. But there seems to be some mistaken ideas
in play. That's not about execution, Mr. Havens.