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The Atlantic, the Church of Scientology, and the Perils of Native Advertising

A portrait of founder L. Ron Hubbard hangs in a church retreat center at Scientology’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Fla.
A portrait of founder L. Ron Hubbard hangs in a church retreat center at Scientology’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Fla.Photograph by Chip Litherland/The New York Times via Redux

The Atlantic, the 157-year-old magazine, whipped the Internet into a frenzy on Monday night, when journalists noticed a peculiar story about the Church of Scientology on the publication’s website. The article, which celebrated the church’s past year of worldwide expansion, was marked with a yellow banner that identified it as “sponsored content.” Otherwise, it looked just like any other article on the Atlantic’s site. (Full disclosure: I worked for the Atlantic from 2010 to 2012.)

Journalists freaked out. Many expressed concern over the Atlantic’s willingness to sell advertising space to a controversial organization such as the Church of Scientology. Others wrung their hands over how closely the sponsored article resembled the Atlantic‘s editorial content.