Houghton Mifflin Just Called Dell a Publisher

Today Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released The Best American Infographics 2013. One of these is an illustrated flow chart called "Should I Check Email?" by San Francisco artist Wendy MacNaughton that Dell commissioned and posted on its Forbes.com BrandVoice page. The credit line reads "Dell Inc. on Forbes.com."

To my knowledge, this is a milestone: the first time a traditional publisher has included a brand's sponsored content in an anthology.

What does this line-blurring mean for publishers, corporations and audiences? On September 25th I attended an American Press Institute summit during which brands and top publishers (including The Huffington Post) met to determine whether native advertising can keep journalism alive to fight another day -- and whether it should.

The event was hosted by Atlantic Media, which is significant in no small part because The Atlantic suffered through the industry's first major native advertising scandal. In January it published a clearly-labeled advertorial by the Church of Scientology called "David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year," but critics questioned The Atlantic's judgment in mixing advertorial with its highly-respected editorial.

This post is similarly meta, given that I am a content marketer who published the content I'm writing about. But these are early experiments, and I think the fact that Houghton Mifflin included Wendy MacNaughton's piece with full knowledge of its source points to a way forward for both church and state: Don't publish pieces that would alarm readers when they learn who is responsible for them.

Dell doesn't sell anything that has to do with whether you should check email. Wendy MacNaughton is an acclaimed illustrator whose work has appeared in the New York Times, among others; the only distinction between today and yesterday is that an editor at a brand paid for her work rather than an editor at a publication.

In this case the brand bought a sponsored page on a third-party site and posted MacNaughton's work. Dell is not mentioned in the piece, but its advertising is on the page. Even if the sponsorship were not clearly marked, readers wouldn't feel like they were sold a bill of goods if they found out that Dell had given MacNaughton the assignment.

Can paid media still support traditional media if it's not advertorial? A brand paid the traditional media outlet that published the piece and paid the artist for her work. A traditional book publisher republished the work that the brand paid for. Nowhere in the work is the brand or any of its products mentioned except as its sponsor. That sounds like a viable advertising model to me. The fact that journalists, editors and artists get paid in the mix doesn't keep me awake at night either.