Sponsors – a moral dilemma?
Like Newsroom and many other websites, including ICG Media brands StopPress, Idealog and The Register, The Spinoff’s PressPatron donations are supported by another revenue stream: sponsorships.
Whether it’s one-off pieces or sponsorships of entire sections, Day says they are brands interested in facilitating interesting and modern conversation around the world and they include Spark, Kiwibank and founding sponsor Lightbox. For Spark, its sponsorship is seen in The Spinoff’s music section and that’s representative of its desire to foster and encourage great music experiences – a goal linked to its sponsorship of the Spark Arena and partnership with Spotify and Auckland City Limits.
Meanwhile, when The Spinoff teamed up with Kiwibank in 2016, managing editor Duncan Greive wrote about the partnership, explaining the topics it will be covering about the economy are critically important to our society, so it has attempted to fill them with the chaos and humour the site is known for.
“...I hope they travel a long way. Kiwibank’s aim and ours is to get our audience to be more conscious in their consumption and think about where the dollars are going, and what they’re fueling,” Greive said.
Sounds like a win-win for both parties. But that win-win does raise the eyebrows of some because they believe brands funding journalism throws up an ethical dilemma. Do they influence editorial decisions?
Day says: “We’ve never had a story jeopardised, or put back in the draw, or manipulated for the benefit of one of our sponsors.”
Evidence of the point can be seen in The Spinoff Bulletin, a curation of stories from around New Zealand media delivered to inboxes with the help of its sponsor Vector. Day says earlier this year when Vector was under fire for its post-Auckland storm response, The Spinoff included stories about it in The Bulletin.
Vice is another news media company with sponsors in its funding mix, and like Day, editor Frances Morton is adamant they don’t interfere with editorial decisions. When entering into a partnership, she says they will always ask themselves “will we be making this content anyway?” and put the interest of the audience first.
“I think that’s one of the reasons we are attractive to brands and have that strong relationship with our audience. There have been times in the past where we have turned down deals because we didn’t feel confident that we wanted to be putting out that content.”
For TVNZ, every partnership is entered into with great consideration because Gillespie says selling sponsorships is more than just a financial transaction.
“The biggest thing we have to sell is out credibility,” he explains, “and if audiences think that’s been affected by a sponsorship or a logo that’s involved in bringing the news and current affairs then we are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.”
Looking at TVNZ’s offering as a whole, not news alone, according to its 2018 interim report, TVNZ enjoyed growth in TV and online advertising income, which contributed to total revenue of $170.4 million, up $1.6 million (or one percent year-on-year).
Newsroom also relies on sponsors and Murphy joins the chorus in saying those sponsors do not interfere. He says the repercussions of interference are not positive for either party.
“Everyone is very mature and commercially aware: If you are getting into that zone of influencing content it’s not good for you.”
Most say there is no interference from sponsors with this funding model and most sponsors understand that their connection doesn’t guarantee positive coverage. But many believe it’s more subtle than that. It’s often about the stories that might not be written when others are. Commercial and editorial departments were originally set up to be like church and state. And they were set up like that for a reason.
As Chris Keall wrote on NBR: “Corporate sponsorships always come with subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, particularly as renewal approaches. And in my immediate experience, even when a company has mature leadership, there’s often at least one manager who thinks they can leverage the situation for influence.”
But as Newsroom’s Murphy replied in the comments: “Your argument is completely disproven by the fact that we did an uncomfortable story involving one of our foundation supporters and treated them exactly the same as any other organisation or newsmaker. Fullstop. We ran what they decided they would say in response to detailed questions we put to them.”
Another issue is that sponsors have a habit of leaving as new marketers arrive, new strategies are implemented or goals aren’t reached. When a sponsor is integral to the creation of new sections, it becomes even harder.
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This story was originally published in the 2018 Media issue of NZ Marketing. To subscribe, click here.