Cash for content: Duncan Greive on why paid-for journalism can be a win-win-win-win

Ahead of the upcoming CAANZ PresCom event on the commercialisation of content, The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive gives his $0.02 on the matter and says that while there are some prickly ethical issues to deal with, brand-funded content offers a glimmer of hope for the craft of journalism and can work in everyone’s favour when done well. 

Let’s start by acknowledging this: content has always been for sale. If you were rich enough, you could buy a newspaper or broadcaster, and subtly influence the content by hiring like-minded journalists—Michael Bloomberg does this with my favourite magazine—or overtly, by edict.

A little poorer, and you could sponsor a radio serial—that’s how soap operas got their name—or place an advertorial. Those scenarios are more up-front, but still represent an exchange of something created for money.

Less widely acknowledged, but to my mind even more insidious, you could buy your way in through an intermediary. Employ a PR agency or department to contact a journalist and pitch an idea. This might seem innocent—and often is—but, again, it represents cash being exchanged for content. The only difference being that the organisation being paid for placing the content isn’t the one creating it.

That always struck me as an unfair trade. I’m not begrudging the PR professional their job or their salary. But when I heard, for example, that a particular agency would value an editorial page in a magazine I edited at $15,0000, it used to frustrate the heck out of me. Because $15,000 was more than my contributor’s budget for the month. I could’ve done magical work with $15,000. As it was, I did the best I could with less.

It didn’t seem right that the parts of the PR industry could parcel up and be paid for placing stories in publications they neither owned nor financially supported. And as the traditional media writhed in agony at the internet’s embrace during the ‘00s, the stark dichotomy between the bright, well-appointed PR offices I went into and the shabby, shopworn newsrooms I passed through seemed ever-more poignant.

Which is partly why I’m such a strong advocate for this new era of content commercialisation. Over the past 10-15 years traditional media organisations were starved to near extinction. The rise of the big four of the internet seemed to affect us more swiftly and harshly than most. Now though, the heavy pessimism I once felt for our industry and craft has been replaced by something like hope.

  • Read about Greive’s adventures in new media with The Spinoff here

This comes from realising—perhaps later than I should have—that in 2015, everyone’s a publisher. Certainly every consumer-facing business. The Facebook pages and Twitter accounts every brand built and staffed are beasts that will never be satiated. And the people best-placed to create stuff to go in those hungry mouths are journalists; those who’ve learned the skill of telling a story in an engaging style.

Everyone on the panel is aware of this dynamic. Each of us has published, online or in print, stories written by journalists—often very good journalists—paid for and facilitated by brands or organisations. The best of us will take care to declare that transaction on the story, every time, to a consumer audience which is, I think, increasingly understanding about the trade. If they’re unwilling to pay enough to fund journalism directly—and, exciting experiments aside, that seems to be the case—then we need to find another way to fund this thing.

The Spinoff, the business I run, is entirely built on the premise that brands are now publishers. The Herald’s ‘Brand Insights’ section has excellent business reporting which wouldn’t otherwise exist. Metro sent a good friend of mine to Sydney for three days last year and got a terrific piece of travel writing out of the deal. The Guardian’s exceptional recent All Blacks story was paid for by Heineken. All these pieces of content are made possible by brands; all are written by journalists.

The model isn’t without its problems. Some parts of the audience find the very idea of commercial content distasteful. Not without reason: ties between journalistic organisations and the world they’re covering can make turning around and writing a critical review or publishing some news that is problematic for a client more difficult. These aren’t small issues, nor easily resolved. But, increasingly, smart brands and content creators seem to understand that the ecosystem only functions if we’re allowed to do our jobs, and speak our minds. And despite the new (actually, as old as publishing) ethical dilemmas arising directly from this area, there are many positive side effects. Content commercialisation is already helping subsidise the creation of excellent journalism with no one but its editor and audience to answer to.

The commercialisation of content sits at the nexus of several industries, all of which have been rocked by the massive changes in human behaviour wrought by the internet. PR, marketing and advertising are all coming to terms with the fact that between display ad blockers, MySky, VoD and our fidgety attachment to phones, the old methods of capturing attention simply don’t work any more. We’re all meeting on the same field, with a broadly similar objective: to capture and hold attention, and have the audience come back for more. Where that happens—social media, your own platform, or another media company’s—shouldn’t matter, so long as the audience is elevated by the experience, and aware of the brand’s role in its facilitation. It’s not a perfect solution, and not without its ethical and professional challenges. But at its best—and that’s a level everyone on this panel has within reach—it can work for the creator, the masthead, the audience and the brand.

  • The breakfast event, at Kensington Swan Board Room, Auckland on Wednesday 21 October, will feature: 

    • Tim Murphy, former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, former chair of the national Media Freedom Committee and executive committee member of the Press Council
    • Ellen Read, National business editor, Fairfax Media NZ
    • Duncan Greive, freelance journalist and editor of culture website The Spinoff
    • Simon Wilson, ex-Metro editor
    • Alana O’Neill, Head of integration, MediaWorks.

    Each speaker will share their thoughts on commercial imperatives versus a purist approach, where the lines sit between earned and paid media, and the ramifications this has on agencies and their clients. The panel discussion will be MC’d by Ben Fahy, editor and associate publisher of NZ Marketing and stoppress.co.nz. Buy your tickets here

About Author

Comments are closed.