Will Brands Fund the Next Spotlight?

In March, Amazon Prime chose to promote its new season of the police drama Bosch with “How to Solve a Murder,” a hard-hitting series of true-crime articles produced with Guardian Labs, the Guardian’s branded content studio.

Earlier in 2016, coffee brand Kenco spread word of its charitable farming project with “Coffee vs. Gangs,” a collection of stories on the drug trade in Honduras, produced in partnership with the Telegraph.

Over the last few years, tracing back to the 2014 New York Times feature on female prisoners that Netflix sponsored to promote Orange Is the New Black, brands and publishers have started to pursue investigative journalism partnerships. When done right, the collaborations have clear benefits for both sides: Brands get the publicity for backing high-quality work, and publishers get a jolt of revenue as traditional advertising sources evaporate.

“From the brand’s point of view, the whole point is that it’s reaching beyond and giving a different message from other means of advertising,” said Jonathan Hewett, director of interactive and newspaper journalism at City University London. “It can be quite a good fit within the boundaries of certain news organizations.”

George Wright-Theohari, founder of the London-based branding, design, and content company Speak Media, believes brands associate their names with serious writing to change the way people view them. “There is a sense that brands are becoming bolder in what they are prepared to cover and say,” he said. “If you really want to be forward-thinking and progressive, you need to do something bordering on the sublime to even get noticed.”

For Amazon, “How to Solve a Murder” has become one of those sublime examples. Through longform interactive features, a podcast, and related pieces on police interrogation techniques and DNA evidence, the series tells the story of a detective who has unsuccessfully tried to solve the 1980 murder of a teenage girl in L.A.

“A lot of brands don’t want to color outside the lines in terms of doing something new and unique,” Rachael Post, director of branded content at Guardian Labs U.S., told me. “With ‘How to Solve a Murder,’ we found a sweet spot … where everyone wins. The brand wins. The writer [Michael Connelly] is sharing his content on social media. It doesn’t come around very often, but when it does, we are excited to have that opportunity and make it something cool and new and interesting.”

Post told EContent Magazine that the series “surpassed expectations” in terms of social media engagement. She also suggested that “How to Solve a Murder” had a comparable impact to a piece of conventional journalism, attracting the attention of other police forces and forensic scientists wanting to help, and compelling readers to try to crowdsource clues.

“That’s the litmus test. Is it good enough that you want to consume it, regardless of who has produced it?” said Tony Hallett, managing director of the London-based content marketing firm Collective Content. “It’s the apogee of where we are trying to get to with content, where it’s so good that people see it as just as good as traditional media.”

All of which supports the much-quoted prediction by the former Financial Times journalist Tom Foremski, who said in 2003, “I think corporate media could win a Pulitzer Prize if done right. And I believe it will happen.”

Brands that are bold may well be aiming for such heights. But is this really investigative journalism? Gavin MacFadyen, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, thinks not. “We are supportive of anyone that would give a platform to investigative material,” he said. “These are not investigative pieces in the normal sense. They are in-depth background pieces. An investigative piece is something that is produced that powerful people don’t want produced. Unless it is something that is intended to right a real wrong, it’s not particularly investigative.”

To MacFadyen’s point, Post admitted that Guardian Labs had to choose the story for the Bosch partnership very carefully. It couldn’t deal with a live murder investigation or anything too controversial.

“We wanted a cold case where the detective had no idea who the murderer was, so there’s no blaming,” she said. “It’s a mystery.”

Perhaps that’s where the limit lies for brands. Brands would struggle to deal with conflicts of interest if they tried to hold powerful people and organizations accountable. After all, there aren’t many entities out there more powerful than Amazon. Would brands really be willing to ask difficult questions about their own industries?

“What are they going to do?” Hallett said. “Produce biased content, which means that people don’t trust them, or say something which the organization won’t like? They [will find themselves] between a rock and a hard place, and that’s why a lot of brands will avoid hard news.”

That’s exactly where Verizon found itself in late 2014, when the U.S. telecommunications giant was forced to close its online publication, Sugarstring, just months after its launch because it had allegedly banned coverage of net neutrality and surveillance. Sugarstring intended to cover technology, culture, and politics, and the company hoped it would attract a similar audience to Wired and Motherboard. Instead, Verizon had to dismiss the venture as a “pilot project.”

“It’s very difficult,” Hewett said. “There are conflicts of interest and one needs to be upfront about it.”

Of course, being upfront means brands and publishers have to clearly disclose who pays for the work, which can be confusing. Even if places like The New York Times and the Guardian carefully label their sponsored work, can the reader trust the writer’s independence?

“There is a sense that the writer has been given a free reign to produce the work,” Wright-Theohari explained. “But it’s hard to know whether there are aspects to the story that they would have wanted to dig into deeper that were off-limits, implicitly or otherwise. Newspapers have vested interests; brands will have even more.”

And from a newspaper’s point of view, what happens if the interests collide? What if a reporter who wrote about Kenco wanted to inspect the company’s coffee farming project? Even if the reporter didn’t find anything, would she be free to look?

Then, of course, there’s the legal risk that comes when companies stray into grittier content. Publishing at this level isn’t just about producing great copy, it needs to go through the same robust editorial process and rigorous legal checks as a conventional piece of reporting. This is why some brands ultimately choose to partner with newspapers on these projects.

Who knows, if brands are brave enough to back more ambitious investigative reporting, maybe they could win a Pulitzer one day, as Foremski predicted. For now, most brands need to figure out how to balance their goals with the full transparency that investigative reporting requires. That’s a mystery that marketers would pay a lot to solve.

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