And a fresh new question arises: Could it become part of a brand content strategy?
There isn’t much money in traditional media—and where there is revenue to be made, it’s evidently not in investigative journalism. The Kardashian gossip and latest Avengers fare have claimed top spot, because that’s what people consume nowadays. In fact, online rag Mashable recently made headlines for sweeping changes in its editorial department, with founder Pete Cashmore talking about a “move away from covering world news and politics as stand-alone channels.”
Cashmore added that Mashable is now “focusing on our core coverage—technology, web culture, science, social media, entertainment, business and lifestyle, all told through the digital lens. We’ll also develop our real-time news coverage, keeping our audience up to date on breaking news and cultural trends being discussed on social networks.” Mashable’s slant is that the consumer’s whims drive the product, rather than the other way around. Where the attention goes, the revenue shall follow.
Covering what will print more papers (and now drive more clicks) has long been the ultimate metric for media. Consider The Boston Globe‘s famous investigation. While there’s certainly a powerful moral aspect to unveiling a disturbing truth in the fabric of the Catholic Church, it remains: Widespread exposure was more likely because there was a powerful, well-funded machine—The Globe itself—working very hard to make it happen. That includes editors, journalists, even the top brass itself. This did not happen in a vacuum.
The story wasn’t without reward. Uncovering the scandal boosted The Globe‘s industry and street cred. The newspaper was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism in 2003 for its efforts; boosting its reputation as a solid reporter and “uncoverer” of facts that needed to be, well, uncovered.
Finally, the money bit: the impact on the bottom line must have been measurable. The newspaper enjoyed considerable publicity worldwide for its efforts, and the Pulitzer doubtless helped. Awareness of The Globe brand surged. This would then lead to a marked increase in readership and circulation— and, of course, advertising revenue.
The bottom-line motivation was even demonstrated in Spotlight itself. In an early scene, The Globe‘s publisher meets with newly hired editor Marty Baron to discuss pursuing this story. The publisher expressed his concern that 53 percent of the newspaper’s readership was Catholic, and so the perception that The Globe was suing the Church as part of its investigation may have an adverse effect on the newspaper’s readership.
Baron’s dry response? “I think they’ll be interested.”
With that, he gets the go-ahead. That’s bottom-line talk right there.
Today, the bottom line continues to be a major motivator in news coverage. For instance, CBS CEO Les Moonves was asked what he thought about the US election campaign that’s been sweeping the country in recent months. His response: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Particularly, the rise of Donald Trump was a “good thing,” Moonves added, not for political reasons but because it had a phenomenally positive effect on the network’s bottom line.
Moonves received powerful backlash for his statements. His motivation may be justified, but his arrogant emphasis on money above all else—including integrity and reputation—was slammed.
There’s a subtle difference right there in the expressed motivations of Mashable, CBS, and The Globe: the sincerity or lack thereof in their statements. But more so, Mashable and CBS are just following the crowd. Instead of being leaders and drivers of content like The Globe, it is simply responding to what works. Cashmore sees what’s trending and Mashable produces in turn. Moonves sees Trump drop another stunning remark and CBS races to cover the fallout.
Even the real-life Marty Baron attests to this current trend in response to whether the Spotlight events would have happened today: “In the pressure to publish a lot, we’re not always doing real reporting.”
Still, The Globe did something the other two didn’t: it produced powerful, engaging, important—and above all—original content.
That’s what makes investigative journalism so powerful. It’s uncovering what we don’t yet know about; but once it’s brought to the surface, it’s impact is powerful. What’s more, the journalist—and the group they’re working for—makes a name for themselves with impactful original content that delivers the best of both worlds: a moral obligation met and a surge in the bottom line. That sweet spot is a media company’s ultimate fantasy.
After all, stop anyone on the street and ask him: Which newspaper was the Spotlight thing about? Chances are most of them—even those in other countries—will know it was The Boston Globe. That’s powerful brand recognition right there.
So, clearly, if you are a brand, you should be investing in investigative journalism. It’s potentially a very powerful branch of your brand content strategy, if done well and with integrity.
Clearly the concept of a brand corporation pursuing investigative journalism—and more so, doing it independently of any bias—might strike you as odd. Imagine a random soft-drink company uncovering a magnificent sex scandal involving a leading presidential candidate. Or a leading shoe manufacturer pulling the covers off shady Wall Street dealings.
How about a technology company uncovering financial incentives paid to a star football player when he was still playing at university—a vast no-no in the NCAA? Sounds strange, right?
Actually, the latter happened. In September 2006, Yahoo! Sports reported that as the result of an eight-month-long probe, it uncovered evidence that Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush had accepted payments from prospective agents while still playing for USC. This was an important breakthrough for Yahoo!, which was lauded by the Poynter Institute—a thought leader in journalism—for its investigative journalism in an environment dominated by news about injuries, trades, and game analysis.
There are numerous other examples of branded investigative journalism:
Yahoo! wasn’t the only search engine in the game. Google’s recently relaunched Jigsaw—a fresh incarnation of Google Ideas—offers the Investigative Dashboard, which gives investigative journalists powerful tools to uncover money-laundering schemes. Google does this by utilizing its powerful algorithms to source national business records and assemble a directory of databases, plus an “ask the expert” feature to support hungry journalists who want to analyze the records.
The result? Google’s initiative played a role in unearthing a bribery scandal involving a Swedish telecom company and tracking down stolen tax money in Russia, among others.
Even online classified-ads behemoth Craigslist has jumped into the game with a $50,000 grant to the Fund for Investigative Journalism via its charitable fund. It’s not the first time Craigslist has done this sort of thing; it’s contributed to other journalism groups including ProPublica, the Sunlight Foundation, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Poynter Institute.
Oprah Winfrey—a reigning queen of daytime TV—commissioned the talents of sisters Lisa and Laura Ling and Euna Lee for her investigative journalism wing. Laura Ling and Euna Lee aren’t smalltimers—they were imprisoned in North Korea when investigating human trafficking in 2009. Under Oprah’s wing, they uncovered the existence of puppy mills in the United States.
There’s always that danger of a bias, perceived or otherwise, when a brand dips its toes into investigative reporting, as Verizon learned the hard way a couple of years ago. The telecommunications behemoth’s SugarString initiative—designed, apparently, to deliver tech-focused news—fell flat on its face just months after its launch, when news came out that it allegedly forbade any coverage of topics related to espionage and net neutrality. Verizon denied it, but the damage was done.
Even media groups themselves are not innocent of bias. We as a population are already quick to take our information from right-slanted Fox News and noted conspiracist Alex Jones’ Infowars with a sizable grain of salt, and it’s a safe bet that those watching news on CBS looked on with a wary eye after Moonves’ boastful claims about his network’s coverage of Trump. Even The Boston Globe itself ruffled some feathers with its recent satirical President Trump front page in its Opinions section.
So, yes, media can be a self-interested brand, just as much as other brands are. KPIs—and the accommodating dollars—are a major motivator in the decisions that take place in the editorial department. After all, Baron did have to convince his publisher that readers would be interested in the story about the Catholic Church.
Despite arguments to the contrary, it’s hard to say yes. As early as the 18th century, political parties have been known to fund newspapers, and editorial pages in large publications are continuing to endorse specific candidates even today. And as this Washington Post opinion suggests, media objectivity rose not out of idealism, but rather, came out of the strategy that remaining steadfast neutral would mean a much greater readership and therefore more advertising dollars. So, that doesn’t make media groups any different from a self-interested brand.
So how can a brand—with KPIs at the absolute core of its overall strategy—play its cards right? It is, after all, attempting to simultaneously produce powerful investigative journalism content and boost its brand profile in the minds of the public. That’s a very tough balancing act to pull off.
There is no exact science here, but consider the sincerity of the objective. If you’re a shoe manufacturer and you show a marked passion for athleticism, you’ll get more customers. If you’re an energy drink company and you exhibit a genuine love for extreme sports, you’ll gain more fans. Your reputation will grow. Brand reputation is huge, in the same way The Boston Globe’s reputation surged first after the initial revelations about the Church, and again after Spotlight was released in 2015.
Brands are the drivers of storytelling in this day and age, and talented media people are migrating—sometimes reluctantly—to brand storytelling as a career choice. If a brand decides to enter investigative journalism, there’s already a wealth of talent out there chomping at the bit. In fact, Yahoo! Sports recognized that opportunity in its brand content strategy:
Gerry Ahern, the lead investigative editor said: “[W]ith various cutbacks and attrition in so-called old media, we saw an opportunity. We started assembling a staff with a background and an appetite for that type of reporting.”
More so, let’s return to the original idea of media: Journalists have a responsibility to society to uncover the truth. But with the growing lack of proper investigative journalism out there, you might consider that brands—with their dollars and resources—can take on that responsibility. Peter Parker’s uncle Ben puts it perfectly: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
The answer has been offered in content marketing, and it applies to investigative journalism too: One must espouse authenticity and originality in the content—consistently. Nothing is stopping a brand from entering into the investigative journalism world—and in fact, there’s hardly a downside to it. But once you’re there, you must be absolutely authentic or your program will fail.
As previously noted on the Content Standard, people can sense authenticity. If it’s inauthentic, consumers will forever judge your brand.
Now, let’s go back to Yahoo! Sports for a moment. Tim Franklin, boss of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University, said: “It seems that Yahoo! Sports stepped back and asked itself, ‘What can we do that’s special and different from everyone else? How do we stand out in this crowd?'”
Franklin adds: “In this new media environment, those who win are going to be those who produce high quality, unique, original content…Yahoo! gets it.”
So, would Spotlight have happened if it was sponsored by a brand? Well, there’s no reason why not. There’s a potentially new opportunity of content marketing waiting for brand marketers and journalists alike. Are you willing to take it on?