20 Sep 2015

Companies coughing up for content: The Spinoff

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 20 September 2015

Sponsored content is on the rise across the media. Critics claim it's just advertising in disguise, but is it also a good way to pay for good journalism? Mediawatch talks to Duncan Greive, whose website The Spinoff is expanding thanks to the backing of commercial clients.

An impressive in-depth look at rugby’s deep roots in New Zealand appeared in the media this past week. On the website of The Guardian the story weighed in at just under 8,000 words, expertly illustrated. The Sunday Star Times filled a page with a shorter version last weekend.

It was praised as a piece revealing a lot about our society as well as rugby, but most people who read it here would have no idea it was paid for by a big beer brand sponsoring the Rugby World Cup. On the Guardian website, a nondescript message says: “This content is sponsored”.

screen shot of the sponsor's logo on the story online

The sponsor's logo on the story online Photo: screen shot

Clicking on that reveals a Heineken logo, and a page on The Guardian website which says:

We accept funding from sponsors both for content we are already producing -- where using funds from a sponsor allows us to provide more in depth coverage and for new projects. A sponsor whose branding appears on editorial content may have a role in suggesting what kind of topics are covered, but the editor is not obliged to accept ideas from the sponsor.

Sponsored content means commercial concerns coughing up for content they want to see in the media. Major media organisations are working hard to harvest this source of income from clients, and to bring it to the attention of audiences. But sometimes sponsors support a media outlet to do the work themselves, effectively paying for journalism  - and journalists.

Sponsored startup

The Spinoff logo

The Spinoff Photo: supplied

Last year, former magazine editor turned freelancer Duncan Greive set up The Spinoff, a website devoted to writing about television backed by Spark’s video-on-demand service Lightbox.

Unsurprisingly, Lightbox's shows featured prominently on the site alongside ads for Lightbox itself. But it also published plenty of spiky stuff about TV shows on other outlets, and completely unrelated topics too.

The Spinoff said the deal was this:

Part of their sponsorship involves us covering their shows – but only those we genuinely love. They understand for a site like this to work we need to be able to cover the entire TV universe, too. Which we do – and always with complete editorial independence.

photo of Duncan Grieve, founder and editor of The Spinoff

Duncan Grieve, founder and editor of The Spinoff Photo: supplied

Earlier this month, The Spinoff launched new sections with new sponsors on books, politics, sport and culture, edited by noted journalists in the field.

It's a significant roster. The volume of stories - short and long - ramped up immediately, and most of it is stuff readers wouldn't find elsewhere.

Duncan Greive reacted to reports this week that long serving New Zealand Herald journalists would soon be made redundant (also reported in this week's Mediawatch) with an appreciation of their contributions. Political editor Toby Manhire responded to Jeremy Corbyn's election as the UK's Labour Party leader with an extensive collection of responses from New Zealand political figures.

When Metro's editor Simon Wilson put out the final issue under his watch, Duncan Greive published a long interview about the magazine, the art of writing and the modern media.

A journalist talking to another journalist about journalism would be an acquired taste, you'd think. But Duncan Greive told Mediawatch it was one of their most-read ones this past week.

"I just a had feeling people would be interested in it. Topics that might be thought obscure can be our most popular and get 10 times the traffic of the shorter stuff," he said.

screenshot of The Spinoff's Simon Wilson interview

The Spinoff's Simon Wilson interview Photo: screen shot

In that interview, Metro's outgoing editor talked about struggling to find the money to employ Steve Braunias, a top writer of features, colour and satire. Steve Braunias is now books editor for The Spinoff, and just before the Booker Prize shortlist came out, the site published his email interview with local author Anna Smaill

Sadly, she didn't make the cut.

Some of The Spinoff's sports stuff is guided by the nature of the sponsors, online providers of streaming golf and English football. Duncan Greive told Mediawatch it's no coincidence he followed up Lydia Ko's landmark win this week with an interview with her first coach, but while that may please the sponsor, its something people with no interest in golf - or sport for the matter - could enjoy too.

Sports other than those connected with the sponsors get aired as well. Sports editor Scotty Stephenson wrote about ex-rugby league star Jarryd Hayne's first game in the NFL last week in another piece a non-sports nut could read. And he reminded readers New Zealanders have skin in the American game too, through Rhett Ellison and his trailblazing dad Riki.

Strings attached?

The National Business Review this week said The Spinoff showed it can "create meaningful content while writing about their advertisers’ products" and that sponsored content "is not inherently evil", but are Spinoff sponsors simply handing over money for nothing?

Duncan Greive says they meet monthly with the big one, Lightbox, "but they've never had an in issue with what we've written. They have no editorial control".

"I'm sure some would say it's hopelessly compromised, but the alternative is not existing. There is a lot of trust between us and the audience," said Duncan Greive.

"If they thought we were compromised. They'd stop reading us," he said. "That hasn't happened".