Media sponsorships can earn money and raise a news organization’s brand profile. But do they compromise the news? Anne Watson tackles this question in the latest issue of the Langara Journalism Review.
By Anne Watson
Seven-course meals, summer festivals, economic summits, marathons, cruises to Alaska. It’s not new for media companies to sponsor events and celebrations, but these days it seems they are becoming a common and important part of doing business.
“It is a huge growing field and there’s been a sea change in industry, and there’s many more sponsorships now than there ever was in the past,” says Janet Smith, arts editor for the Georgia Straight. “Media outlets compete for those sponsorships in a huge way among themselves.”
In broadcasting the story is similar.
Steve Scarrow, director of promotions for Citytv and OMNI, says television is an expensive business and it’s becoming harder and harder to break even at the end of the day. He says promotions and sponsorships are an important part of keeping television afloat.
“It’s well beyond selling ads anymore to generate revenue.” Smith agrees. “It’s all about packaging things because there’s so many different formats now with the website and blogs,” she says.
“It’s all about give and take now, which is kind of how sponsorships have become this huge force, especially in the arts and entertainment end of the media.”
Sponsorships and promotions are in favour not only because they increase brand exposure but also because they provide another source of revenue.
“I feel like sponsorship should kind of have two key attributes,” Scarrow says.
“One, that it aligns well with the local brand and how it’s going to grow viewers or interact with existing viewers and two, some of our sponsorships are also tied to revenue generation.”
But because of the nature of the media business, can sponsorships and promotions create a possible conflict-of-interest? Will an event get news coverage only because the media outlet is sponsoring it? And can any coverage be free of a promotional bias?
Not according to some media experts. “They have a vested interest in what it is that event is going to be about,” says Don Krug, a digital media professor in the department of education at the University of British Columbia. “What you’re going to do is provide a slanted view in terms of what occurred, why it’s important, all that kind of stuff.”
Smith says editors at the Georgia Straight have no direct input in determining who the sponsors are.
“In my case—I’m speaking from the arts end—we’re sort of talking in terms of previews and reviews,” she says. “If it’s reviews and they’re covering a show it’s generally done by freelancers who, I’m quite sure, have little or no idea that it’s a sponsorship at all.”
Smith says she generally does know who the sponsors are when assigning stories and will provide page space accordingly.
“So it comes into play in the kind of assigning stage but as far as I can see it, not in the writing stage or the reporting stage, from the arts end.”
Scarrow maintains he places no pressure on newsrooms to provide coverage of a sponsored event.
“The line we try to draw and we tell in our partnerships is we will pass on the information to our news people and the news managers when we’re involved in an event. But we don’t make that part of our agreements.”
Scarrow notes that Citytv and OMNI sponsorships are generally in line with the interests of their audiences.
“Because of the fact they often match with the brands that those shows are, and what they represent, it meets their needs to do editorial pieces on them,” says Scarrow. “The primary viewers that we have to those shows actually care about that information.”
Sponsorships do not necessarily have to be commercial. They can involve community outreach programs, according to Scarrow. One project that Citytv created was Be There For Schools, which provides support to elementary schools.
“Be There For Schools was created at a time when we could see funding for schools was being reduced,” Scarrow says.
“This was an opportunity to engage with them and speak to our viewers. It was a major concern for young families and people with kids.”
In this case, Scarrow suggests, news coverage of some sort could be warranted because of the positive community aspect, and without any commercial interest.
While sponsorships may be a hot ticket these days, Scarrow believes some outlets view them only as a measurement of how well they are doing.
“I believe that there’s an over-perceived value in sponsorship that doesn’t entirely exist,” he says.
“A lot of people use the metrics of sponsorship, how often their logo is seen or included, as their reasons for success.”
In any case, Krug says full disclosure from news outlets involved in this practice is very important.
“I just think it’s a matter of making sure people are aware of what the associations are,” the UBC professor says. “I think that has to be made apparent.”
Anne Watson is a freelance journalist and a recent graduate at Langara College’s journalism diploma program. She has been published in The Province and is currently completing a 3-month internship at Canadian Geographic magazine.
This article was originally published in the 2012 issue of the Langara Journalism Review out of Langara College in Vancouver, B.C. and has been re-printed with permission.