Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
By Mathew Ingram
April 1, 2016

Anyone who has been following the media industry for the past few years knows that the boundaries between what they publish—news, entertainment, advertising—are blurring like never before. But is that a good thing? And is it something media companies should be embracing, or is it something they should be fighting? Those are questions we don’t really know the answer to yet.

In one of the latest examples of this increasingly grey area, Reuters announced that it has signed a deal with Red Bull Media, the sponsored-content arm of the energy drink company. Under the arrangement, Red Bull will supply coverage of various sporting events, and those articles will be distributed by Reuters to clients of its Reuters Media Express service. No financial terms were disclosed.

The press release says that Reuters Media Express delivers “thousands of stories per day to over 3,000 publishers in broadcast, digital, and print.” According to the company, through the partnership with Red Bull its news-wire customers will get access to coverage of events like the Mountain Biking World Cup Tour, the Dakar Rally, World Cup skiing, skateboarding, and beach volleyball.

What isn’t mentioned in the release—at least not directly—is that Red Bull is a corporation that exists to sell energy drinks, many of which are bought by sports fans. It’s not really an editorial or journalistic business, although it has taken on many of the attributes of a media company. It produces its own magazines, news websites, even movies and documentaries.

In many ways, Red Bull is the quintessential example of a brand that has become its own media publisher. It either creates or sponsors or funds news and entertainment events like the Stratos Jump, where stuntman Felix Baumgartner fell from space. It then packages those events and related content and distributes them through its own publishing arms and through social media. And much of that material winds up getting republished by media outlets that are desperate for content and traffic.

Robert Schack, global head of sports and strategic projects for Reuters, told media news site Digiday that the deal is an attempt to serve the broader needs of news publishers. “A lot of the action sports Red Bull Media House covers are brand-new sports, or sports that haven’t yet gained mainstream attention,” he said. “Sports desks have broadened in general to meet that need, and they all want more access,” but not everyone can afford to cover them.

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So if Red Bull’s media arm can serve the sports needs of Reuters clients, where’s the harm? After all, it’s not like it’s hard news—it’s just coverage of volleyball or rally driving or whatever, right? Reuters gets content it can sell, clients get content that readers want, everyone goes home happy.

The problem with such arrangements, however, is that the blurrier the line gets between sponsored content and the news—even news about sporting events—the harder it is to decide whom to trust. If there’s an explosion or a death or some other news event and Red Bull is covering it, will they approach it from a journalistic perspective or a marketing perspective? How will readers know?

A Red Bull Media spokesman told CNBC that the company would cover a news story at such an event “according to its editorial relevance, just as any other media company does… we always act with integrity, regardless of the nature of our relationship.”

For its part, Reuters said that under the principles of the Thomson Reuters Trust that govern the company’s behavior, “Reuters has an imperative to produce independent, unbiased news content,” according to a spokesman. The company said that it believes the partnership with Red Bull Media “will in no way affect our commitment” to journalistic principles.

There’s nothing wrong with a brand like Red Bull producing and distributing its own news-style content. In most cases, it’s pretty compelling and well-produced, and many sports fans will no doubt be quite happy with it. But when that reporting—which is essentially a marketing exercise, not a journalistic one—gets mixed in with the output of a media outlet like Reuters, there’s the potential for a loss of trust. And as a news publisher, that is the kiss of death.

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