Credit: Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

Branded content, sponsored content, paid-for content, partner content: the term varies, but the reality is the same. It means that commercial companies have paid a news organisation to produce or publish content, typically either about the sponsor or a solution they bring to their industry.

Fears of editorial independence have long brought this revenue source into question. But news organisations are realising now that with the right approach, you can maintain independence, whilst creating articles audiences genuinely like and getting your partners to foot the bill.

At Newsrewired, we looked at two very different models on how to do this. You can either have a very arms-length relationship with your sponsors, or go the other way and involve them closely in the process.


On one side of the spectrum is Will Media, an Italian digital media startup founded in January 2020. Its mission is to provide news coverage for Gen Z audiences free from the partisanship so pronounced in the Italian news landscape.

Branded content now makes up about 80 per cent of total revenue. Not bad for a team with no salesforce. Their approach is to work closely with brands because they believe those companies have deep and relevant knowledge on the types of coverage they focus on.

The result might be, for example, an Instagram video on how to make the fashion industry more sustainable sponsored by Levi jeans. They have also worked with organisations like Nike, UNESCO, and the German Embassy in Rome in the past. It is an enticing proposition for their sponsors to get in front of their 1m Instagram followers, 63 per cent of which are female, and 45 per cent are 25-24-year-olds.

"We have a very strong and clear set of values," says Alessandro Tommasi, CEO of Will Media. "Most of the collaborations we've done with companies we would have put on our feed in any case, with or without their support. I think companies are just a way for us to enrich that content through extra data, extra information."

In other words, branded content in their eyes is simply content they would otherwise publish, only it has a label acknowledging the sponsors. It is made clear that the arrangement is not about exposure for the client, it is about promoting values and news insights, especially those on sustainability and social justice.

"We do believe that everybody has the right to tell the story of their change and the commitment to change," says Tommasi.

The ‘Church and State’ divide

It could not be more different for a legacy news organisation like The Financial Times which has been around since 1888. These days, their 'partner content' is creating a valuable new source of revenue. About half of this year's digital ad revenue will come from partner content, ranging from single articles to year-long campaigns. That is double what it was three years ago, and shows how this source is becoming more meaningful.

"It's really important to us that editorial is kept editorial, and our branded content is very clearly labelled as partner content,” says Gemma Hitchens, content director at The Financial Times. When you have been going as long as they have, trust is everything.

Unlike Will Media, FT editorial staff have no involvement with partner content. This allows for complete transparency for readers to see whether the content has been paid for or originally sourced. They are also incredibly picky with partners.

“Have the confidence to say no if something isn't going to be right. That is sometimes more powerful than taking it on and trying to muddle through."

Prospective partners are also warned at the outset that the agreement does not mean they are off-limits from the scrutiny of their journalists. Sponsors can, and have, become under fire from editorial reporting. That has in the past burned bridges and Hitchens says that this is just part of the territory.

FT is now looking at making branded content more multimedia, by making use of data visualisation and interactive features, as well as entering new verticals, like sport.

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