News organisations need to be more open to working with commercial companies if they are to survive, a panel of industry experts concluded at The Future of News event (5 February 2020).

A long-term alternative to advertising revenue needs to be secured, according to Richard Sambrook, professor of journalism at Cardiff University, who suggested that branded and sponsored content are strong options.

"In this new information ecology, we [need to] find a sustainable economic future both for brands and news organisations," he explained.

The challenge is finding a middle-ground that works for both sides. Media companies are rightly concerned that paid content undermines editorial independence, whilst brands want to avoid being associated with controversial topics which could harm their image.

But they do share some common ground values around public trust and perception, said Samantha Glynne, senior vice president for branded entertainment (global) for Fremantle. She said this presents a good opportunity to work together during the aftermath of a big news story.

"If someone suggested that a pharmaceutical brand could sponsor some content on the coronavirus, I would be thinking ‘oh my goodness no’, because what happens if it all goes wrong?” Glynne explained.

”The nice story for the brand and the most successful is the one after the act.”

However, nice stories are not always good for the public. This marketing-led way of thinking can result in companies not willing to share their expert insight with the news industry at the moment of need. As Sambrook suggested, a pharmaceutical company likely knows more about vaccine development and virus spread than a health correspondent.

Naja Nielsen, digital director of BBC News added that this expertise could prove crucial to attracting solutions-hungry younger audiences to news content. As companies hold many of the potential solutions, it makes sense to work with them more closely during news events.

In practice, readers would be right to question the credibility of this reporting. Nielsen warned that news organisations would have to be extremely transparent throughout the entire process of developing and editing the story.

BBC is, of course, in a unique position being publicly funded through the TV licence fee. However, that is getting harder to justify as criticism continues over its job cuts, lack of appeal to young audiences and the impartiality of its political news coverage.

The public broadcaster may not need to consider commercial content at this moment in time, but Nielsen is open to change if the conversation comes up. She and Sambrook - a former BBC director - agreed that no alternative is currently forthcoming.

"Subscription would destroy the BBC. It could be a very successful subscriber broadcaster, like Sky, and it would be smaller and it would commission to drive commissions. But what happens to radio, the World Service, online, local and regional services and educational outreach? Who knows," said Nielsen.

"There’s a better case for public broadcasting now than there has been for a long time and the BBC needs to get on the front foot."

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