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Reuters and the media arm of the parent of Red Bull energy drinks are teaming up to bring action sports to the news service's media subscribers and the public, further blurring the line between brand-created content and journalism.
As part of the deal, Red Bull Media House will provide action sports and lifestyle photos, videos and articles. The items are available to any media company that subscribes to the Reuters service, but any person who publishes online can sign up for a free account and get limited access for footage to include in their posts.
"The media world is changing," said Robert Schack, global head of sports and strategic partnerships at Reuters.
Reuters has carried items from other media organizations before, and has created sponsored content on behalf of brands like SAP Software Solutions. However, this is the first time that a brand's media arm will create content for the journalism institution. The content will live alongside Reuters editorial content, but the creator will be clearly labeled as Red Bull Media House.
Schack explained that as the appetite for sports increases globally and demand increases from Reuters customers, it is looking for new avenues to have more news coverage in those areas.
"(Red Bull Media House) will be in places we won't be, and that's just our own news budget and demand," Schack said.
Unfortunately, given dwindling newsroom resources, Schack said Reuters simply can't send reporters to these events. He said since the content creator is labeled, it is up to other media companies to decide whether they want to use the material. A Red Bull Media House spokesperson said via email there were no financial terms involved in the deal, saying it was simply a distribution partnership.
While news organizations are stretched for resources, companies and sports organizations have stepped in and are increasingly becoming media companies themselves. They see an opportunity to create compelling content that people want to watch, a way to get coverage for their own events, and a great way to expose their brand to the public.
Though it is linked to energy drink Red Bull, Red Bull Media House has made waves on its own as an action sports and lifestyle media company. In addition to its robust social media presence, it makes content for RedBull.com, Red Bull TV and magazine The Red Bulletin, as well as various short video clips and longer documentaries. Though it covers its own events, it also covers events sponsored by other brands, even its competitors.
Most people remember its coverage of the Red Bull Stratos jump, where Felix Baumgartner free fell from more than 23 miles above the Earth. Its stream of the event is the largest digital live event on record, with 8 million concurrent live streams on YouTube, as well as 3.2 million tweets, 1 million likes on Facebook and 22,000 photos on Instagram.
"(The content) is labeled Red Bull Media House, but when I see the pictures, it's not unlike what I would have seen inside Sports Illustrated years ago," said Brian Steffens, director of communications at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri.
Steffens added that many media companies are stressed financially, and staying afloat is considered a success. Expanding to new coverage is considered a luxury. It's much cheaper to work with an outside agency than to start your own division.
"It's all about transparency, fairness and accuracy," Steffens said. "If they can hit those core elements of what journalism about, then it isn't a bad thing."
Bob Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University's Newhouse School, is still skeptical. Though he acknowledges that sports coverage is often seen as somewhere between hard news and entertainment, he said there are topics within the sports world that do cross over to more serious reporting. He pointed to the domestic abuse scandals within the NFL.
"I think these kind of relationships make me really uncomfortable," Thompson said. "You simply say it's just sports, but (this is) like putting product placement in reality television."
While he did comment on the high quality of Red Bull Media Houses work, he was worried that issues may arise. For example, if an athlete sponsored by Red Bull was involved in a scandal, it may mean that the person may not be questioned about the controversial activities in Red Bull Media House coverage or Reuters itself may not cover the news item because of the partnership.
"It might be an interesting piece, it might be well produced, but I think there are some journalistic issues there that are of interest," he said.
A Red Bull Media House spokesperson said it would cover news topics regardless if it conflicted with the parent company's goals.
"We cover stories according to its editorial relevance, just as any other media company does; however, we always act with integrity, regardless of the nature of our relationship," the spokesperson said.
Reuters echoed the sentiment.
"Under the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles, Reuters has an imperative to produce independent, unbiased news content," a Reuters spokesperson said via email. "We believe our partnership with Red Bull will in no way affect our commitment."
Disclosure: CNBC subscribes to Reuters.
Update: Comment from Reuters regarding potential conflict of interest was added to this story.