How Red Bull stole journalism from big media – and what big media needs to do to steal it back

Everyone knows big media is in trouble. The newspaper industry appears to be in terminal decline, and traditional broadcasting fares little better.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let me tell you a story from the golden age of mass media.

In 1919, when newspapers were soaring in terms of their power, popularity and influence, the aviators Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop transatlantic flight.

The two British former World War I pilots were fearless pioneers and great aviators. But they could never have reached what was then the pinnacle of man’s achievement without the London Daily Mail.

They needed sponsorship, and a great team around them. They got the backing they needed because the Daily Mail put up a massive prize of £10,000 – a staggering £42m ($65m) today, allowing for inflation – for the first aeronauts to make the crossing.

The prize was no one-off. The Daily Mail offered a series of massive cash sums for feats of aviation – from crossing the English Channel to circumnavigating the British Isles. In doing so the newspaper greatly encouraged the development of aerospace technology, drove aviators to ever-greater achievements, and inspired its readers with its dramatic accounts of the flights themselves.

It’s hard to imagine a media company of today doing anything so bold, ambitious and expensive. Or, rather, it’s hard to imagine a traditional media company having the vision to do so.

Today, it’s companies who have that sort of vision, and the money to back it. The result is a new new form of journalism, brand journalism.

Journalism for commercial interest

The most obvious, and inspiring example, came last October when Felix Baumgartner leapt from a balloon at the edge of the stratosphere and achieved man’s highest freefall. As we all know, it was an energy-drink company, Red Bull, that made it happen.

Red Bull brought together the world’s leading minds in aerospace medicine, engineering, pressure suit development, capsule creation and balloon fabrication, and made the feat possible.

It put up the many millions of dollars needed to successfully take a man to 128,100 feet (around 24 miles) and enable him to freefall at supersonic speeds before parachuting safely to the ground. And through its Red Bull Media House, the company reaped the huge publicity benefits. On the day of the jump, the brand’s dedicated RedBullStratos.com website logged 22 million visits; over 8 million viewers tuned in to the live digital broadcast.

The shift from the Daily Mail to Red Bull as sponsors of great human achievement underlines the radical shift that we have seen in the nature of journalism, and in who controls the story.

Once, journalism was a product that had value in itself. People were prepared to pay for it. Over time, the price of news fell (or at least did not keep up with inflation) for the consumer, as media companies made most of their revenue from advertising.

Today, journalism often only has a value in terms of how it can be a means to another — usually commercial — end. So brands and other organizations are now doing their own journalism to power their commercial interests. They leverage the value inherent in good journalism, with its ability to inform, educate and entertain, in order to engage with audiences and consumers of their products or services.

How media can fight back

If brands such as Red Bull are effectively stealing journalism from big media, is there anything big media can do to steal it back?

In fact there are two ways. The first is to monetize their journalism using their own products; the second is the vision thing.

1. Monetizing. Media companies need to learn how to use their journalism as a means to their own commercial end — rather than to only help sell other people’s products and services. Some traditional media brands are taking the first steps towards that goal.

For example, the traditional media brand Conde Nast is developing a range of products that enable readers to use its independent journalism to make informed purchasing decisions. Its Vogue Stylist smartphone app enables users to: “Get inspiration from new looks curated by Vogue, and select and shop your favourite items from Vogue’s sponsors”.

The journalism has value in itself, in that it is trusted as independent and well-informed by readers. But inside the app it is also a means to a convenient end in that users can act upon Vogue’s recommendations. And Vogue gets paid by its sponsors for purchases generated.

Much consumer journalism is essentially a recommendations engine. Link that engine with the ability to act on the advice given and you have a solid business model.

Why, when a review in a Murdoch newspaper spurs me to buy a book or other product, should I have to go to Amazon to get it at the best price? In leaving me to do that, the newspaper is undermining its own potential to make money.

Only when big media effectively monetises what it produces will it be realising the rewards that its journalism can bring, and reverse its decline.

2. Being bold and visionary. Once it has learned to better monetize its content, a media company can use this new revenue stream to fund something bold and visionary. It can use it to create the stars and events that will provide it with further valuable, content.

Red Bull doesn’t just distribute its brand journalism on its own platforms. It also distributes it to traditional media companies. With Baumgartner’s space jump, over 80 TV networks, including Discovery Network in the United States, took the live feed, and over 280 news websites embedded the live player featuring the mission from YouTube on their sites. They got it for free, and Red Bull Media House also offers a great deal of other content to traditional media partners, much of it free, but some of it at a price. It invites traditional media companies to signup to what it calls the Red Bull Media Content Pool. It says: “The Red Bull Content Pool … offers quality-driven moving images with relevant stories of lifestyle, action sport and fun. It’s relevant for all media channels that aim to reach a young and dynamic target group.” Content covers “a unique variety of media content in lifestyle, fun and sports…[and] it has access to the whole Red Bull network, including more than 500 athletes, numerous artists and opinion leaders.”

It also partners with traditional media brands, such as NBC Sport, in the creation of content including the Red Bull Signature Series of adrenalin sports events.

Red Bull can distribute journalism to big media because it has invested a great deal of time, money and expertise in developing extreme sports. It sponsors a wide range of those sports’ stars, builds their careers, and enables them to achieve amazing feats.

If big media wants to steal journalism back, it has to rediscover the vision that the Daily Mail demonstrated almost 100 years go, and which brands such as Red Bull have inherited.

That means funding great human achievements like Baumgartner’s leap from the stratosphere, and creating journalism that other media brands, and broader brands such as Red Bull, want to be a part of. That we it can become great again.

Post written for Spunge.com