Brand Journalism Goes Investigative at The Guardian

Mar 31, 2016

Article ImageIf you're a fan of Serial, Making a Murderer, The Staircase, or any other media that delves into old cases to shed new light, you may want to check out the newest branded content offering from The Guardian. "How to Solve a Murder" looks into the case of Kari Lenander, who was murdered in 1980, via the lens of the LAPD detective who has been working the case nearly 15 years. The main difference between "How to Solve a Murder" and its fellow true crime sensations, is that it is branded content.

The Amazon Prime series Bosch-a detective show set in Los Angeles-sponsored the series. The sponsorship gave the news organization the time and resources to shine light on an old, unsolved case that normally would not have received attention in the fast-paced world of news. Meanwhile, the only stipulation Amazon had was that The Guardian focus on a case from Los Angeles-Bosch's territory.

"The series is the result of a creative and strategic collaboration between Guardian Labs and Amazon Studios," says Rachael Post, branded content director, Guardian Labs. "Amazon Studios had key parameters for their ideal type of branded content related to the release of the second season of Bosch. In particular, they wanted the content to focus on Los Angeles or Las Vegas, where the second season takes place, and they asked that we include a cold murder case and a detective. Other than those guidelines, we were free to come up with a creative concept in a very Guardian way."

It just so happened that the team picked the Lenander case which was associated with Detective Tim Marcia, who is also an expert consultant on Bosch. This was purely coincidental but a happy accident nonetheless.

Audiences have gotten used to branded content, but investigative branded journalism is a bit different. There is a strict church-state division between the editorial staff at The Guardian and the Guardian Labs-the branded content studio. "At Guardian Labs, we're in the business of smart storytelling, and that means we need to elevate what it means to write branded content. We have a number of traditionally trained journalists on staff and on freelance assignments. We chose to write the "How to solve a murder" series in-house, due to the extensive research needed and the highly sensitive nature of the content. Jill Hilbrenner from our branded editorial team reported on the story with my editorial oversight," says Post.

Even with that strict divide between the editorial staff and the Guardian Labs, the process looked an awful lot like that of a traditional journalist's. "The process was intensive - I lived and breathed research in January and February. I flew to L.A. in late January to interview Detective Tim Marcia, who's been investigating the Kari Lenander cold case since 2002. I got chills talking to him: his life basically paralleled Kari's, so it seems like fate that he ended up working this case," says Jill Hilbrenner. Branded content strategist, Guardian Labs.

"To handle the content as sensitively as possible, we wanted to minimize the use of photographs, so we also commissioned illustrations from a London-based illustrator to accompany the reporting. We spent a few weeks working with her. And after meeting Detective Marcia and learning what a character he is, we spent about a week developing a one-episode podcast from the interview recordings."

The result was a success. Post says, "We showed Amazon Studios the content before publication, as is our standard practice with branded content, but they didn't ask us to change copy. Not a word. They trusted us as good storytellers, and that's the ideal type of branded content collaboration."

She adds, "We're aware that this series really resonated with our readers. We're not at liberty to disclose any official numbers yet, but the series surpassed our expectations. It was shared thousands of times across social media, including on the Bosch platforms and by Michael Connelly, the author of the Bosch book series. The content also gained the interest of forensic scientists on social media."

For Hilbrenner, though, success wasn't defined entirely by the numbers. For her, Detective Marcia's response was the biggest payoff. She says, "One of my memories from this series is how positively Detective Marcia responded to it. Of course he has a vested interest in getting this story public - he wants to solve the case, after all - but he appreciated that the content showed what a rollercoaster it is to be a homicide detective."

Perhaps the biggest success of "How to Solve a Murder" is what it's done for branded content, proving that it doesn't have to be a boring "advertorial" or thinly veiled sales pitch. When brands and media outlets team up, they can create something worth paying attention to. 

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

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