News Networks Pay for Tabloid Gross-Outs

Barcroft Media serves up oddities from around the world to major TV outlets—for a price

Major U.S. broadcast and cable news organizations all say the same thing: they don’t pay for news. But with tabloid stories—many derived from dubious and often cash-up-front sources—becoming ever more important audience drivers, those guidelines can become very hazy very quickly. And that’s where Barcroft Media comes in.

Growing out of the venerable pay-for-play world of the British media, Barcroft, which controversially brokered the story of the Texas man who lost his face to a power line is more than willing to go where the American media won’t.

“Sometimes we operate purely as a news agency and sometimes we might have [contractual] arrangements with people,” says Alex Morris, London editor at Barcroft, just a bit elliptically. “We straddle a few different lines.”

Barcroft, which was founded in 2003, runs a video and photo distribution business out of the U.K., but has offices in New York, Delhi, and Melbourne; it also hires stringers all over the globe. It specializes in the weird and the oddball (it helped break the tale of the Indonesian baby with a two-pack-a-day smoking habit, for example), and whenever possible puts the sources for those stories under contract—often in a deal where the subject accepts money in exchange for coverage. Barcroft then sells those stories—either prepackaged or in the form of licensed video or photography—to news outlets worldwide. The list of U.S. news organizations which have licensed material from Barcroft on one or more occasions includes CBS News, ABC News, NBC News, and cable outlets like CNN, TLC, and the National Geographic Channel.

“We sign [sources] up on a contract that usually gets some benefit for them. Some people want financial share, some people want promotion,” says Morris.

While the appetite for compelling worldwide tabloid stories is growing, reporting budgets (and especially reporting travel budgets) at most news outlets aren’t. So organizations are increasingly reliant on Barcroft and other outside agencies to deliver the tab fodder that sells.

In 2008, Nat Geo aired a two-part documentary about a girl named Lakshmi Tatma, who was born in rural India with an unusual deformity—she had four extra limbs (two extra arms and two extra legs). The documentary chronicled the surgery to remove those limbs, and received wide pickup. CNN and ABC aired stories on her surgery. (In the past at ABC, Good Morning America has also licensed footage from Barcroft). CNN licensed—i.e. paid for—film footage straight from the National Geographic documentary.

Barcroft says it paid Lakshmi’s family for her story and also promised to pick up costs for the surgery that was chronicled in the documentary.

Nat Geo’s ethics policy is the same as the major television news outlets: “Our official policy is that we don’t pay for interviews or access,” says a spokesman. But the network confirms that it bought the documentary from a company called Zig Zag Productions, which Barcroft lists as a “co-producer” on its website.

In May of last year, a similar tale happened at CBS News, when it ran a story about Jonathan Trappe, an adventurer who crossed the English Channel attached to a cluster of balloons, mimicking the main character in the animated Pixar film Up. CBS’ The Early Show filmed its own interviews with Trappe, which it didn’t pay anyone for. But it did buy B-roll footage from Barcroft, filmed from a helicopter that trailed Trappe throughout his voyage.

It turns out that it was Barcroft itself that cooked up the trip, brainstorming the idea with Trappe and then signing him to a deal that would allow them to film the event. Barcroft then pitched its package to major news outlets worldwide. (Besides CBS, The Daily Mail, The Huffington Post, Sports Illustrated, and ABC all did independent stories on Trappe’s trip.) “Trappe had ideas of doing [these sorts of] things,” Morris says, “He’d said that he wants to do this channel crossing. And we said, ‘Great, we’ll do it as an exclusive,’ and sold it all over the world.”

“Licensing footage is a standard industry practice done by television to produce a visually complete story,” a spokesperson for The Early Show told Adweek.

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