Photo of a film crew by Garry Knight used under a Creative Commons license.
When it comes to video, it’s a seller’s market for content creators. Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Video, and Hulu are locked in a race for content, opening up new revenue opportunities and distribution channels not just for big companies but for smaller production outfits as well. It’s a opportunity that the University of California, Berkeley, hopes to take advantage of. In 2015, the Investigative Reporting Program at the University’s Graduate School of Journalism formed Investigative Reporting Productions (IRP), a nonprofit production company to develop original, one-off journalistic documentaries and docuseries. In its latest move, the organization, which was formally recognized by the university earlier this month, inked its first big distribution deal with Amazon, which said it wanted “first look” rights (meaning that it gets to see new ideas before any other company) to the projects coming out of the organization. It was a big first for Amazon, hadn’t previously partnered with a news organization in such a capacity. The deal is a significant one, both for the university and its journalism school, because it will change in a significant way how the program produces, funds, and distributes its projects, explained John Temple, managing editor of the Investigative Reporting Program. “For the first time since the serious decline in journalism’s economic model, there is a commercial market for reliable nonfiction production. That’s a result of the internet and streaming video and these companies are paying well and interested in high quality. Why not take advantage of that?” While public universities are a good place to learn how to produce documentaries, the slow churn of their bureaucracies often make them ill-suited to meet the requirements of typical video production, which demands speed and flexibility. This is true, in particular, with staffing. Unless the program has a consistent stream of new projects, money constraints mean that journalism programs aren’t able to hire camera operators and editors full-time. These constraints are why, historically, these kinds of longform video projects were outsourced to private companies, which handed the bulk of the production. That solution, however, created its own problem in that the universities weren’t able to retain rights to the material produced by third parties — and hence missed out on any potential revenue. IRP and the Amazon deal help solve both of those challenges, letting the journalism program more easily produce new work while the university retains intellectual property rights. IRP is the brainchild of Lowell Bergman, a veteran investigative journalist whose work with ABC News, 60 Minutes, The New York Times, and Frontline has earned him a Pulitzer, multiple Emmys, and many other awards (his investigation of the tobacco industry also inspired the 1999 film The Insider, starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe). At UC Berkeley (where he’s the Reva and David Logan Distinguished Chair in Investigative Reporting), Bergman wears a lot of hats: beyond teaching investigative reporting, he also helps with fundraising and connecting student projects with television programs looking to air them. Bergman, who is 71 and has run the Investigative Reporting Program at Berkeley since 2006, said that IRP was formed to institutionalize the production process and develop a more sustainable model for journalism production by, in part, diversifying revenue streams (until now, most of the journalism program’s funding has come from donations). “These are very tumultuous times for journalism. The current administration has been talking about eliminating funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is a major funder of the kind of work we do,” Bergman said. “Any way that we can build a more diverse revenue stream can only make us healthier and more editorially independent.” Amazon’s interest is understandable, given how aggressively it and other other streaming service companies have inked production and distribution over the past few years (Amazon Studios was one of the top buyers at Sundance this year). Amazon’s interest isn’t limited to video, either. Project ideas from IRP could also become podcast series on Audible, Amazon’s audio platform, which has been building out a stable of original content. With the Amazon deal also comes the promise of distribution beyond the U.S. market. The deal also opens up IRP to work with outside groups looking to turn reporting ideas into documentary production. IRP has already started to present project ideas to Amazon. Bergman wouldn’t go into specifics about what’s in the works, but he said that, broadly, the company is focused on issues related to topics in juvenile justice, climate change, and politics. Bergman’s projects such as the Frontline documentaries “Rape in the Fields” and “Rape on the Night Shift,” which investigated labor trafficking and sexual abuse of migrant workers, also offer hints of the direction the company could go. “Amazon is interested in almost everything,” said Bergman, who added that IRP is able to pitch elsewhere any projects that Amazon doesn’t think would be a good fit for its service. In this new world of video production and distribution “there are all kinds of places we can go,” Temple said.