Amazon jumps into investigative journalism with Berkeley partnership

What is the future of documentary film?
What is the future of documentary film?
Image: Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili
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A documentary film deal between a streaming video service and UC’s Investigative Reporting Program tests a new model for producing and distributing public interest reporting.

We know a few things.

Investigative journalism can be hugely important. It also can be hugely expensive.

And when it touches on unaccountable power, it needs institutional backup.

So how to support it? How to make it possible for our country to have more of it?

Our answer, at the Investigative Reporting Program (IRP) at UC Berkeley, is a novel one. We’ve set up a nonprofit company to produce, distribute, and monetize the stories developed by our staff and students. And that new company, Investigative Reporting Productions, Inc. (INC), has signed what’s known as a “first look” deal with Amazon Prime Video, which is paying for the right to consider our stories before any other outlet sees them and then develop them.

Ever since the collapse of the advertising model that at one time made producers of news profitable, philanthropy has been the most obvious answer to the question of how to support investigative reporting. We see encouraging examples of that—ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, and others, including the IRP, a specialized institute within Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism sustained almost entirely by donors. Most try to sell their journalism in the marketplace, usually at prices well below the cost of production, or simply give it away.

But it’s hard to believe philanthropy is a sustainable model for the long term, with the possible exception of a small number of organizations. We’ve seen a huge and encouraging surge of demand and financial support for investigative reporting from the public in response to the election of president Donald Trump and his attacks on the press. But how long will that last?

Which brings me to the role of universities, and their journalism schools. I believe there’s a still largely untapped opportunity for journalism programs to play a more significant role in providing quality information to their communities and the nation. If they would pursue investigative journalism and act more often as news organizations, they could fulfill the mission of the university to conduct original research, educate the next generation, and spread knowledge. At the same time, they could teach students the highest standards of the craft by giving them opportunities to work on stories alongside professionals.

We have seen that happen here at Berkeley with my colleague Lowell Bergman’s “teaching hospital” approach, where students, postgraduate fellows, and staff contribute to large-scale investigative efforts for broadcast, print, and web. Lowell is an extraordinary reporter and gifted storyteller. He’s received what seems like every award in print and broadcast journalism, but is probably best known because Al Pacino played him in the Academy Award-nominated feature film The Insider, which dramatized his 60 Minutes investigation of the tobacco industry. Award-winning projects the IRP has produced under his direction have appeared on Frontline and Univision, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, NPR, and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting; in the pages of The New York Times and Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Los Angeles Times.

Working with Lowell over the past year—after a career outside the academy, in leadership roles at The Washington Post, First Look Media, and the late-Rocky Mountain News, among others—I’ve seen that a university provides a lot of the necessary institutional infrastructure for investigative reporting… Young journalists, aka students, hungry to do meaningful work. Faculty with the experience to do it. Supportive alumni and donors. A rich intellectual environment that can be tapped for diverse expertise.

Our team of professional journalists, postgraduate fellows, and students is already working on a wide range of challenging stories, in the United States and internationally. Topics include labor trafficking, climate change, juvenile justice, the military’s failure to protect the lives of US servicemen and women, local corruption, the accountability of public employees, and the student loan crisis.

This teaching hospital model can fill the void now that newspapers and broadcasters no longer provide on-the-job training for the next generation of reporters, editors, and producers.

But something is still missing from this equation. Major public research universities are not built to operate as production companies, as news organizations. Their policies and procedures aren’t designed to support nimble decision making. They are, to put it kindly, complicated bureaucracies designed for a different purpose. And while the funding from public sources has dramatically decreased, the restrictions on these institutions allowing them to operate in the marketplace have not.

Until now, the way the IRP dealt with that was to use private companies to produce its documentaries, to separate them entirely from the university. But there were a number of problems with that approach. In the end, PBS and other outlets wound up with all the rights, even when a substantial amount of the research and reporting was paid for by the IRP and its donors. That meant the university didn’t get any revenue from rights and wasn’t necessarily able to produce future works based on the reporting of its own staff and students. If an outlet decided to kill a story, the IRP had essentially no recourse. Its work was lost. At the same time in my view, the university was subsidizing other organizations. Of course, there were benefits, too. Much of the cost of the IRP’s work was covered by partners. And those partners gave the work public exposure.

But new opportunities have emerged with the rise of streaming video services and the resulting demand for quality nonfiction programming. While the financial terms of our agreement are confidential, it’s widely known that documentaries can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it’s safe to say funding is one important reason we’re joining up with Amazon. And while we’re already discussing projects with Amazon, we’re not precluded from publishing with print, web, cable, or broadcast news organizations.

Setting up our new production company will allow us to create significant new revenue streams to support the IRP’s work. And we hope it will allow us to do stories that legacy media organizations often shy away from.

The affiliation agreement gives the company the right to license the intellectual property generated by the IRP’s staff. In turn, the work, which will adhere to the highest standards, will carry the imprimatur of the university, helping to ensure the public of its reliability. The affiliation agreement is an unprecedented step by the university. Its new chancellor, Carol Christ, has publicly voiced her support, hailing it as a way of helping to ensure the future viability of the IRP itself and the opportunity for students to have a richer educational experience.

We’re not sure where this will lead. We just announced both the agreement with the university and the deal with Amazon. But we do know that today, the university is about to enter the world of exploring high-stakes stories and delivering them to the public. We also know that our agreement with Amazon gives our work the possibility of reaching a bigger and broader audience while creating a new revenue stream for public interest journalism and higher education.