A new model for investigative journalism? An offshoot of Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program strikes a deal with Amazon to produce over-the-top video

In 2001, "Frontline" aired a documentary by investigative reporting legend Lowell Bergman. The movie, which chronicled the new cowboys of "Energy Alley," contained never-before-seen interviews with Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling and other players in the energy scandal.

It was compelling footage. After Enron imploded, filmmaker Alex Gibney bought the video from PBS and used some of it in his 2005 documentary about the scandal, "The Smartest Guys in the Room."

But Bergman and the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley, where the documentary was produced, didn't see a dime from the sale.

"You see me and my footage in that documentary," said Bergman, now a professor at U.C. Berkeley. "But nobody asked me."

Now, more than a decade later, Bergman and the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley have come up with a fix that protects the rights to license their work. And they may have come up with a new revenue stream for investigative journalism in the process.

This weekend, Bergman and John Temple, the managing editor of the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley, announced a bargain with university to formally recognize a nonprofit company called Investigative Reporting Productions, Inc. The company, which was technically incorporated about two years ago, has not until recently had the permission of U.C. Berkeley to license its work under the university's imprimatur.

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Under the new agreement, Investigative Reporting Productions can do just that. And it just inked a one-year deal with Amazon Prime Video to produce feature-length or serialized documentary nonfiction that would be streamed by users on demand.

"This is one of the few times since the collapse of the advertising model where there's a new funding stream developing on the commercial side for serious journalism," Bergman said.

The deal with Amazon is a first-look agreement, which means that the studio has the right of first refusal for commercial projects that Investigative Reporting Productions wants to pursue. The financial terms aren't public, but Bergman says it's "substantial enough that it would match any particular long-term foundation grant."

As part of the arrangement, Bergman — who is also the chairman of Investigative Reporting Productions — will begin hiring executive producers and business managers who will create journalism for the company. Temple will take over day-to-day management of the Investigative Reporting Program at Berkeley. It's part of an effort lay the groundwork for an investigative program at Berkeley without Bergman, who has built the program over the last 11 years into a self-sustaining enterprise.

"If you step way back, what we're talking about is commercializing the research that's being done at the university," Temple said.

If partnerships like the one with Amazon Prime Video become a reliable revenue stream for investigative journalism, it would come at an opportune time. Although a crop of investigative nonprofits has sprung up to fill the void that community newspapers across the United States left behind, cuts to print advertising and disruption from Silicon Valley giants has taken a toll on high-impact journalism.

It also comes as companies are coming up with ways to bring in-depth journalism to life on different platforms. Brother Orange, which started as a longform feature for BuzzFeed, is being made into a film by BuzzFeed’s film development arm and Flagship Entertainment. Startup, which began as a podcast by Gimlet Media, is being turned into a pilot by ABC featuring "Scrubs" star Zach Braff. And "Making a Murder," a true-crime thriller about a wrongful conviction, aired on Netflix to critical acclaim in December 2015.

There have been innovations in the business model for investigative journalism in recent years, but Berkeley's deal with Amazon Prime Video represents an encouraging development that has the potential to bring bigger and new audiences into the tent, said Doug Haddix, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

"Agreements like this that bring high-caliber, high-quality investigative work to a larger audience can only help the audience understand the value of investigative reporting," said Haddix said. Also encouraging is that over-the-top video distributors like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu could provide journalism to people when and how they want it.

Some of those audiences may lie beyond U.S. borders, Bergman said. Companies like Amazon and Netflix that are trying to build their libraries have growing markets in places like Brazil and Mexico. Generally, there's a delay before major investigative stories published for English-speaking audiences are translated for international viewers. That could change.

"If do a story through 'Frontline,' it's not seen overseas until it's sold into the marketplace out there, and it's re-cut into something that's accessible to that form of television broadcasting, in that country." Bergman said.

Implied by the agreement is that the university, the nonprofit company and Amazon will be able to work together in harmony. Bergman, who's been producing investigative work for a half-century, says he can get the various cultures to mesh.

With the university's blessing, Investigative Reporting Productions will be able to leapfrog the academic bureaucracy that might otherwise obstruct the company's ability be nimble, Bergman said. It will also allow journalism students from the university's reporting program to help produce the content.

Because Amazon owns the audiobooks company Audible and is waist-deep in the books business, the agreement could also open the door to distribute journalism on those platforms, too, Bergman said. But they aren't currently producing audio journalism for Amazon.

"Their primary interest is in series'," Bergman said. "And we would expect that if we make one deal with them, it would transform our economic model here."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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