When journalism meets Hollywood

Premium video adaptations of news content are gaining traction as a viable revenue stream. A news story is no longer anchored to its original form, and many are finding their way to the screen via Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and others. Here’s a look at how publishers can get on the lights, camera, action!

Monetisation and sustainability are constant concerns for media organisations and a new source of revenue has been creeping into view — literally. More publishers are moving into premium video content by striking deals (and gold) with TV and film production companies. Vox and BuzzFeed have launched Netflix shows. Condé Nast is moving into feature films. Podcasting is exploding with on-screen adaptations. Countless podcasts are being courted by the likes of Amazon, HBO and Hulu — all for on screen adaptations. Gimlet Media in particular, has been very proactive about seeking deals in Hollywood, launching a film & TV unit earlier this year.

See the trailer for BuzzFeed’s Netflix show “Follow This”.

This trend could be considered the next iteration of “pivot to video” could finally live up to the hype by proving to be a sustainable business model with potentially huge payoffs. And this isn’t a US-only trend: French podcast studio Nouvelles Écoutes, founded by journalist Lauren Bastide, is in talks for TV deals.

But what does this union of news and entertainment mean for intellectual property, journalistic integrity, or editorial control? And how can news organisations get a piece of that Hollywood pie? I spoke with Jenna Weiss-Berman, Co-Founder of Pineapple Street Media and Cory Haik, Publisher at Mic to get some insights and advice about this new revenue stream for media organisations.

Jenna Weiss-Berman is the co-founder of Pineapple Street Media, which has reached more than 50 million listeners to date.

Pineapple Street Media is a podcast studio founded in 2016 by Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky and is, according to Weiss-Berman, unique in the space in terms of business model and editorial line. In addition to original shows, Pineapple Street makes shows “with interesting partners — brands, large media companies, celebrities, et cetera,” said Weiss-Berman. These partners include Nike, Gizmodo, Texas Monthly, The New York Times, and Hillary Clinton. The company makes money through a mix of ad sales and production fees. Recently, Pineapple Street has been moving into on-screen adaptations of their audio content.

Weiss-Berman mentioned these opportunities in a recent appearance at the Paris Podcast Festival. In an email follow-up, she gave more details about this new strategy for her studio.

GEN: How has the relationship between the film industry and podcasters changed since you launched Pineapple Street Media? What does that relationship look like today?

Jenna Weiss-Berman: I’d say that there’s real interest in podcasts as a development tool. The more people learn about podcasts, the more they realise how effective they are as a way of working through new ideas. And that’s absolutely the case in film. People in the industry are beginning to understand how to use podcasts as the first step of film production in a way they didn’t before. And things are changing fast: it used to be that film studios just wanted to option existing shows, and now they’re trying to get in at the ground level by funding their own original podcasts with an eye towards developing them for film and TV.

Was Pineapple Street founded with the goal of turning audio into video? If not, when and how did that become a strategy?

We did imagine that we could, at some point, turn audio into video, but I think we didn’t develop a coherent strategy until [investigative podcast] Missing Richard Simmons premiered, and we started getting compelling offers from film and TV producers. But we are definitely an audio-first company, and making great podcasts is our top priority.

How do you build a team for these high production value projects?

We make sure to hire the best producers from across the audio space. Our producing team has worked on shows like Serial, This American Life, and S-Town, so we’re really working with the most experienced, most creative thinkers in the industry. We think it’s important to have a team that is not only technically and creatively outstanding, but that also approaches each project from a wide variety of perspectives.

Some Pineapple Street Media podcasts. See more here.

How does the reporting translate into a TV programme: Do you leave behind the “news” aspect and go for something fictionalised, or are we looking at a documentary style?

This really depends on the show, but generally an investigate docuseries would be turned into a fictionalised series, simply because the investigative and “news” aspects of the show happened in the past. If a podcast is an investigation, there is no reason to reproduce that for TV, as opposed to fictionalising one or several elements of that investigation.

What are the different models for content creation and IP rights? Is one model preferable?

We’ve worked with other media companies who’ve commissioned shows or bought rights to something fully formed, or wanted to partner at every stage. Our ideal scenario is to get a commission from a production house or studio with a full budget and a deal that attaches us to any derivatives — we want to stick around for any future versions of our shows.

As a way to diversify revenues for media organisations, do you think this trend of partnerships with TV channels or streaming platforms is a sustainable strategy? What could be the eventual pitfalls of banking too hard on TV deals?

For us great audio will always be the priority, and we do view gearing all your production towards film and TV as a potential pitfall. Wanting to work with film and TV is great, but it cannot dictate everything you make and how you make it. The audio should come first.

For more insight behind Pineapple Street Media’s adaptation strategy, as well as a thorough status update on podcasting industry, see the New Yorker piece How Podcasts Became a Seductive — and Sometimes Slippery — Mode of Storytelling.

Cory Haik is the publisher at Mic and also serves as a GEN Board Member.

Mic is another media organisation whose strategy has been courting Hollywood investors for premium co-productions. Recently, they’ve developed shows for Facebook Watch and Hulu, the latter being an exclusive docuseries that goes behind the debacle that was the Fyre Festival. According to an August 2018 article in Digiday, Mic has a five-person team dedicated to these projects and aims to have “a third of its revenue comes from paid productions and licensing.”

Publisher Cory Haik let us in on some of the details behind their recent projects via email.

GEN: Do you think news organisations should develop content with the goal of a TV or film deal, or should they focus on the original medium instead of the potential adaptations?

Cory Haik: Both! At Mic we’ve focused on our core journalistic charge, and from that daily work we are able to find and develop stories that have extension and deserve more investigation. You can also come at it from a more traditional development point of view, but for a news publisher, since you have so much built in IP, it’s smart to begin there. We’re coming at it from both ways, but ultimately, it all ties back to the stories we’re revealing and uncovering every day.

One example of this is a piece where we took an inside look at underserved communities, like the approximately 2,000 homeless people living on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, who have to abide not only by law enforcement surveillance, but also by gang members who call the shots. This began as an episode on our twice-weekly Facebook Watch show, Mic Dispatch, and is now in active development for a longer form production.

Mic Dispatch for Facebook Watch offers users exclusive content on the platform.

In terms of the bigger picture, do you think this recent trend of TV/streaming platform partnerships is a sustainable strategy for media organisations? What are the potential risks?

Streaming services and social platforms are all putting a focus on premium programming, and for news publishers this is a very good sign. Certainly you should always be mindful of building your business on top of someone else’s business, but the move to high-quality production creates a space for important work to be done that inherently has more value than work “optimised” or is a trend for a specific platform. The major television and cable companies reap upwards of five billion in revenue annually. That money is beginning to move to new players as audiences cut their cable cords.

At Mic, the licensing business is a mix of our revenue, along with a strong branded content operation and traditional digital advertising. What we’ve found with licensing is that it allows us to put forth and showcase our best journalistic efforts, and the revenue is meaningful. Any time those two things line up, you take it very seriously.

How do you build a team for these high production value projects? How is it different from building a social video team?

At Mic, the higher production value journalism is not entirely new for us. We’ve been doing deeper investigative style journalism as far back as 2015 marked by a [solutions-focused community reporting] show called The Movement, the Emmy-nominated series, Clarify, [an election season video series] which we produced with Spotify; and the award-winning documentary on opioid addiction, Life After Addiction, which we co-produced with TIME. The teams who worked on that certainly had a background in this kind of premium work, and at the same time, have always had an eye for helping our video journalism go as far and wide as possible, via social. That said, this kind of video journalism requires field experience, journalistic chops and an intense commitment to storytelling of this nature. You cannot do this level of work without that kind of experience.

Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jenna Weiss-Berman is the co-founder of Pineapple Street Media. After almost a decade working in public radio on such shows as The Moth and StoryCorps, Jenna started the podcast department at BuzzFeed and created Another Round and Women of the Hour with Lena Dunham. She currently sits on the advisory board of The Moth.

With a journalism career solely in digital, Cory Haik has a passion for the creative development of cutting-edge storytelling. She has been at the Washington Post, leading innovative initiatives before joining Mic first as their chief strategy officer, and was then appointed as their publisher. Cory also serves as a GEN board member and is a speaker at the GEN Summit 2019.