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Selling more stories to Hollywood

“The bidding wars over story options, typically a nice bonus check of a few hundred dollars, have created six and seven figure deals for writers and podcast producers.”

It’s 2018. My attention span is so shot that I can barely get through a movie trailer, let alone binge watch the 10,000 new longform TV offerings that are being algorithmically recommended to me, discussed online or the talk of my group chat. And yet, one way or another, journalism is still going to be shaped by what I have been calling, in my head, the Netflix economy.

What is the Netflix economy? It’s the variety of ways that the new TV money is washing over media. It runs that gamut from literal Netflix shows being developed and sold by media organizations (Vox Media has just had its second season greenlit) to the resources expended covering peak TV (think of all the “What We’re Watching” recommendation products) to the rumored launch of Netflix-sponsored content, like a magazine, or the already existing projects of audio tied to content like the cult documentary Wild Wild Country. Probably the former is the most impactful shift: IP development as a revenue source. I have no idea where we are actually at with peak TV — whether it has really peaked — but the market for stories and storytellers does not seem to be abating as this year segues into next.

In general, the drive for big, meaty original stories does not seem to be an evil thing. After all, for something to have IP, it needs an actual investment in storytelling — Facebook content mills cannot call their agent, no matter how big the traffic numbers get. The success of something like “Dirty John” — an L.A. Times investigation that was cannily launched with a podcast made by a new-ish company called Wondery and is now a Bravo TV show — is quite inspiring. From newspaper series to TV show, in what seems like record time.

But journalism hitching its wagon to Hollywood does seem like a rather bad bet in the long run. The New York Times staffed up to make their TV show, The Weekly, set to debut this spring on actual TV (FX Network) and streaming TV (Hulu). What happens to those staffers if the show is cancelled after one season? The success of Gimlet’s Homecoming fictional podcast (two seasons greenlit on Amazon) seems to have reshaped the company’s business plan, as they announced in September that they hired a development exec for film and TV projects. What would a contraction in the TV/movie market do to their core product — highly produced podcasts?

In the short-term though, there is one surprising winner in this: individual journalists. The bidding wars over story options, typically a nice bonus check of a few hundred dollars, have created six and seven figure deals for writers and podcast producers. In fact, after seeing how well journalist Jeff Maysh and producer David Klawans worked the system — as revealed in this fascinating story, they basically laundered their IP through the Daily Beast in order to give the movie pitch more oomph — I imagine a lot of both journalists and publishers are looking at their contracts with renewed vigor. Just last week, Reeves Wiedeman’s New York magazine story scored a 7-figure deal from Netflix. (It’s occurred to me a few times this year that if alt-weeklies could have lasted through the mid-00s, they would be well-positioned to take advantage of this IP gold rush.) It will be interesting to see if journalists and media companies can somehow benefit from Hollywood’s embrace without getting lost in it. The race for streaming eyeballs is, after all, another pivot to video.

Reyhan Harmanci is the executive editor of Topic.com.

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