Issue 257,  published May 5, 2020

Internalizing the Pipeline

Someone once posited to me, not too long ago, that we’ll likely see an increasing number of young journalist types, who in a previous era would otherwise be found trying to break into features writing, work their way towards narrative nonfiction audio production instead. That person is probably right, but the notion needs further expansion. As it turns out, an increasing number of veteran magazine writers are working their way into audio as well, and they’re coming with guns blazing.

The latest entry in this trend is a newly-formed podcast company called Campside Media, which announced its arrival in the entertainment trades last week. Campside’s founding team is made up of three veteran journalists (Josh Dean, Vanessa Grigoriadis, and Matthew Shaer) and a screenwriter-producer (Adam Hoff). If you’re an avid listener of serialized nonfiction podcasts of a true crime-ish bent, those three veteran journalists might sound familiar to you — Josh Dean made The Clearing, with Pineapple Street Media; Vanessa Grigoriadis led Tabloid: The Making of Ivanka Trump with New York Magazine, which was distributed through Luminary; and Matt Shaer made Over My Dead Body, with Wondery.

Now, on its face, news of a couple of veteran journalists who have made reasonably effective podcasts before coming together to build an audio company would’ve probably hit me as a fairly straightforward affair. It is, on paper, a logical logistical move. But what makes this story a little different is the fourth co-founder — screenwriter/producer Adam Hoff, who is said to have optioned or adapted over a dozen nonfiction stories for film and television, according to Deadline — as well as the nature of its investor: Sister, the “global production and development company” formed by Elisabeth Murdoch, Stacey Snider, and Jane Featherstone, which also has a first-look deal with the company. (For those who care: Sister Pictures was counted as a producer on the acclaimed HBO series Chernobyl… which, by the way, was written by Scriptnotes’ Craig Mazin.)

In short, Campside Media appears to be a podcast studio with the IP adaptation pipeline built straight into its architecture.

When I traded emails with the team, they told me that they fundamentally started the company to do all the things you’d expect features journalists would want to do: go on adventures, string together complex stories that excite them, hopefully presenting those stories to audiences who want them. But the studio was also formed in such a way that allows it to capitalize on the rising interest among Hollywood types in buying podcast stories as adaptable intellectual property.

Which, of course, makes sense from a business model standpoint. “Paying for highly reported, highly intricate projects requires that at least some of the projects sell as adaptations,” they said over email. “Otherwise there’s not enough money to float the business, especially in the challenging corona-era ad market.”

That intellectual property emphasis also flows in the opposite direction, by the way. “As you might imagine, we’ve had quite a bit of interest in working directly with Hollywood production companies who have stories they’d like to test as podcasts, both in unscripted and scripted forms,” they said.

Not everything they make will end up being sold into the film and television pipeline, of course. I should say that the team also pushed back against the notion that Campside will solely function as a kind of IP factory, insisting instead that the north star is to produce impactful narrative journalism. I suppose it’s a “have your cake and eat it too” sort of situation, which is also a “sweet if you can make it work” situation. But they’re saying it as a way of communicating that they’re not in the business of rejecting ideas simply because it lacks IP potential — why leave perfectly usable material on the table?

The Hollywood Reporter write-up notes that the company currently has eleven projects in development, three of which are already in the adaptation pipeline one way or another. The team tells me its first-year slate will involve a standard mix of what you’d expect from a group of veteran magazine journalists. “We’ve got a con artist yarn, some corporate intrigue, an American Hustle-esque sting story, and a bank robbery story that’s about so much more than bank robbery,” they said. There’s also a “big ocean rescue story” by Sean Flynn, the GQ correspondent and National Magazine Award winner, and a new project from Shaer, which is tentatively being called Masked. They also noted that they’re looking into plans to build shows in other countries, and that some of their current projects involve production in multiple languages.

As you can probably discern from those descriptions, a good portion of Campside’s production model will involve collaborations with other veteran longform journalists and book authors. The team maintains that their studio will emphasize proper creator compensation — paying fair rates, fair splitting of IP proceeds, and working to ensure that the talent remains a strong part of the adaptation process. “To be frank, there has been exploitation in this area,” they said. “We don’t think journalists spending six months working on a story that they brought to us should have to freelance a bunch of articles at the same time to make ends meet.”

With its focus on collaborating with veteran longform journalists and book authors, Campside can be situated within a fairly competitive niche in the podcast business, one that also sees participation from companies like Pushkin Industries, Prologue Projects, maybe Slate’s Slow Burn franchise, and not to mention Wondery and Pineapple Street, former production partners of Shaer and Dean, respectively. The team acknowledges the competitiveness of the segment, before sounding the belief there’s always room for more players. Which is probably true; here’s hoping that the increased competition will lead to more unexpected collaborations.

Anyway, Campside is also interesting to me in how it’s part of this larger puzzle I’ve long been trying to process: the fact that the limited-run audio series is perhaps the most difficult genre to financially execute in podcasting. Often times, a limited-run podcast is a production bundle that requires high upfront resource cost but provides a comparatively shorter runway for advertising revenue, as the bulk of the performance requirements are typically stacked at the top of a given show’s release. If you’re making an expensive four-part series about, oh I don’t know, a freight shipping scandal and, like, the reporting process took three years of the reporter being undercover in the yards or something, you’re still probably left with a situation where the podcast would need to meet the bulk of its audience number expectations across its first four to, say, eight weeks since launch in order to maybe break even. That, or you stretch four parts into ten parts to give more runway, or you flip the podcast feed into an “overarching” brand that houses different stories as different season of the same brand. (See: Dan Taberski’s Headlong.)

Or — or maybe “and” — you can put your faith in the IP gods.

(Quick aside on this: in the past, I’ve almost exclusively limited this discussion to limited-run audio documentaries, but it stands to reason that similar versions of the problem can be found in limited-run fiction podcasts. For now, we’re mostly talking about the former, but I wanted to acknowledge this either way.)

The inherently difficult nature of the limited-run structure is partly why we’re seeing such a deep lean among makers of limited-run series podcasts into the Hollywood IP pipeline… in addition to the thrill and glamor or whatever of working in television and the movies, of course. And so it’s interesting to see how Campside, as an organizational construction, iterates on this increasingly tight relationship between this type of podcast and sellable IP outcomes. By taking money from Sister, a “global production and development company” with involved infrastructure within the broader entertainment industry, Campside appears to formally institutionalize a kind of partnership that they were always going to have to make anyway. They internalized the IP pipeline, so to speak.

Interesting stuff. Anyway, I’m looking forward to that big ocean rescue story. Listen, Ashton Kutcher’s The Guardian was a godawful movie, but it was on cable all the damn time when I was growing up in Malaysia, so I have a soft spot for ocean rescue shit.

I run this thing.