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Nov. 17, 2010, 2:30 p.m.

The neverending broadcast: Frontline looks to expand its docs into a continual conversation

Frontline, PBS’s public affairs documentary series, has one of the best reputations in the business for the things that journalism values most highly: courageous reporting, artful storytelling, the kind of context-heavy narrative that treats stories not simply as stories, but as vehicles of wisdom. It’s a “news magazine” in the most meaningful sense of the term.

But even an institution like Frontline isn’t immune to the disruptions of the web. Which is to say, even an institution like Frontline stands to benefit from smart leveraging of the web. The program’s leadership team is rethinking its identity to marry what it’s always done well — produce fantastic broadcasts — with something that represents new territory: joining the Internet’s continuous conversation. To that end, Frontline is planning to supplement its long-form documentaries with shorter, magazine-style pieces — which require a shorter turnaround time to produce — and with online-only investigations. (The site’s motto: “Thought-provoking journalism on air and online.”)

But it’s also expanding its editorial efforts beyond packaged investigations, hoping to shift its content in a more discursive direction. Which leads to a familiar question, but one that each organization has to tackle in its own way: How do you preserve your brand and your value while expanding your presence in the online world?

One tool Frontline is hoping can help answer that question: Twitter. And not just Twitter, the conversational medium — though “we really want to be part of the journalism conversation,” Frontline’s senior producer, Raney Aronson-Rath, told me — but also Twitter, the aggregator. This afternoon, Frontline rolled out four topic-focused Twitter accounts — “micro-feeds,” it’s calling them:

Conflict Zones & Critical Threats (@FrontlineCZCT), which covers national security and shares the series’ conflict-zone reporting;

Media Watchers (@FrontlineMW), which tracks news innovation and the changing landscape of journalism;

Investigations (@FrontlineINVSTG), which covers true crime, corruption, and justice — spotlighting the best investigative reporting by Frontline and other outlets; and

World (@FrontlineWRLD), which covers international affairs.

The topic-focused feeds are basically a beat system, applied to Twitter. They’re a way of leveraging one of the core strengths of Frontline’s journalism: its depth. Which is something that would be almost impossible for Frontline, Aronson-Rath notes, to achieve with a single feed. So “we decided that the best thing for us was to be really intentional about who we were going to reach out to and what kind of topics we were going to tweet about — and not just have it be a promotional tool.”

Each feed will be run by two-person teams, one from the editorial side and the other from the promotional — under the broad logic, Aronson-Rath notes, that those two broad fields are increasingly collapsing into each other. And, even more importantly, that “all the work that we do in the social media landscape is, by its very essence, editorial.” Even something as simple as a retweet is the result of an editorial decision — and one that requires the kind of contextual judgment that comes from deep knowledge of a given topic.

So Frontline’s feed runners, Aronson-Rath notes, “are also the people who have, historically, been working in those beats in Frontline’s broadcast work.” (Frontline communications manager Jessica Smith, for example, who’ll be helping to run the “Conflict Zones” feed, covered that area previously, in cultivating the conversation between Frontline and the national security blogosphere as a component of the program’s earlier web efforts.)

In other words: “These guys know what they’re doing on these beats.”

To that end, the teams’ members will be charged with leveraging their knowledge to curate content from the collective resources of all of Frontline’s contributors — from reporters to producers, public media partners to internal staff — and, of course, from the contributors across the web. The teams will work collaboratively to produce their tweets (they’ll even sit next to each other to maximize the teamwork). And some feeds will contain not just curated content, but original reporting, as well. Frontline reporters Stephen Grey and Martin Smith are about to dispatch to Afghanistan; while they’re there, they’ll attempt to tweet from @FrontlineCZCT whenever possible. (They’ll tweet from personal feeds, which @FrontlineCZCT curators will pull into the Frontline-branded feed.)

The broad idea behind the new approach is that audiences identify with topics as much as they do with brands. And there’s also, of course, the recognition of the sea of material out there which is of interest to consumers, but which ends up, documentary filmmaking being what it is, on the cutting-room floor. The new approach, it’s hoped, will give Frontline fans a behind-the-scenes look into the film production process. “You wouldn’t actually know where Frontline’s reporting teams are right now,” Aronson-Rath points out. “You only know when we show up.” Now, though, “when a team goes into Afghanistan, we’re going to let you know where they are. We’re going to give you some intelligence about what they’re doing. And it’ll be a completely different level of a conversation, we’re hoping.”

It’ll also be a different level of engagement — for Frontline’s producers and its consumers. It’s a small way of expanding the idea of what a public affairs documentary is, and can be, in the digital world: a process, indeed, as much as a product. “We think,” Aronson-Rath says, “that this is going to help keep our stories alive.”

POSTED     Nov. 17, 2010, 2:30 p.m.
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