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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Doc and digital: Frontline’s new redesign goes beyond broadcast

Frontline makes “a new investment in a more iterative approach.”

Nerdy confession: I am a little bit obsessed with site redesigns. Not just because the Lab just launched one of its own, but because new looks, with all the decisions, editorial and economic, that go into them, have a money-where-your-mouth-is quality to them: Websites, mobile and desktop, are the places where a news outfit’s rhetoric meets its output.

Anyway, given all that, I was excited to see that Frontline has a web redesign launching today. The new look is, on the one hand, a fairly straightforward streamlining of the old — the homepage, as you’d expect, is still image-heavy, and a lot of prime real estate goes to editor-curated top stories. But what’s especially interesting about it, I think, is how much room the site — and the homepage, in particular — leaves for the kind of daily ephemera that you wouldn’t normally associate with, you know, a Storied Producer of Long-form Documentary Journalism.

Frontline, Andrew Golis, its digital director and senior editor, told me, is still guided by its core mission and product: “investigative storytelling with an explanatory role.” But what its redesign makes clear is how substantially that mission is expanding along with our digital storytelling capabilities. Frontline has been experimenting for a while now with leveraging the broadcast documentaries it’s known for into something that’s also more dynamic and conversational; the new design captures that trajectory. Below the new homepage’s lead stories — and between a left-hand column that’s essentially a reverse-chron archive of past Frontline shows and a right-hand column featuring a mix of video content, advertising, and social/promotional features — there’s a center column that features, Golis writes in a site introduction, “a constant stream of new material.”

What that stream is, though, is essentially a blog that’s embedded into Frontline’s homepage. And it might include, Golis notes, “pre-broadcast scoops and insights from ongoing projects, important updates on past investigations, analysis from our staff and partners, and live chats or open threads for Frontline community discussions.”

This ad hoc and varying mix of content is a (relatively) new thing for a news brand that is best known for producing the ultimate sit-back experience: the documentary. “The new design is focused on two things: clarity and continuity,” Golis notes in his intro. On television, of course, Frontline viewers don’t have many options when it comes to their experience of Frontline content: Their choices are pretty much to follow the plot of the documentary or to turn the thing off. So the web presents, for Frontline and its viewers, a whole tangle of opportunities and challenges — and of questions like, as Golis puts it: “How do we more iteratively tell stories over time? How do we make sure that the scoops and insights that are embedded in longer documentaries are represented in a way that people consume in the desktop space? How do we make sure that the great work that our produces are doing is easily sharable and spreadable in the desktop space?”

That last one, of course, is particularly important for any brand that cares about the impact of its work and wants to develop its audience. Social streams leading to — and from — a website are, increasingly, key to achieving full impact for journalistic work. Which leads to a fourth challenge, Golis says: “How do we use those streams to build a consistent community that can be a part of what we’re doing and a part of our organization?” The redesign’s social features themselves are, like their predecessor’s, pretty standard — they include commenting functionality, share buttons, etc.; instead, much of the innovation in the redesign is implicit, and about “how we’re organizing our journalism,” Golis says. What Frontline is hoping to do with its new site is to continue something it started with the old one: to accommodate “a new kind of story,” Golis says — “a new investment in a more iterative approach.”

Which means: more efforts to leverage the “artifacts that come out of the documentary,” like Frontline’s uber-webby publication of three years’ worth of Bradley Manning‘s Facebook interactions (a supplement to its Manning documentary, and given context by Frontline-added annotations). And more efforts to follow up on documentaries’ stories after they’ve aired. And more efforts to take bits of reporting embedded within documentaries and explore them as stand-alone pieces of web content. Going forward, Golis says, “our in-house digital producers will be more deeply embedded into the investigative projects” — so that they’re constantly making the connection between product and process, between content and audience.

Frontline is looking, in other words, beyond its broadcast roots to explore the way that its core product — documentary investigations — can be reframed for the web and beyond. And today’s desktop redesign, Golis says, is only the start. There’s also the tablet space to explore, and the digital television, and the smartphone. “This is the beginning of a long-term process here in which we’re trying to approach each medium fresh and say to ourselves, ‘How does this get accomplished in this space?’” Golis says. The redesign “is the desktop computer version of that — the desktop expression of the body of journalism that lives within the organization.”

                                   
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