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March 26, 2010, 1 p.m.

Collaboration in action: Frontline, Planet Money, NewsHour team up for multimedia project on Haiti

Today marks the launch of a new public media series on Haiti — an experimental collaboration among public media partners Frontline (WGBH), Planet Money (NPR), and the NewsHour (PBS) to document life in the country after January’s devastating earthquake.

Though the project will culminate in Tuesday’s hour-long Frontline documentary, “The Quake” — an in-depth examination of the current state of Haiti and the world’s response to the disaster — it represents a group effort, not only among several different outlets, but also across several different platforms. The project is another attempt to achieve an increasingly common goal: to maximize reportorial resources during a time when they’re dwindling — and to find ways to collaborate during a time when competition can be an impediment to good journalism as much as a boon to it.

I spoke with David Fanning, Frontline’s executive producer (and recent Goldsmith career award winner), to learn more about the project.

It came from “one of those impetuous moments,” Fanning explains. “We’d had conversations well over a year ago with Planet Money and Adam Davidson about ways to collaborate on financial reporting, but we weren’t able to put anything together at the time. We were all doing our own programs.” Then, this spring, they continued that conversation, discussing the possibility of a big collaboration this summer. “And then Adam said, ‘Well, actually, I’m going to Haiti next week,'” Fanning says. “And we said, ‘Well, we have a team there filming, as well. So why don’t we see if we can get someone to go with you?'”

They did. They recruited Travis Fox, who had worked for ten years at The Washington Post — most recently, as a reporter/producer/videographer for washingtonpost.com — to shoot video that would be available not only for Frontline productions, but also to the NewsHour and NPR. “The theory is open-ended — this is an experiment — to see if you can collaborate with a reporter working in the field, without getting him off-course from what he’s doing,” Fanning says.

Another experiment: the terms of the collaboration itself. “We talk about collaborations in high-flung terms,” Fanning points out, but on the molecular level, teamwork can be a series of negotiations: who takes the lead on what, who makes editorial decisions, and so on. “My instinct on this — and it was Adam’s, as well — was: ‘Let’s just try something. Let’s just do it. If we don’t like it at the end of the day, we don’t have to do it again.'”

Ultimately, the success of the project — this one, and others like it — depends on the interactions between the individuals who are producing it. “Co-productions are never between institutions,” Fanning points out; “they’re only really between the people who work together and trust each other.” Still, those people work for institutions; and institutions — even those of public media — tend to care about things like return-on-investment, and eyeballs, and traffic. When it comes to the project’s web products, who hosts the stories? Who gets the pageviews?

“In the case of Planet Money and Frontline, we’re essentially driving traffic back to the Frontline website,” Fannings says. “We’re also carrying the NPR logo. And NPR, in turn, is going to credit Frontline — and vice versa. The important thing for Planet Money and NPR is that they’ll have the video stories for themselves, and they’ll have them produced at a level that’s not as easy for them to do.”

And, more broadly, everyone will benefit from the impact of the network. Fanning mentions “the long, hard look” approach Frontline is known for. “If you marry that to really good reporting in the other platforms, which could be radio and print on the web, if you bring those together and present them in a common matrix” — though it’s an open question whether that reporting is best housed on a single, shared website, or on separate ones, Fanning acknowledges — “then you’re creating something of value in a society where so much of the information is really disposable. And if it’s made in such a way that it’s very transportable, and it’s an embeddable, widgetized commodity, then it can go out and you can put it on your Facebook page and you can send it to your favorite 500 people. If you can share it in that way — and if it carries with it its connections back to those upper partnerships — then that’s just a very valuable object.”

But while the journalism should be portable and embeddable, so should the core values that underscore it: wisdom, context, quality. Fanning mentions the reporting Davidson produces for Planet Money. “If it’s done to that high degree of intelligence, then it really has currency,” he says. “Then people say, ‘You should really hear this one.'” Productions like, for example, “The Giant Pool of Money,” the much-praised and uber-trafficked collaboration with This American Life: “Those are the pieces that become memorable,” Fanning notes. “The thing you want to do is the memorable telling. Then it becomes valuable for always, in a way. And that’s the amazing promise of this new medium.”

POSTED     March 26, 2010, 1 p.m.
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