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May 5, 2014, 10 a.m.

The third draft of history: Retro Report looks back at media-hyped stories of the recent past

With big bucks from philanthropist Chris Buck and an audience via The New York Times, Retro Report is building a new kind of media criticism years after the fact.

When trying to get people excited about his video news nonprofit, Chris Buck relies on one question to get the conversation started.

Do power lines cause cancer?

Buck founded Retro Report about two years ago, although the idea for an investigative, video-based media criticism project had been percolating with Buck well before that.

“Do power lines cause cancer? I love asking that question,” he says. “We all remember that story — if you’re of a certain age anyway. Eighty percent of the people are like, I don’t know, do they? After all that stress and strife the country went to trying to figure out if their kids were safe, we don’t know!”

With Retro Report, Buck wanted to revisit some of these major headlines from the recent past and, with the help of over two dozen investigative reporters and video producers, figure out how these major events — and the reporting around them — look different in retrospect.

For example, remember all those stories in the 1980s and 1990s about the crack baby epidemic — children of addicts who were supposedly “destined to a lifetime of pain and suffering”? One episode of Retro Report discusses the research that originated that claim, and how it became so wildly overblown:

Love Canal, the McMartin preschool “Satanic abuse” case, Biosphere 2, Tawana Brawley, the medfly scare, the McDonald’s spilled coffee lawsuit — for people of a certain age, Retro Report will bring memories of nightly newscasts from the late ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s rushing back.

The idea for Retro Report actually came to Buck 15 years ago, watching TV. “A Saturday afternoon, they came on to tease the news, and the reporter said, Is your water killing your children? Details at 10. My dad and I had a discussion about how unfair it is — this temporal advantage that newscasters have to leave us hanging, to scare us into watching the news,” says Buck.

That kind of headline baiting hasn’t gone away. Perhaps you’ve seen a Huffington Post teaser headline like this one:

But on Twitter, one man with more than 34,000 followers has proven the satisfaction audiences get from seeing those inflated headlines burst, saving you a click:

What Buck is doing with Retro Report is not wholly dissimilar — only the stories are decades instead of minutes old and the format is 12-13 minute mini-documentaries.

Retro Report is personally funded by Buck, whose day job is managing his family’s foundation, which does not contribute financially to Retro Report. With around 35 published videos under its belt, Buck says the next move is to look for philanthropic funding. “It’s kind of a transitional period right now,” he says. “I’m doing a lot of thinking about what we’re going to need in five years, and what the management structure should look like.”

Much of the Retro Report aesthetic comes from working with journalists who have experience at organizations like Frontline and 60 Minutes, including managing editor Kyra Darnton. Buck hired Darnton as the concept for Retro Report was still being shaped. At one point, he and cofounder Larry Chollet had conceived of the project as primarily text based, with video augmentation. Later, after hiring documentarian Stephen Ives, the project became video focused — but Buck felt it still lacked a reporting edge.

“There was no real strong investigation,” he said. “There wasn’t that component that we would need, in the end, to dig into these stories a little deeper.” It was then that he hired Darnton, who brought a strong culture of storytelling with her from 60 Minutes — though she says she thinks of the videos as mini-documentaries more than newsmagazine pieces.

For Darnton, part of the joy of the project is producing videos that help journalists think about their present-day work. For example, the story on the “superpredator” scare of the 1990s resulted in a piece at Poynter reminding journalists about the danger of inflating statistics. Science reporting, with its inherent complications, has proved to be especially fertile ground for germinating Retro Report stories. “That says a lot about the way science is reported,” she says. “It really takes the passage of time to know if something was a breakthrough or wasn’t a breakthrough.”

Producing a broadcast-caliber video every week is expensive — consider the cost of re-reporting each TV news story, plus the content licensing for old clips. (Most of the older content Retro Report uses falls under fair use — and they keep fair use lawyers around, ready to defend that argument — but some of it ends up being paid for.) Philanthropically-backed investigative journalism is not new, but documentary film is a costly addition — and that’s not the extent of Buck and Darnton’s ambition. “Our vision for this project is that we’ll eventually have a living library of modern news events,” says Darnton. “You’ll be able to come to our website and search by theme, by person, by year, and put together different short videos and watch them. It’s almost like a choose-your-own-adventure book.”

Finding a home at the Times

The real coup for Retro Report came early on, when Ann Derry, The New York Times’ editorial director for video and television partnerships, agreed to distribute all of their content.

“At that point, the only other outside video content we were running on our website was Op-Docs, which was something I started about four years ago,” Derry says of Retro Report. “I thought it was excellent. I thought, this is what we should be doing, but we’re not doing it. Luckily, they are!”

The Times posts new Retro Report content every Monday when it’s in its production season and distributes their videos on Hulu, YouTube, Yahoo, and AOL. From its inception, the Times has added text stories to the Retro Report content, at first as part of the now-defunct Boomer blog, later via beat reporters, and now through former Times columnist Clyde Haberman. Darnton also regularly meets with an editor on the news desk to discuss stories and coverage.

Sometimes, as with the story of Vietnam War protesters who stole FBI documents in 1971, the Times adds additional reporting and an original package to a Retro Report story. In a more recent case, reaction to the “superpredators” video ended up in print on the Times opinion pages.

Derry says Retro Report videos are “shockingly popular” and are consistently among the most-watched pieces of video content at the Times. “Everyone says to me: When are we going to find another Retro Report?” she says.

Times executive editor Jill Abramson has often said she believes it’s the Times’ responsibility to tell “the story behind the story.” Retro Report, Derry says, accomplishes that mission in a visually compelling and powerful way. “If you say journalism is the first draft of history, this is like the third draft of history. You see how it’s reported, what the first draft was, and then you see what was really going on. We learn more about the story and/or you learn the effects, on social policy or politics,” she says.

Since bringing in Retro Report, the Times has added a variety of outside video content producers to its roster, including a series on skiing with Teton Gravity Research, car reviews with Tom Volk and interviews with women entrepreneurs in a collaboration with StoryExchange. “We’re acting in a very mini way like a television network,” says Derry. “Most television networks don’t produce all their own programming in house. They may produce some or none of it, and they certainly go to outside people.”

The Times’ strategy for video was further elucidated last week at the Times’ Digital NewFronts presentation. Rebecca Howard, general manager of video production, announced Times Video at the event, a newly designed hub for the paper’s ever-expanding video content offerings. She underscored how the Times plans to incorporate its existing star columnists and reporters into its video strategy, while also continuing to seek out partnerships outside the paper. For example, the Times has entered into a new partnership with Vimeo with a video series on “adventurous eating” called The Perennial Plate.

The Times is training more of its journalists to shoot iPhone video, but the overall strategy seems focused on video with a more documentary feel, production that reflects the core values of Times journalism — quality, character, originality, and wit, according to CEO Mark Thompson. “In the last year and a half, there’s been a whole anti-short-web-video thing circulating, saying people watch much longer content on the web if it’s good enough,” Derry says. “Retro pretty much bears that out.”

Around the same time that Buck was preparing to launch Retro Report, he was inspired by a Nieman Lab story in which Megan Garber wrote: “What if we had an outlet dedicated to continuity journalism — a news organization whose sole purpose was to follow up on stories whose sheer magnitude precludes them from ongoing treatment by our existing media outlets?” Retro Report accomplishes that goal by bringing up long-forgotten controversies, and then satisfying the desire to know what’s happened in the intervening years. In doing so, it plays into an important dynamic of digital audience that we’ve learned from BuzzFeed and its ilk: Nostalgia is a powerful driver of eyeballs online.

Says Buck: “It scratches an itch.”

News broadcast image of J. Edgar Hoover via Retro Report.

POSTED     May 5, 2014, 10 a.m.
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