Frontline brings 'Bush's War' to life on the Web

Let’s check in with Frontline Online, where, unlike in real life, “Bush’s War” seems quite popular.

The site just launched an ambitious interactive platform in support of the two-part TV series. Part One aired Monday night on PBS, and since then the program has had more than 325,000 views online, with an additional 22,000 for a separate video timeline section. Not bad, especially when 50 percent of users are watching more than five minutes per chapter clip.

Compiled from past reports and fresh content, Frontline has packaged the most comprehensive, digestible Iraq war encyclopedia to be found on the Web—or anywhere else.

Appropriately, once you’re in, it’s tough to get out.

The video timeline stretches back to the 1980s—a four-minute feature on the rise of Islamic terrorism—and scrolls up to a behind-the-scenes dissection of the January 2007 plan for the troop surge.

The site’s new-and-improved video platform makes navigation a breeze. Each timeline entry comes with links to related videos, full-length interviews and past multimedia Frontline reports. And the entire PBS-aired program is just a click away—broken into 26 chapters, each clocking in at about eight or 10 minutes.

We swapped e-mails with Editorial Director Marrie Campbell and New Media Director Sam Bailey to find out more about the program—and what else they have cooking.

OJR: What’s new at Frontline Online? Any big developments on deck for the site?

FL: Video is our overriding focus these days. We’re streaming some 70 programs on our site and recently launched a new video platform that uses Flash video on the front end enabling online viewers to link to related video clips, related full programs, and an array of related content (interviews, timelines, documents, etc.) with just a click. This upgraded video platform also allows the viewer to link to related video from other PBS public affairs series.

Starting March 24th, as part of the Google Video, sitemaps and some Google ads advertising, mainly in pre-broadcast promotion. We don’t develop new features for our sites without looking closely at how it will interact with search engines; we’re slowly retuning our site to help with that process. We’re also looking to partner with other news organizations sites to get our online brand out to a wider audience. And we want to work with bloggers more and make it easier for them to reference or “quote” our video and text content.

OJR: Can you talk about the relationship between your online and TV content? How does the reader/viewership of your exclusive online sections stack up against the broadcast pieces you post to the site?

FL: Most of Frontline’s online content is drawn from the research and reporting done by the program’s producing team. We sometimes commission sidebar text stories and occasionally have the opportunity to produce Web-exclusive video reports – stories/sequences the producers couldn’t fit into the broadcast program.

Over the past three years we’ve seen the streamed programs’ video drawing the highest traffic, compared to other site content. However, many online visitors/viewers come via search engines seeking specific information from our large archive of interview transcripts, chronologies, articles, timelines, etc. that work well for search bots.

OJR: Your colleagues at Frontline/World are experimenting with special Web sections like Rough Cut and Flash Point, which they treat as sort of an online breeding ground for bigger broadcast pieces. What are your thoughts on those projects, and what’s to stop you from doing the same thing on the main Frontline site?

FL: These Frontline/World projects are very interesting and important initiatives for us. It’s a way for Frontline to innovate and be more nimble and wider ranging in the kind of stories we can cover and the new journalists we can bring into the series. It’s also key to us in another way: Frontline/World allows us to experiment with new kinds of production and distribution of our reports in order to reach new audiences.

We’re pondering a similar idea for the Frontline series’ site—developing in the next six to 12 months a more flexible area online for Frontline to experiment with non-broadcast content. In the future, there’ll be more crossover between the two sites.

We are all part of Frontline and we continue to learn a lot from each other. Most of the technology is shared across the sites. So too are story ideas for long and short pieces—on-air and online—so too is the scouting and development of new producers and journalists for both series. While on an editorial/production level they’re separate units, there’s overlapping senior staff.

And again, the really vital part of Frontline/World is that this sister series enables us to try new things, incubate new media projects, attract and develop new, younger journalists and build new audiences.

OJR: Who else is doing great work online that you would like to emulate?

FL: We like the Guardian and the [Washington] Post sites. They’re offering a lot of good material and features on many different fronts. We also like the CJR Campaign Desk and the [ABC News] Blotter. We wish we had the resources to mount something like that.

There are a lot of little pieces from different sites that are interesting ideas that we’d love to somehow replicate on our site. For example, the blog from the Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, because it’s bilingual and he actively reads and responds to the comments from readers. We think the blogs are great. The Corner and similar group blogs from National Review, the American Prospect and the individual blogs from The Atlantic are interesting because they’re so active and eventually tie into the written pieces—but not always, they don’t have to.

OJR: What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned about producing your journalism online that you wish you’d known when you started this job?

FL: Know who/what you are at the core and seek to maximize that. Build your audience by exploiting this amazing revolution we’re in. It’s important to know when to use the flashy new media tools that you have, in terms of interactivity and fancy new media presentation. In general, people still want to go for the basics: quick, easy delivery of content, video and interactive options. A TV producer’s instinct is to do everything one can in that medium, in terms of making the program pretty, making it “pop.” But TV’s a defined space—we know how it works as a medium. There’s much more to know about the array of Web browsers: your video/content could be on an iPhone, a PC, a Mac, etc. All look different. The Web is not one single experience.

Editorial pages look to adapt as their communities converse online

A generation ago, the local newspaper editorial page provided the highest-profile forum for discussions about community issues. Editorial writers would research opinion pieces, staff and guest columnists offered their thoughts and local residents would add their voices in the letters to the editor section.

Then the Internet arrived, and the civic discourse shifted, as readers turned to local discussion boards, political blogs and community e-mail lists to talk about the issues affecting them. The newspaper-sanctioned forum grew up, moved out, and became a true community conversation. Now, some newspaper editorial board leaders are responding, seeking Web-friendly ways to restore their opinion sections’ relevance.

Editorial writers from papers big and small, from Wausau, Wisc. to Washington, D.C., locked minds in downtown L.A. last weekend to kick off the Knight Digital Media Center‘s “Best Practices: Editorial and Commentary in Cyberspace” conference.

The overarching questions Sunday: What does it mean to be a catalyst for an engaged society? And just what is the ideal balance between editorial autonomy and community conversation?

“Am I making too large a leap of faith here in drawing this conclusion that community involvement is indeed part and parcel of what we should be about?” asked moderator Michael Williams, Associate Professor of Interactive Media at Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial writer Kevin Horrigan wasn’t quite sure:

“The definition of the role of a newspaper is to print the news and raise hell. The assumption here, within this group, seems to be that you’re leading a community conversation. That in itself is a change from the traditional role of the newspaper. I think it’s a good idea, but I’m not sure the newspaper industry as a whole is totally grasping that.”

Begetting this retort from The Portland Oregonian‘s George Rede:

“I guess I would say, without giving up the traditional role of ‘reporting the news and raising hell,’ this is another layer. If you aren’t doing it already, you have to do it. Given the changes in technology, there’s no excuse for not going down some of these paths. We might be stumbling along the way. We may not see exactly where we’re going to wind up. But the means to engage our readership have changed, and I think changed for the better.”

From monitored blogs to cartoon caption contests to reader/columnist programs, folks in the room did offer promise. That said, when Williams polled the room to gauge whose sites have employed some form of video, only half the hands went up. And of those, none could own up to running anything that was actually shot and edited by an editorial writer, a process one writer described as a “very labor-intensive” endeavor. Not surprising, per se, but perhaps a telling anecdote about the generational status of most editorial board members.

Show And Tell

The most compelling, and telling, answers in the opening session sprang from a best-practices share session, where the 20-odd newsies unveiled their range of active editorial-page endeavors.

A sample:

  • In November, The Portland Oregonian asked readers to nominate themselves for the paper’s op-ed board. Rede said they selected 12 of 250 respondents, based on résumés and writing samples, and asked them to write one opinion piece a week, on the topic of their choice, for 12 weeks.

    “We have our own soap box seven days a week,” he said. “We would like them to be able to bring issues to conversation that matter to them.”

    Those who have shown their ability to write professionally and meet deadlines have earned the right to blog directly to the Oregonian, unsupervised and unedited. Want to get to know these “citizen journalists” a little better? No problem: They’ve posted video interviews with each of the “community writers.”

  • In Wausau, Wis., Peter Wasson at the Daily Herald is writing the Sunday editorial five days in advance, on Tuesday, and opening it up for pre-publication feedback.

    “At the end of the day Tuesday, I send it to a panel of 15 or 20 readers who have volunteered on our Readers React board,” explained Wausau Wasson. “And by the end of Thursday, they send responses to our editorial.”

    Wouldn’t that compromise timeliness, you ask? “I’ve got six other days a week to be timely,” he said.

  • Miriam Pepper said her Kansas City Star‘s Unfettered Letters section dishes out its print-published letters as individual blog posts, allowing readers a forum beneath each of them for replies; unedited, unmonitored and sans-length limit.
  • At The Charlotte Observer, “You Write The Caption” invites readers to whip up their own wit for cartoonist Kevin Siers’ Monday cartoons.

    Challenges remain

    A selection of notable quotes from participants:

    Editorial Page Editor Gina Acosta of the Washington Post: “Unless you’re a columnist, no one knows who is on the editorial board, what their expertise is, where they came from, what their experience is. There’s no interactivity between the editorial board and the community. And we get letters and calls from people all the time asking, ‘who’s on the editorial board? How can I set up an editorial board meeting?’ And it’s a very closed, hidden process.”

    Deron Snyder, Editorial Writer, Fort Myers News-Press: “There’s always been community conversation. The fact is that we’ve never been involved in it. Once we printed our paper, we would let the community talk about it and we were done; we were working on the next day. What I like about the way things are going now is that we remain a part of the conversation that we start. We start the conversation by our stories and editorials… We can help foster that conversation. It doesn’t mean we have to change our views, necessarily.”

    Tonya Jameson, Online Columnist, The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer: “I think we’ve always… had that opportunity for the readers to respond, because everybody has a Letters to the Editor page. So people still have that discourse within the newspaper, but now we are moving forward with blogs and having these ways for people to actually go back and open up a conversation. I do agree, though, that it’s an arrogant attitude that we put the news out there, we put our opinion out there, and readers are supposed to accept it and we go from there. I think that’s what turns off younger readers from newspapers.”

    Laurence Reisman, Editor, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers: “It’s one thing to bring people to an editorial board meeting and have them talk about it with us. But I think it’s much more powerful to bring readers on sides of all issues together in a forum—whether it’s an online forum or a meeting room like this—where they can discuss the issues. And if it changes our opinions after listening to some of these things and doing more research, that’s great. But I think helping to bring the community together is an important thing.”

    Michael Landauer, Assistant Editorial Page Editor, The Dallas Morning News (on cross-pub linking): “News isn’t going to do it. Our front news site is not going to link to an investigative report at the [Fort Worth] Star Telegram, ever,” said Michael Landauer of The Dallas Morning News. “But we’ve done it several times where I’ve linked to an editorial out of the Star Telegram. And nobody blinks at that.”

    Kevin Horrigan, Editorial Writer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “That’s not the role of the newspaper. We’re supposed to say which one is right.”

  • A meeting of the new-media minds this weekend in Atlanta

    On Feb. 22-23, the Symposium on Computation and Journalism at Georgia Tech will play matchmaker with technology and journalism, dumping a who’s who of industry professionals, scholars and up-and-comers from both fields into a room and hoping to see some sparks fly—or at least a few fists.

    Sound familiar? You may have read about the Networked Journalism Summit here last year, a similarly ambitious techie-meets-newsie experiment in New York. In fact, NJS organizer and former OJR Q&A subject David Cohn has a ticket to Atlanta this weekend.

    But if that conference’s roots were steeped in journalism, this one bats from the other side of the plate. Founders Brad Stenger and Nick Diakopoulos have backgrounds in Human-Computer Interaction, and the roster they’ve compiled boasts an impressive digital constituent.

    To say nothing of the journalistic participants. The panelists’ collective resumé lists CNN, The New York Times and Yahoo! News, and founding Gawker Elizabeth Spiers will deliver the closing keynote.

    So just what should they all expect to take away from the weekend? And what about those of us who long to be a fly on the wall?

    Stenger was happy to fill in the blanks over e-mail.

    OJR: First off, could you give me a brief rundown on the genesis of this meeting? How did the idea form and what is your purpose?

    Brad Stenger: Nick Diakopoulos and I first talked about it at CHI, an annual technical meeting for academic & industrial researchers working in the area of Human-Computer Interaction. That initial conversation was in San Jose in early May 2007. Nick’s Ph.D. advisor, Irfan Essa, gave it his blessing shortly afterward. The three of us jointly started serious planning last fall.

    The purpose has always been to fill a big room with journalists interested in developing technology and technology developers interested in journalism. We felt if we could get the technologists to say why their work mattered to journalists, and if journalists could tell about their experiments with technology, there’d be a doorway into each other’s world, and some good knowledge and technology transfer would result.

    OJR: How did you go about selecting the media attendees, and why did you choose the people you did?

    Stenger: It’s always been about diversity. We started with the subjects we wanted to cover, and knew that we wanted the subjects covered from a range of perspectives—technical, entrepreneurial, journalistic, design, etc. We came up with long lists of people that were candidates to cover the subject material, and kept asking people from our lists until we’d gotten the diversity we felt we needed. I think our participants selected us.

    OJR: You’re setting aside half of the seats for students and young professionals. How will they be phased into the meeting agenda, and what do you hope they can add to the conversation?

    Stenger: We’ve set out to cover lots of ground. Technology and journalism together is a nearly inexhaustible subject, and we won’t exhaust any of the subjects in any of our panel discussions or talks. It might be a rationalization, but we think that this sets the stage for in-depth hallway discussions that bring home the subjects of greatest interest to individual attendees. To aid these hallway conversations we put in place a conference-only social network (a mini-Facebook) so that people can more easily connect names, faces, interests and areas of expertise. Ultimately it’ll be buy-in from students and early-careerists that spell the difference between hosting a conference and creating a community. We’re glad to be doing the former, but we’re also taking our best shot at doing the latter.

    OJR: What about those of us who can’t make it but want to be in the loop? Where can attendees and outsiders alike go to stay informed and involved after the meeting?

    Stenger: Some universities are known for webcasting everything but that’s not Georgia Tech. I’d recommend signing on to the RSS feed for ongoing details, and links to related news items and blog posts.

    OJR: What, if any, are the follow-up plans for the project?

    Stenger: Interest has been strong and we’re expecting a capacity crowd. We naturally have an eye toward doing this again in 2009. But for 2008, hopefully we’ll have brought people together who wouldn’t have otherwise connected, and there’ll be some things that get built which everyone benefits from. I think that given the talent and ambition in the crowd we have assembled, if we succeed in fostering these new connections, results will be easy to spot.

    OJR: Finally, what specifically do you hope individuals will take away from the conference? Or is the goal to simply get all these minds in the same room with hopes that they will network and stay in touch?

    Stenger: The goal for the meeting is knowledge, technology and innovation transfer between computing professionals and journalists; things that we believe will have lasting impact on both fields. Will it, though? We’re about to find out. As far as we know, no one’s ever attempted a meeting this size about journalism where the technical discussion is this substantial.