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.