Frontline is innovating on the Web, Fox says, but following more of a “DVD model,” by showcasing its main feature—often a full-length documentary—and then adding extras. “They’re not changing the centerpiece journalism, but adding more stuff,” he says. Raney Aronson-Rath, Frontline’s senior producer, argues that “Cracking the digital narrative is our future.” With a $1 million grant from the Verizon Foundation, Frontline was able to build a first-rate site as a companion to its ninety-minute documentary, Digital Nation, which aired on PBS earlier this year. The Digital Nation site went live in March 2009, a year before the documentary was to be broadcast, and filmmaker Rachel Dretzin plunged herself into a world of unusually transparent reporting—posting rough cuts and raw footage for feedback.
“I had to take a deep breath and say I was going to trust the process,” Dretzin said. She posted fifty-one rough cuts, eighty-two interview excerpts and at least nine other Web-special pieces as she built the documentary.
After Digital Nation aired, Dretzin and her team held an online roundtable discussion to debate which was more satisfying—the Web site experience or the ninety-minute broadcast. Some, like Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation and an English professor at Emory University, wrote that the documentary “plays fair with both sides and gives ample airing of different views.” For others, the Web was the winner. Henry Jenkins, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, wrote that while he found the documentary to be “mind-numbing and relentless,” he found the Web site “to be an extraordinary resource,” largely because it is “multi-vocal, allowing many points of view.”
Dretzin and Frontline executive producer David Fanning agreed that the experiment with Digital Nation’s Web site was a step toward better understanding of how to do documentary-style journalism on the Web. While recognizing the more free-ranging nature of Web viewing, Fanning still values the conscious story-building talents of directors. “Random video is disposable,” he says. “Our interest is in creating a video that connects and stays connected to its context.”
My editor calls the story you are reading a cri de Coeur. Perhaps he’s right.
My heart is with news organizations like the Detroit Free Press, whose multimedia efforts remain strong. The paper has won four Emmys in the past three years, including one in 2010 for its unusually intimate multimedia series on Christ Child House, a foster care center for legal orphans on Detroit’s west side.
And with the Las Vegas Sun, which combined flip-cam recordings made by Las Vegas resident Tony McDew—as he bottomed out in his gambling addiction—with its own video interviews with him, for a story that runs eighteen minutes. McDew records himself after a big win, fanning out hundred dollar bills in front of the screen. He records himself climbing into his van after losing, spritzing his face with water because the vehicle has no air conditioning. He records himself as he pawns his possessions before heading back to the casino to try to claw out of a very deep hole. You go along with him as he does all the wrong things and loses some $35,000.
And with Time Inc.’s Craig Duff, who holds fast to standards as he tries to produce eight video stories a week, telling his small staff, “We can’t let it go because it’s quote-unquote just for the Web.”
And with reporters like Ian Shapira, who blogged on Washingtonpost.com’s Story Lab site about working in print but studying video journalism on the side, to try to master a form he believes in.