Grant to Frontline will create its first desk, to oversee news collaborations

By Dru Sefton

Over just the past three seasons, Frontline has partnered with multiple news organizations on multiplatform projects. A new grant is helping to create a desk specifically to oversee those collaborations. (Image: Frontline)

Over just the past three seasons, Frontline has partnered with multiple news organizations on multiplatform projects. A new grant is helping to create a desk specifically to oversee those collaborations. (Image: Frontline)

Frontline is spending $1.5 million to bolster its ability to manage its news collaborations, which are growing in number as well as importance.

Raney Aronson, deputy executive producer, said the investigative showcase will establish a four-person collaboration desk through a three-year, $750,000 grant from the Philadelphia-based Wyncote Foundation. She tapped Frontline’s series budget for matching funds for the desk, which will also concentrate on transmedia efforts.

“The way we do journalism has changed,” Aronson told Current. “Frontline is no longer simply a documentary series on a Tuesday night.” More than half of the films and online reports produced by Frontline are done in collaboration with kindred organizations such as the New York Times, NPR, the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica and, more recently, Spanish-language network Univision.

“We’d been doing these projects through sweat equity and pushing ourselves,” Aronson said. “We realized that with this many partnerships, we needed to staff this effort appropriately.”

The Wyncote Foundation, which backs education, arts and public media initiatives, saw an opportunity to fundamentally enhance the series. “Wyncote decided to make this grant because we believe that the Frontline team is working to internalize collaborative journalism into their enterprise DNA,” Feather Houstoun, the foundation’s senior advisor on public media and journalism, told Current. “The collaboration desk is a combination of repurposed and new resources that should, over course of the grant, give Frontline leadership the time and room to make this second nature in the way they do their work.”

(Disclosure: Current is funded in part by a 2011 grant from Wyncote.)

The funds will back creation of Frontline’s first official desk, a four-person operation embedded alongside Aronson and David Fanning, the series creator and executive producer who is gradually stepping back from daily operations. Currently, Frontline has nine full-time editorial staffers, five of whom focus solely on digital media. The grant will fund four positions: Two will be new hires, and duties for two existing jobs will be realigned for inclusion on the desk.

The reassigned positions are an interactive designer who will work with  partners to jointly conceptualize projects, and a story editor who will work with Aronson to hone presentations. The new positions are a digital producer who brings shooting, production and editing skills; and a series editor who will oversee editorial vetting.

“I can’t stress how important vetting is, to make sure that our investigative journalism is fair and accurate,” Aronson said. Reviewing “Rape in the Fields,” a documentary co-produced with Univision, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Investigative Journalism that aired in June, exposed sexual abuse of immigrant women workers and took  “literally weeks and weeks” of her schedule, she said. “When we’re working alone, vetting is a contained process but still hard. Across partners, the amount of coordination is immense.”

In that case, Aronson was pleased with the outcome: That documentary, Frontline’s first to be coproduced with another U.S. television network, received a 1.1 Nielsen rating (2.2 million total viewers at broadcast, on demand or alternative broadcast time within a week of debut). The film streamed some 47,000 times on the PBS Video Player within four weeks of its digital debut. The project also featured a graphic novel presented in video format; it was produced by the Berkeley center.

The Wyncote grant will help “reframe our partnerships to make them less siloed, and more transmedia,” Aronson said. Instead of combining separate radio, television and text reports after broadcast and publication, reporting will now grow from digital platforms outward. “Truly transmedia from Day 1,” she said.

“The transmedia space is really important,” Aronson said. “We want to innovate in that area, journalistically as well as creatively.”

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