Building New Enterprises for Interactive Documentary

The newly appointed executive producer of PBS’s Frontline, Raney Aronson-Rath, is on a mission: to ensure that investigative, “big, important" journalism survives.1 At a time when funding for investigative journalism has been drastically cut at other news organizations, PBS has remained firm behind the Frontline series. But there are challenges ahead: attention spans are declining, PBS audiences are aging, and instant journalism and short-form video populate our Facebook feeds. Still, Aronson-Rath is determined, and she has a strategy: to innovate and to collaborate. “You sit on the sidelines or you start to actually experiment," she explains.2 Together with her team, she is radically restructuring her newsroom, experimenting with interactive storytelling and new technologies, and forming partnerships.

But the process of creating interactive documentaries is even more challenging for investigative journalists than for news reporters. The stories are edited for months and the details are thoroughly vetted and fact-checked in an effort to create fair and responsible journalism. Frontline staff constantly check their own reporting for accuracy and fairness and carefully build the sequence and context for their stories. As Aronson-Rath explains, “You have to be careful not to give too many non-linear storytelling options, because those could be misconstrued and unfair journalistically, or taken out of context. You’d need to actually construct another journey through the story that was also fair and responsible journalistically, and that’s tough."3 She considers it to be her own “most challenging creative hurdle in years."4 The question remains: how can investigative journalism fit into this new landscape?

Innovation with story form and distribution is not new to Frontline. Founder and former executive producer of the series, David Fanning, is a digital pioneer. Due to his leadership, Frontline was one of the first broadcasts to stream full-length films in a digital player, which was developed by Sam Bailey, Frontline’s former director of digital. Frontline was one of the first public television broadcasts to create a digital presence and hire a reporting staff specifically for the Web. With Fanning, this team created some of the first deep-content websites by 1995 and started streaming by 2000. Aronson-Rath says Fanning always talked of a future “in which he could put Frontline on every lamp post—for anyone to find wherever they were!"5 In short, Frontline, under Fanning’s leadership, has always challenged the status quo. “If you want to understand the culture of Frontline, you have to understand David’s commitment to not just our documentary films, but [also to] the potential of Web and cross-platform publishing," Aronson‑Rath explains.6 “The key is that we have not had to transition to digital—the moment it was possible, he encouraged Frontline to embrace the new medium," she says.7

For Aronson-Rath, a filmmaker and journalist, a turning point in embracing digital began a decade ago, when Fanning assigned her as a freelancer to produce the Frontline series News War, a series about the changing media landscape. “Little did I know how influential that film series would be for my understanding of the direction Frontline would need to take to remain a vital journalism organization," she says.8 One year later, in 2007, she joined Frontline as senior producer, and in her many roles before becoming executive producer, she has continued to push into unknown digital territory.

A generational shift

When asked about her unshakeable resolve to embrace digital disruption and move Frontline into the interactive and immersive space, Aronson-Rath attributes it in part to her role as a mother: “Watching [her daughter] Mira play on the first-generation iPad was truly amazing. Within minutes she was manipulating the screen, and playing, and cooing… just in minutes," Aronson-Rath says.9 She continues:

But the real epiphany happened watching Mira have her second media experience—TV—six months later. She simply didn’t get it. She was frustrated, literally angry as we told her she couldn’t touch the screen. She stamped her feet and threw a fit. She also looked at us like we were crazy—why did we have this box in our house that you couldn’t touch, manipulate, play with, and talk to?10

Aronson-Rath understands that those in the next generation will not be content with a lean back experience; they want in. In 2012, Fanning appointed Aronson-Rath as deputy executive producer to be his heir apparent and move the show into the 21st century. Then, in May 2015, he made her executive producer. “This is a generational shift," Fanning told The New York Times.11 “There’s no question about it. That’s a discussion that Raney and I have had for some years now, about bringing some younger producers in, identifying them, looking for the next generation. We want Frontline to survive."12 And to survive, Aronson-Rath says, Frontline must make journalism that people can “feel, breathe, and live."13

Armed with firsthand knowledge of young audience behavior—the research confirming that young audiences consume media on mobile, haptic technologies and expect to interact with media stories—Aronson-Rath set about to make change. That said, she still firmly stands by Frontline’s mission to continue producing long-form, journalistic, documentary films; the series produces twenty-six linear documentaries annually and its funding is primarily marked for broadcast. But through partnerships, new hires, new processes, and freedom to innovate, Frontline is changing the way it does journalism.

One of the first major disruptive changes at Frontline under Aronson-Rath’s leadership was its partnership with YouTube. Frontline made a decision to prioritize digital video online, not just excerpts from its films. The program began releasing short videos on YouTube because of YouTube’s large audience, excellent analytics, and its video player that can be embedded across the Web, including on Frontline’s own site. The next step for change required new teams and processes.

Learning to speak the lingo

Frontline began changing teams and processes by hiring its first interactive editor as part of its move into interactive and immersive storytelling. For Frontline, merging processes and cultures from two different disciplines not previously in dialogue with each other—documentary, and technology and design—posed all kinds of new challenges. First, investigative stories change and morph as new material comes in, thus the story unfolds as it is being developed, which is a challenge on the design side.

An example of this kind of tension can be seen in Frontline’s project Web of Terror (see Figure 1). In 2013, reporters with The New York Times and ProPublica, together with Frontline producer Tom Jennings, obtained classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, showing that the British had been spying on the laptop communications of one of the masterminds behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.14 The team's reporting also showed that Indian intelligence was doing the same. But the intelligence agencies did not pull together all the strands of their high tech spying until after the attack was underway.15 Frontline set out to make this story into a Web-based experience and an app that would allow users to explore the data, just as the intelligence agencies had done. Frontline partnered with ProPublica to investigate the story and hired Ocupop, a digital agency, to design the Web-based experience and app. The work of creating a user experience and gathering the content happened in tandem.

Figure 1. Screenshot of “Web of Terror." Source:

Working with Ocupop was an eye-opening experience for Aronson-Rath and her team.16 To start, the digital agency’s job titles and roles were completely different from those at Frontline. Aronson-Rath began by trying to learn what everyone at the agency did. She recalls in their first joint creative meeting asking each person on the team about her or his job. Second, Aronson‑Rath had to figure out how to speak to the Ocupop team members. Without prior experience working with interdisciplinary teams, she realized that she did not yet have the vocabulary to communicate with them, so she set out to open channels. “I had this epiphany early on that I needed to talk more clearly, so we spent a lot of time talking about each other’s terminology—from what does a rough cut mean, to ‘stitching,’ to different roles we play in both the field and in the edit," Aronson-Rath says.17

The two cultures were indeed different. Frontline was comprised of filmmakers. Ocupop came from the interactive game world. “It was hard to get through to each other, but eventually we did," Aronson‑Rath explains.18 The biggest challenge, though, according to Aronson-Rath, was the investigative journalism process. The investigative process involves story material constantly changing and evolving as it is reported and vetted, with a film editor working with new material as it comes in. But the game designers and developers on Aronson-Rath’s production team were more used to creating form and user experience based on a pre-determined story. With the story constantly changing up until launch, that created a design challenge.

As such, the Web of Terror project exemplifies the complications of joining cultures in collaborations. As the project was vetted and sources were confirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies, Aronson-Rath and Frontline Managing Editor Andrew Metz (along with their partners at The New York Times and ProPublica) concluded that they couldn’t be as specific as they had hoped with details about the terrorist attack.19 That meant that the user experience had to allow users to imagine an immense amount of information, but without the specifics. As a result, at the 11th hour, the project needed to be redesigned.

When Aronson-Rath delivered this news, head of production Michael Nieling, of Ocupop, said to her, “Raney, it’s like you’re asking me to reshoot a film."20 When she explained that for journalistic and security reasons she simply couldn’t publish the project without a redesign, he rose to the challenge. The piece went from a highly specific design to one that visualized how information flows on the Web. For the design team, it was as if they’d had to start from scratch, says Aronson-Rath.21

The Frontline experience with Web of Terror highlights the inherent challenges for investigative journalists working with designers and developers, where each field has its own tried and true processes. The project ultimately suffered because of the time it took to rebuild a rich user experience that had been based on a story whose premise completely changed, Aronson-Rath says.22 Furthermore, she explains, there was a lack of understanding on the Frontline side about how disruptive last-minute changes were to the design process of interactives, as she was not yet fluent enough in the language or grammar of interactive media to communicate or brainstorm the way she does with cinematographers and editors.23 “That said," she stresses, “this is investigative journalism, with extremely high stakes, and there are times when you have no choice but to make changes. That has to be the priority at all times, and that flexibility is essential."24

By investing in new teams and processes, including collaborations, Frontline is learning and developing the competencies of its staff. Even if these end up being expensive experiments, Aronson-Rath says, the return on investment of projects like Web of Terror takes the form of institutional bridges that develop as a result of cross-media collaborations.25

New apprenticeships, new enterprises

In an effort to bridge the gap between filmmakers, interaction designers, and technologists, and to create an in-house team capable of interactive storytelling, Aronson-Rath—together with her senior team, including Frontline Managing Editor Andrew Metz, digital managing editor Sarah Moughty, director of audience development Pam Johnston, and coordinating producer Carla Borras—set about changing the internal teams at Frontline. They hired an interactive editor, a technologist, a digital video editor, and a Web designer. And in July 2015 they hired Shayla Harris, from The New York Times, to be Frontline’s first senior producer of digital video. Aronson-Rath also created an “enterprise journalism" desk (funded by the Ford Foundation) with the sole purpose of working across platforms. It affords a team of journalists the opportunity to dig in on complex issues, such as police reform, and to generate in-depth, cross-platform work.

With new hires come new ways of thinking. Frontline Interactive Editor Chris Amico, a recent hire at the time of writing this case study, brought an entirely new way of thinking about stories and big data to Frontline that he calls structured journalism.26 As digital managing editor Moughty explains, structured journalism is a way of making a reporter’s notebook publicly accessible by sorting information into databases:

In making the database public, it becomes the story. You can go back and mine it for additional details that you can report out, but the story is updated for users every time you add a new piece of information to the database. You don’t have to write a new piece or make a new video to catch people up. It’s all just right there in front of you.27 Another key to Frontline’s strategy is collaboration. Frontline now has a collaboration desk (funded by the Wyncote Foundation) to handle the many partnerships Frontline is forging, from ProPublica to Univision, among others. Half of Frontline’s documentaries are now done through partnerships (see Figure 2). Partnerships, according to Aronson-Rath, bring new skills and allow institutions to pool their resources in order to compensate for lack of funding for investigative journalism.28

Figure 2. Network of Frontline’s partnerships and projects. Source: Frontline.

New challenges also come with the territory of exploring collaborations in digital storytelling. In a previous project, Law and Order, a collaboration with ProPublica and The Times‑Picayune, Aronson‑Rath found herself in a conundrum.29 ProPublica and The Times‑Picayune, both newsrooms that publish daily, wanted to release information early, before Frontline’s broadcast of the story. Frontline had always held information back for the broadcast, in order to ensure that the content in the broadcast was fresh. But in this case, executive producer Fanning suggested that they open up a website and publish alongside ProPublica and The Times‑Picayune, Aronson-Rath says.30 She ran with his idea, and it worked; not only did it grow audiences, but people also shared useful information, including anonymous tips, leads, and letters. “It showed me that the process of reporting in public can be really, really powerful, because we got so much feedback along the way," Aronson-Rath says.31 She adds that this process “changed my life, and I never looked back."32 For Frontline’s staff, this kind of feedback and audience growth was a signal that their work was making an impact. Now when Frontline produces documentary broadcasts, it often reports information on the Web along the way, as the information is discovered, which simultaneously builds audience and generates interest in the broadcast.

As important as cross-institutional collaborations to Frontline’s vision are cross‑generational teams. Aronson-Rath stresses the importance of putting veteran, experienced storytellers in conversation with younger but more tech savvy journalists.33 Together they can teach each other, combine their skills, and create “big, important" stories using the tools of the day, she says.34 But that’s not always possible for digital storytelling, she adds, because interactive digital storytelling has not been around long enough for seasoned experts to emerge.35

To address this gap, Aronson-Rath looked towards journalism schools with innovative digital journalism programs. She has been especially inspired by the changes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she received her master’s degree. The school has two new centers of innovation: the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, the latter of which is a collaboration with Stanford University. Aronson-Rath recently launched a fellowship program for recent graduates from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in order to bring newly‑minted digital journalists together with state-of-the-art skills at Frontline. “For years we had hoped to create a Frontline/Columbia fellowship," she says, “and the time was right this year [in 2015] to launch it."36

The journalism schools help Frontline innovate in other ways, too. Recently, Frontline partnered with the Tow Center and Secret Location to experiment and research how virtual reality (VR) might be used for storytelling. In this ongoing partnership, Frontline provides content and works with Secret Location to produce the VR project, while the Tow Center provides in-depth analysis and a roadmap for new digital storytelling forms. The project with which they are experimenting is a VR companion piece to Frontline’s story about the Ebola outbreak, both directed and shot by Dan Edge. As Aronson-Rath explains, “virtual reality has a transporting quality" that makes users “feel something different," like they are present in the story.37 In this story, users wander around West Africa in towns ravaged by Ebola and may even viscerally experience the fear of contagion by feeling present in the town, she says.38

However, simply wandering around a place does not give users the information they need to understand the story. The challenge was in finding a way to create a rich content experience while conveying the important details of the story. Instead of leaning too heavily on virtual reality as a standalone, Frontline is experimenting with ways to mix 2D video with the 3D environment as a way to deliver more in-depth content in an immersive environment. Because 3D is an expensive medium to produce, collaborating with the Tow Center not only brings scholarly expertise to production, but it also helps with providing resources and finding new audiences. “As a filmmaker, virtual reality resonates with me, and in terms of immersive storytelling it’s the form I understand best," Aronson-Rath says.39

Like many newsrooms, Frontline has begun listening to its audience more seriously and has found ways to cultivate more conversation with that audience. Frontline engages with audiences on Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. More often than not, producers live-tweet broadcasts of their Frontline films. On YouTube, audiences can post their questions to Frontline producers using the hashtag #askFRONTLINE, and the producers will craft short video responses. And the Frontline audience, particularly its online audience, has grown considerably. The show recently reached 500,000 likes on Facebook, a community it has worked hard to cultivate. It launched two series of short videos on Facebook and mobile ahead of its documentary broadcasts, and these videos have garnered over 700,000 views and 5,000 shares combined. For an investigative journalism series, this represents significant reach.40

Another breakthrough moment was when, in 2013, Fanning and Aronson-Rath put an audience development person inside the editorial structure of their newsroom. At that time, they hired a dedicated director of the audience development department, Pam Johnston, who then built a group of social media experts to support the mission.

“There’s also a watchdog facet of [audience involvement], which is fascinating and healthy," says Aronson-Rath.41 “It is the phenomenon where anything that we do is scrutinized and challenged. That’s interactivity that we never had before," she says.42 Engaging with audiences also gives the Frontline team a glimpse into the impact their work has beyond broadcast. “I firmly believe the most important work we do is to reveal truths that the public had no idea about," Aronson-Rath says.43 “Corruption never shows its face. Our job as journalists, in my mind, the highest calling of what we do, is accountability journalism that breaks new ground and holds governments, corporations, and individuals accountable."44

Aronson-Rath and the team at Frontline are committed to experimentation in this time of rapid media change. Soon, Frontline hopes to launch The Digital Video iLab, a prototyping space within the series for developing new visual storytelling approaches across digital platforms.45 This initiative will bring in expert and pioneering technologists and digital storytellers to work with Frontline staff on their projects. First areas of exploration will include virtual reality, interactivity, and vertical video.46 As with Frontline’s other experiments, the lab will use a trial and error process to forge a path into new forms of storytelling.

In short, Aronson-Rath’s vision for Frontline to apply the hallmark rigor and inquiry of its traditional broadcasts to new forms of storytelling is underway. It requires significant trial and error and dedicated leadership. Its underlying goal is that Frontline stories remain information-rich, hard-hitting, and investigative, but also accessible and relevant to today’s changing media and information landscape.

1. Phone interview with Raney Aronson-Rath, Cambridge, MA, 5 June 2015.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Raney Aronson-Rath, “No Turning Back,” MIT Open Documentary Lab, 15 October 2014 [].

10. Ibid.

11. John Koblin, “‘Frontline’ Getting a Change in Leadership,” The New York Times, 13 May 2015 [].

12. Ibid.

13. Phone interview with Raney Aronson-Rath, Cambridge, MA, 10 March 2015.

14. Mark Magnier and Subhash Sharma, “India terrorist attacks leave at least 101 dead in Mumbai,” The Los Angeles Times, 27 November 2008, p. A1.

15. Ibid.

16. Presentation by Raney Aronson-Rath, Cambridge, MA, 14 April 2015.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Email correspondence with Raney Aronson-Rath, 15 July 2015.

20. Aronson-Rath, 14 April 2015.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Aronson-Rath, 15 July 2015.

27. Phone interview with Sarah Moughty, Cambridge, MA, 5 June 2015.

28. Ibid.

29. Aronson-Rath, 10 March 2015.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Aronson-Rath, 10 March 2015.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Aronson-Rath, 5 June 2015.

38. Aronson-Rath, 14 April 2015.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Data in this paragraph provided by Frontline.

42. Aronson-Rath, 5 June 2015.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.

46. Interview with Raney Aronson-Rath, Boston, MA, 17 July 2015.

47. Ibid.