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‘Frontline’ team investigates its options for digital future

Phil Bennett, formerly of The Boston Globe and Washington Post, will become managing editor at “Frontline.” Phil Bennett, formerly of The Boston Globe and Washington Post, will become managing editor at “Frontline.” (Stan Gilliland for The Boston Globe)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / April 26, 2011

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In its 28 years on air, “Frontline’’ has broadcast more than 500 documentaries and won a slew of awards for investigative reporting. But change is in the air at the Brighton offices of the national award-winning public affairs show.

A small team of managers, led by “Frontline’’ executive producer David Fanning, is repositioning the show for what it calls the “post-broadcast future.’’ The process has them rethinking how to report and package stories in the multiplatform, digital-media age.

Their aim, they say, is to retool the show’s content for devices like the iPad while breaking news 24/7. Taking weeks or months to polish a story will no longer be the norm.

“As we expand to a year-round series and publish on more platforms — print, broadcast, radio, online — it’s become a whole new game,’’ Fanning said during an interview at the show’s WGBH-TV headquarters.

Two recent hires plus a pool of grant money supporting new digital initiatives are key components of that plan. Veteran journalist Phil Bennett and digital-media whiz Andrew Golis are joining a core group that includes Fanning and senior producer Raney Aronson-Rath. Bennett and Golis will help decide which stories are assigned and how they’re disseminated, he added.

Their hiring comes on the heels of a proposal during recent budget negotiations on Capitol Hill to cut off $430 million in federal funding for public broadcasting. Although the move ultimately failed, opponents have vowed to reopen that debate later, potentially threatening all Public Broadcasting System programming, “Frontline’’ included.

Launched in 1983, “Frontline’’ has a full-time staff of 36 and an annual budget of $17 million. About 80 percent of its funding comes from PBS affiliates that carry the show, according to “Frontline’’ staffers. The rest is supplied by major backers such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Frontline Journalism Fund, a consortium of private donors.

Bennett, a former top Washington Post editor and reporter-editor at The Boston Globe, assumes the newly created position of managing editor in May. Golis came aboard recently as senior editor and director of digital media, having previously served as deputy publisher of Talking Points Memo and founding editor of the Yahoo! News blog network. According to Fanning, the pair was hired to take advantage of their combined old-school-journalism and new-media skills.

Bennett said he welcomes the chance to join an enterprise committed to long-form narrative journalism — “deep storytelling in the public interest,’’ as he puts it — while radically overhauling its delivery model.

“My top goals include helping to create more original journalism, more scoops, and more timely investigations of current events,’’ he said from Duke University, where he’s been teaching since leaving the Post. Issues likely to command the show’s attention, he added, “are global or linked to a complex of other issues, involve important facts hidden from view, and have powerful human and institutional stories at their core.’’

These stories, said Bennett and others, will be supplemented by an array of supporting material, including online interview transcripts, documents, and audience contributions, which in many cases drive follow-up reporting. To accomplish this, “Frontline’’ will draw on its broad network of existing news producers and media partners.

For his part, Golis said he’s not planning to “blow up’’ the existing model but rather adapt it to how people consume long-form video. Both he and Bennett admitted they’re intrigued by the question of what “Frontline’’ would look like were it being launched today, not three decades ago.

Although viewership is down 38 percent over the past decade, “Frontline’’ draws 2.7 million viewers on average. This season it added a magazine-format show to its lineup, which allows for shorter pieces with faster turn-around times. An example of the new distribution model is an exclusive interview that “Frontline’’ scored with Brian Manning, father of US Army Private Bradley Manning, who is accused of funneling classified documents to the website WikiLeaks.

Portions of the Manning interview, in which he complained about his son’s treatment in military custody, aired on National Public Radio and PBS’s “News Hour,’’ well in advance of a forthcoming “Frontline’’ documentary on the topic. That interview has generated controversy, with some viewers complaining that the material unfairly maligns Private Manning, and yesterday “Frontline’’ was in the position of defending its reporting before the finished documentary airs.

Last year the Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarded “Frontline’’ a two-year, $6 million grant to help launch the magazine show and expand its digital initiatives. Additional resources are being provided by a five-year, $5 million MacArthur Foundation grant, now in its fourth year, and a $1.6 million grant from Chicago philanthropists Reva and David Logan.

Few on either the political left or right have questioned the show’s journalistic integrity or track record. Over the decades, it has earned numerous awards, among them 45 Emmys and a share (with The New York Times) of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its investigation of workplace-safety issues in the cast-iron pipe industry.

In 1995, when digital media was truly the new frontier, “Frontline’’ launched an editorial website built specifically around its reporting on the Waco tragedy. Five years later, it began streaming video online and producing “webumentaries.’’

Partnerships with organizations like ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop have helped it leverage its stable of field producers into the equivalent of a network news operation.

Beginning in 2009, Aronson-Rath led a “Frontline’’ investigation of civilian shootings by New Orleans police in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Along with reporters from ProPublica and The New Orleans Times-Picayune, it broke a series of stories that have already sent two police officers to prison and led to 11 more indictments. A documentary about the shootings won a prestigious George Polk Award.

“That was a paradigm shift for us,’’ said Aronson-Rath, recalling the decision to post pieces online as the story developed over months of team reporting. “It changed the way we thought about presenting our reporting, that it could have lots of credibility in both short form and long.’’

Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica managing editor, said the “Frontline’’ commitment to investigative journalism is enormously valuable.

“Hard news is at the core of what they do, and it’s become even more of a priority recently,’’ he said.

Fanning conceded that the long-term funding model remains a work in progress. “Any cuts made will affect us down the road,’’ he said. “So while we develop these new iterations of ‘Frontline,’ we have to think creatively about strengthening PBS membership overall.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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