With $800,000 and Two ’60 Minutes’ Veterans, ‘Frontline’ Makes Major Investment in Digital

By Mark Joyella 


CBS’ “60 Minutes” and PBS’ “Frontline” have a lot in common. Both have deep and distinguished roots in traditional media–your Mom, for instance, will know both brands, while Vice may still be a bit of a mystery–and both have been doing capital-J journalism on television in a style that has resisted flash and fluff for decades.

So it might seem natural that “Frontline” has hired two “60 Minutes” veterans, James Jacoby, who spent four years as a producer at “60 Minutes”, Anya Bourg, who produced at “60 Minutes” for eight years. But Bourg and Jacoby won’t be working on traditional TV stories–they’re part of a major push to expand the venerable “Frontline” brand beyond old-school TV. “They will strengthen Frontline’s presence and identity as a digital newsroom,” said Raney Aronson-Rath, deputy executive producer for “Frontline”–and it’s probably wise to think of “Frontline” the way its own journalists do–as a news organization, and not just a show.

Earlier this year, “Frontline” announced the creation of an ambitious new enterprise journalism group. With $800,000 in funding from the Ford Foundation, the enterprise unit was tasked with exploiting new ways of researching and reporting stories. Jacoby and Bourg–along with Sarah Childress, a “Frontline” digital reporter–become the unit’s first full-time journalists. “We’ve been working to recruit the right people (for the new unit) and we’ve found them,” said Aronson-Rath.


Born in 1983, “Frontline” was designed to carve out a place on television for documentaries. It was, at that time, a disruptive idea. TV newsrooms were feeling pressure to be profitable, and documentaries, well, sometimes they were only important. Now, more than thirty years later, “Frontline” continues to tell the difficult stories, but with an awareness that even the most esteemed newsroom needs to do more than just produce really, really good television.

maxresdefaultLast year, “Frontline” launched an iPad app and one of the show’s first efforts to create an interactive short film won an Overseas Press Club of America award for “pointing the way to a truly new form of multimedia storytelling.” Sometimes new media reporting projects stand along, other times they lead up to and inform a “Frontline” documentary on television. “Concussion Watch” is an example–“Frontline” asked viewers to report when they see head injuries, using the Twitter hashtag #concussionwatch, and the digital team built an interactive database reporting NFL injuries. The project has run for three years, and was a key element of “League of Denial”, which aired in 2013 and won a Peabody Award.

You could watch “Frontline” on TV and never know about the experimental work being done with new media and social media, but inside the newsroom, the mix is critical. “We’re absolutely committed to our long-form documentary series on air and online and passionate about translating our core journalistic values of fairness, depth and transparency into the digital space with more and more interactive projects,” Aronson-Rath told TVNewser. “It’s become clear that it’s increasingly important for newsrooms to be nimble and versatile and think in new ways when it comes to not just telling stories, but unearthing them — whether it’s using Twitter as a reporting tool, or building new digital mechanisms for researching, collecting, and analyzing data.”