Interview with Andrew Golis, PBS FRONTLINE

Interview-with-Andrew-Golis-PBS FRONTLINE

Andrew Golis is the Director of Digital Media/Senior Editor at PBS FRONTLINE.  In September 2012, he and the rest of the FRONTLINE team won the General Excellence Award for Online Journalism from the Online News Association.  In December 2012, Golis was listed by Forbes in their annual “30 under 30” list for media.  He expanded FRONTLINE’s digital-first original reporting and analysis, and grew its digital audience by over 50% while launching a series of experiments in interactive video.  During this interview, Rob Bole (Director of Innovation at ODDI) and I speak with Golis about how he is continuing to help steer FRONTLINE’s traditional broadcast toward their digital future.

 

Full Video Interview [33min 42sec]

 

Key Takeaways

– Thinking about and producing content for the ‘Bored at Work’ Network vs. the ‘Lean Back at Home’ Network is equally important. Referring to phrases by BuzzFeed Founder/CEO Jonah Peretti, Golis notes that there tends to be a ‘bored at work’ network of users (those who like to access quick, bite-size pieces of information through video or easy-to-read articles in between other tasks) and a ‘lean back at home’ network of users (those who enjoy kicking back at home to watch a thought-provoking documentary).   The ‘bored at work’ network likely browse places like Buzzfeed, Gawker, Huffington Post, or Yahoo News/Blogs, while the ‘lean back at home’ users are likely to enjoy traditional evening broadcasts.

Within each of these networks are different ‘tribes’, or communities of thought.  Golis notes that FRONTLINE’s tribe is a uniquely difficult ‘tribe’ to organize, because it has to be built around “abstract and high-brow things such as transparency, accountability, fairness and the importance of narrative.”  Whereas most other tribes can be built around simple things like political party or niche interest.

Overlap in viewing and engagement practices between these audience networks is expected.  There are over 150 FRONTLINE shows streaming for free on the website.  Those who tend to be part of the ‘lean back at home’ network can also easily browse through the guilty pleasures of the ‘bored at work’ network. There is a seemingly endless supply of digital content linked to each documentary including full-length interviews, news about ongoing investigations, digitized official documents from archives, transcripts and more.  Golis notes that this strategy has encouraged engagement with a core group of FRONTLINE fans that continues to grow.  People tend to want to know more about issues that intrigue them and are eager to read follow-up threads about what happens with individuals, companies and organizations that FRONTLINE investigated.

 

– Creative audience engagement is keyTo build up your ‘tribes’, sometimes you must go to other ‘tribes’ and show your goods.  Sometimes there are scheduled live chats where the FRONTLINE producer and a reporter from a major news outlet take questions from the audience about the show (as was done for Cliffhanger).  FRONTLINE’s audience (a tribe) is made privy to the upcoming chat and the major news outlet (the other tribe) is made privy as well.  Thus, there is a pooling of two audiences that may be interested in what the other has to offer.  Golis explains that this is a great time to show your best content to the ‘other tribes’ so their audience will come on over in the future.  This may translate into converted users and a potential uptick in Facebook followers or newsletter signups.

Live-tweeting is another way to engage the filmmakers, reporters, commentators and audience members during broadcast.  This practice encourages all viewers to converse about the program as it’s happening.

Audience engagement can also come in the form of being receptive to groups most directly affected by the documentaries.  For example, Golis points out that after Flying Cheap aired, a lot of airline pilots contacted FRONTLINE to say that the investigative piece was missing a huge issue relating to the subcontracting of maintenance.  With a commitment to expanding on the comments to develop a story worthy of nearly an hour of television, the pilot’s comments facilitated the follow up show, Flying Cheaper.

 

– The depth of audience engagement means more than measuring the face value of web analytics.  Golis says that it is indeed important for FRONTLINE to know how many people they reach, but it is particularly important to understand the depth of that engagement.  While it may be great to reach a couple million unique users, Golis and his team are interested in keeping people engaged for a proper amount of time—either by watching the full-length documentaries or by getting them to click through all the other videos and documents on the FRONTLINE site.

 

– Design is important to create a natural stream of ongoing reporting for the audience to follow-up on.  Golis acknowledges the uncommon practice of FRONTLINE reporters publishing reports ahead of and after commissioned broadcasts.  For example, Law & Disorder reporters produced lots of follow up threads due to the huge interest in what happened following the broadcast.  After all, the original documentary resulted in the arrest of eight New Orleans police officers for corrupt conduct and boosted police department oversight policies.  Golis and the editorial staff have learned that the production of interactive reports (artifacts, transcripts, other documents) before and after a broadcast really creates a core demographic of interested followers.  Golis believes that “the more material that surfaces to show transparency, the more credible the reporting and the more interest it drives.”

 

– Storytelling with interactive artifacts counts for extra.  The process of developing the David Headley piece for A Perfect Terrorist evolved through several stages.  Golis expresses that YouTube is great, but it lacks interactivity to turn it into a real digital artifact.  To figure out how a story would look as an interactive video story, FRONTLINE invited several creative filmmakers to come up with new techniques.

One gentleman, Tom Jennings (FRONTLINE Producer for Law & Disorder, Doctor Hotspot, A Perfect Terrorist, and Money, Power & Wall Street), suggested that the Headley story should be told as a web of relationships.  For those who are not familiar with this story, Headley was the American who masterminded the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.  He was a former heroine smuggler and a DEA informant.  According to Golis, Jennings knew that “Headley’s life was only made possible by this really complex web of relationships that he was able to play.”  Jennings laid out his vision for what this may look like as an interactive.

So a hack day was set up.  Initially, a radio piece was created.  As the audio progressed, the Headley story moved across a timeline. As the timeline moved along, it elaborated on various individual relationships that Headley had (such as law enforcement or terrorist cell connections).  Jennings then drew the Hadley network out on a whiteboard to create a visual.  The hack team felt that it would be ideal to be able to click on each item to watch video–then pause the video to look at other related bits of information.

The team then thought about a viral YouTube video of Picasso painting on glass.  So the team bought a giant piece of glass, set it up and they filmed Jennings talking to the camera while drawing the interactive web of relationships.  To create the interactive portion, FRONTLINE hired an interactive-focused firm to animate it to have nodes to click on.  The interactive team creatively used Popcorn.js to design custom-made interactive graphics.  Golis credits his editorial team’s success with this documentary to the fact that they developed the script first and then sought out the technology to build the visual form.

 

– Golis feels that collaboration between broadcast teams and digital teams will lead to some of the best reporting that FRONTLINE has ever done.  Reports are beginning to be posted for a broadcast about the NFL and concussions (scheduled to air later this year).  In it’s current form, their website Concussion Watch aims to continuously update digital artifacts to add to the transparency of the interactive publishing and broadcasting format.

With the adaptation of interactive reporting, FRONTLINE has also attracted new talent to the team through their broadcasts who are interested in expanding on the design of interactive materials.

And, to make videos more accessible and user-friendly, the FRONTLINE tag management system has been improved so that things can be easily sorted and found.  As an example, Golis specifically references the way they broke down the oral history site for The Choice 2012 by allowing for keyword/phrase searches like “Obama and Drones” or “Romney and Abortion.”

 

No time to watch the whole interview?  Here’s a couple snippets.

1. Golis on producing content for different types of audiences [3min 14sec]

 

2. Golis on the creative, editorial and technical process behind the interactive David Headley piece, A Perfect Terrorist [7min 41sec]:

 

For more information:

 

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(Thank you to Andrew Golis (@agolis) and Rob Bole (@rbole) for their contributions to this post.)

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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April Deibert

April Deibert

April Deibert is the Multimedia Blogger/Producer for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow her on Twitter: @BBGinnovate and @AprilDeibert.

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