FRONTLINE Hackathon Marks Rising Tide of Producer-Developer Confabs

Andrew GolisHackathons are all the rage in journalism and civic media circles. This weekend alone there were two—at Temple's Center for Public Interest Journalism and the DC-based Transparency Camp—and in April, the Hacks/Hackers meetup group broke 10,000 members. Zig-zagging the country and building connections across platforms and reporting genres, these events are feeding a national conversation about how we'll report and consume the news. 

To gain deeper insight into the increasingly popular coding sprints, I spoke with Andrew Golis, the director of digital media and a senior editor for FRONTLINE, about the hack day that the program co-organized with PRX in April.

The event brought producers of previous FRONTLINE documentaries—including A Perfect Terrorist, The Wounded Platoon, and Post Mortem—together with developers to think through new ways for users to interact with the stories. "It was really exciting to see people come together," said Golis. For him, the thrill came not just from what was produced in the room, although it was "fantastic for a day's worth of work," but from the creative energy it sparked in the filmmakers. 

"At FRONTLINE, we have have world-class producers who know how to conceptualize a project, but one of the big roadblocks for them is that they don't have enough knowledge to oversee a digital producer and a design team to execute [an interactive] story vision," he explained. Now, "they're full of all kinds of ideas. That, to me, is tremendously important."

A Growing Innovation Circuit

Part of what's driving this lively dynamic is the participation of key developers in multiple hackathons, allowing for the continuous refinement of production and storytelling tools.

For example, a crew from Zeega—a technology group that emerged from AIR's MQ2 initiative and is now working to build interactive interfaces for 8 of the 10 Localore projects—joined forces at the FRONTLINE event with the producer of The Wounded Platoon. Last fall, Zeega hosted their own hack day in conjunction with WFMU, and this week Zeega's James Burns was at the Hot Hacks event in Toronto, working with filmmaker Christopher Allen on a way to simultaneously present footage from two parallel films. The tools built at these hackathons are not just one-offs; the code ends up on GitHub, a collaborative software building platform, so that others can pick up and refine the projects at a later date. 

mock upThe Mozilla Foundation is also rising as an influential convener of documentary-related hack days. Ben Moskowitz of Mozilla provides an illuminating blow-by-blow of the team process around A Perfect Terrorist at FRONTLINE's hack day.

As the mock-up at right shows, the team decided to build a visual representation of the network of relationships in which the film's subject, David Headly, was embedded. "Though a documentary runtime must have a beginning, middle, and end," Moskowitz explains, "a web-native documentary can let users follow story threads that lead in many directions."

The interface that they came up with allows for both passive viewing and active interaction. Users can hit play and lean back to watch Headly's relationships with key terrorists and informants evolve, or can lean forward to click on one of those connections to learn more. While the team wasn't able to complete the project in the course of the day, the code is now up on GitHub awaiting assembly, and there's a useful deck explaining the goals of the tool, and providing key visual cues. Once built, the tool in turn could potentially be repurposed to support more than one storytelling project. 

"I think there’s a lot of overlap with The Tillman Story project, and its objectives," writes Moskowitz, "to let users explore a much more expansive 'surface area' of the story; to let interest drive the user’s experience; to provide additional context to the story; to connect it to journalistic material and conversations in social media; and to accommodate a large number of story threads while keeping the main thread engaging. Both of these projects are pioneering ways of telling non-fiction stories on the web."

Driving Internal Invention

For Golis, the hack day also fed back into an array of other FRONTLINE innovation efforts. With support from CPB, the show has expanded from 20 to 27 episodes per year, and the seven new episodes feature shorter, news magazine-style segments. While these highly-produced segments can still be a "hard sell" for desktop users, Golis says, the precipitous rise in the popularity of tablets is opening up new opportunities for "not just web-native linear documentary in a YouTube box," but new forms of reporting.

FRONTLINE is now focusing on tablets as a "righteous and important publishing space," Golis says. "It's where a lot of longform journalism is going to exist. You can see the incredible adoption rates." 

Just as the ability to hyperlink changed the experience of consuming print journalism, he predicts, interactive video will deepen and reorient viewers' relationship to nonfiction film. But, he notes, "that's a big, long-term project. You have to move the organization to a footing where you take bites of that apple and see what's happening."

Already, FRONTLINE's digital strategies—reworking their site to make it more tablet-friendly, providing supplemental online-only content, hosting live chats with reporters and experts, and encouraging live interaction with the broadcasts via Twitter—are paying off. The number of unique visitors to the site is averaging 30-40 percent higher than in the same month of the previous year, hitting an all-time high of just over 1.5 million uniques in February. They've also been producing more ambitious multi-part series, such as the four-part Money, Power, and Wall Street investigation, concluding this week, which has generated a healthy Twitter buzz.

With all of this to juggle, Golis isn't sure that he will be hosting another hack day anytime soon. "We loved it, he says. "We'd love to do it again—but now know how much work it takes." But if they don't, it's pretty sure that someone else will. Check the Hacks/Hackers site to find an event near you.