By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A crowdsourced documentary

No one spoke the word “crowdsourcing.” But that was the theme of a presentation Thursday evening by “Frontline” producer Rachel Dretzin, whose next documentary, “Digital Nation,” will be a collaborative effort between her team and visitors to the “Digital Nation” Web site. “Digital Nation” is an attempt to explain how our dependence on — and obsession with — the Internet is changing our culture for better and for worse.

Dretzin is putting all of her footage and interviews online. There’s a blog tracking progress of the documentary. A series of interactive chats is under way. And folks are encouraged to submit their own video and audio commentaries about the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of online existence. There’s even a recommended “Digital Nation” hashtag (#dig_nat) for Twitter users.

“There is absolutely no way to be an expert. This is all of our story,” said Dretzin in an appearance at WGBH-TV (Channel 2), where “Frontline” is based. (Disclosure: I am a paid contributor to another WGBH program, “Beat the Press.”)

The idea, she added, is that rather than making the film in isolation and then getting reaction from the audience, the reaction would come first, followed by the documentary, which will come out sometime in 2010. “It’s an experiment for all of us,” she said.

Dretzin’s last “Frontline” film was 2008’s “Growing Up Online.” As was the case with that film, the author Douglas Rushkoff will be the on-camera correspondent in “Digital Nation.”

Collaborative journalism that combines the efforts of professionals and amateurs — sometimes called “crowdsourcing” — is one of the more promising developments to arise from Internet-based news ventures. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, a leading new-media thinker, refers to such amateurs as “the people formerly known as the audience.”

The challenge for Dretzin is to integrate what the former audience has to say into her film, rather than merely featuring it as an online adjunct.

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  1. Doug Shugarts

    I think this project may succeed because the subject matter is appropriate for a ‘crowd-sourced’ documentary.I wonder if a location-specific piece (say, a travel documentary) or an investigative story (in which many of the sources aren’t made public) would work in this format.

  2. b.f.

    What I think should also be mentioned (in the interest of full disclosure) is that a corporate foundation, the Verizon Foundation, apparently gave a $1 million grant to Frontline to fund this “Digital” project. And, coincidentally, Verizon is apparently one of the telecommunications firms that has a special economic interest in profiting in this field, as indicated by following description of Verizon’s current business:”A Fortune 100 company, Verizon Communications is one of the world’s leading providers of communications services. Verizon companies are the largest providers of wireline and wireless communications in the United States, with 136.6 million access line equivalents and 33.3 million Verizon Wireless customers. Verizon is the third-largest long-distance carrier for U.S. consumers, with 13.2 million long-distance lines, and the company is also the largest directory publisher in the world, as measured by directory titles and circulation. With approximately $67 billion in annual revenues and 227,000 employees, Verizon’s global presence extends to the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Pacific. For more information on Verizon, visit”Unless viewers want to see a documentary that is just a 21st-century update of the Bell Telephone Company “science” documentaries they used to show in the public school assemblies in the 1950s and 1960s, I don’t think it makes much ethical sense to fund this type of project with a Verizon Foundation grant.Also, since the new president of the MacArthur Foundation is a former U.S. government State Department official named Robert Galluccio and the current MacArthur Foundation board chairman also sits on the Chevron corporate board, I think WGBH and Frontline should begin examining whether acceptance of MacArthur Foundations grants is compromising Frontline’s editorial independence and creating another conflict-of-interest situation.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    b.f.: Perhaps next time they’ll go to you for the money.

  4. b.f.

    Dan: As you’ve indicated in a previous post, Mr. Mindich didn’t have to rely on grants from multi-billion dollar foundations like MacArthur or grants from corporate foundations like Verizon or the CPB to build up the Boston Phoenix as an alternative media source.And you’ve probably noticed that many of the YouTube posters are able to produce documentaries without accepting compromising foundation grants.How much money do you think is really needed for these kind of documentaries if folks are willing to really work on a non-profit basis?Why not just add a 5% tax for public television on Harvard University and other Greater Boston area “non-profit” institutions to subsidize WGBH documentaries rather than let the tax-exempt “philanthropic” foundations and corporate foundations possibly exercise a special influence on WGBH or Frontline’s current documentary programming priorities?

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