Next Tuesday, “Frontline” will broadcast “A Death in St. Augustine,” an investigative collaboration with The New York Times. The Times plans to run a multimedia story on the investigation this weekend.
The collaboration tells the story of Michelle O’Connell, a Florida woman whose death was ruled both a suicide and a homicide. Her boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, a sheriff’s deputy in Florida’s St. Johns County, has sued the Florida Department of Law Enforcement over its investigation of O’Connell’s death.
Producer Glenn Silber first brought the story to New York Times reporter Walt Bogdanich. “I decided it was worthy of looking into more deeply than anyone had to date because it touched on some issues I was interested in,” Bogdanich said in a phone call with Poynter. “Among them, how rigorously do police investigate one of their own?”
Bogdanich, who has worked as an investigative producer for ABC News and CBS’ “60 Minutes,” said he and Silber thought “Frontline” would be a good outlet for the story because of the time it could give complicated stories. This one is particularly visual, too, he said, because of “our extraordinary access to crime scene photos and the fact that Florida’s open records act is so strong, and I knew that unlike a lot of other places, there was a strong possibility that if you requested a document, you’re going to get it.” Florida is “a good place to do reporting and get records,” he said.
“Frontline” Deputy Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath remembers they decided to work together on a “very stormy day last fall.” The project “was really made to be a documentary,” she said when reached by phone. It had a strong narrative and wouldn’t be a “thesis-based film,” she said.
“Frontline” has a collaborations desk funded in part by a grant from the Wyncote Foundation. The desk has overseen or plans collaborations with other news organizations, including McClatchy, ProPublica and Univision. Those work best when they’re not “institutional partnerships,” said Aronson, who has some experience with institutional imperatives. “I feel like bosses can make decisions to work together, but really it’s the editorial teams” that determine a project’s success, she said.
“Frontline” has collaborated with the Times before, on a 2003 investigation called “A Dangerous Business”. That investigation begat a series of stories in the Times. In the intervening years, the Times has become adept at digital presentations of long stories, and its presentation of the St. Augustine investigation will include “Frontline”-produced video.
Bogdanich wrote the Times story and is also the on-screen reporter on the “Frontline” broadcast, a role he says was “not my day job, let me put it that way.” Over nine months, he divided his time between Florida and New York, where he is also an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University. “Let’s just say that I know the flight attendants and I know the hotel managers pretty well,” he said.
Bogdanich said he wasn’t involved in the visual editing on the project; Aronson said she and her desk, and a production staff of five, worked closely with him and the Times’ Matt Purdy, among others at the Times. Purdy is an assistant managing editor who this summer was charged with making enterprise projects “a daily reality for our readers,” according to a memo from Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson.
“That collaboration between editors is essential,” Aronson said. “That collective vetting process, that collective turning the rock over and asking ourselves, ‘Did we get it right?'”