The Times Takes to TV
A little more than five years ago, the New York Times felt the prying eyes of outside observers as it pondered its digital future. A leaked in-house memo known as the “Innovation Report” came at a hot moment for Times gossip—following the high-profile firing of executive editor Jill Abramson—and raised eyebrows both for the look it gave into internal Times soul-searching and for including A.G. Sulzberger, at the time a Metro desk assistant editor and the son of then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger, as a leader of the innovation team.
The report was full of talk about “new products” inspired by competing brands, about “questioning many of our print-based traditions,” and of the need to hire more “technologists, user experience designers, product managers, [and] data analysts.” It discussed branching out into live events, using video effectively on the Times web site, and repackaging newsroom content before Huffington Post or BuzzFeed could do it better.
Fast-forward to 2018—by which time the young Sulzberger had taken over from his father as publisher—and many of the Innovation Report’s suggestions had taken root. And the Times had devised another “new product”: a television show. Working with the cable station FX, as well as with Hulu and the production company Left/Right, the Times was preparing to launch a documentary series called The Weekly.
“The New York Times is synonymous with excellence,” said John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions, upon last May’s announcement of the joint effort, “FX is honored to be chosen as their partner on what will be the first entry for both organizations into the weekly TV news business.” Meredith Kopit Levien, the Times COO, explained that the show’s objective was “to make millions more people spend much more time with quality, original journalism.”
If the name The Weekly sounds familiar, that’s the point: it’s a play on the title of the Times’ hit podcast, The Daily. The TV show premiered on June 2 with sixteen episodes out so far, airing on FX Sunday nights and becoming available for streaming on Hulu the next day. With one exception, each episode centers one or two Times journalists, who are often introduced with a print byline, in iconic bold type, filling the screen. (The exception is episode 15, “Rudy! Rudy?” which features no fewer than ten Times reporters who have covered the notorious New York City mayor-turned-presidential-lawyer and possible co-conspirator.) Episode titles appear in the all-caps font of a front-page story; actual print headlines tick by; and most episodes feature shots of the majestic, occasionally bedbug-ridden Times building.
It’s television, but it’s also a marketing vehicle. Whether lauding the show or scrutinizing it, news and entertainment critics have figured the branding thing out, because it’s obvious: though The Weekly is elegantly crafted, at times it seems like the reporters are having a contest over who can name-drop their employer the most. And it isn’t the only news-based show that operates this way, nor is it even the only show from the New York Times. Just last week the paper premiered Modern Love on Amazon Prime Video (based on the popular column that had already become a podcast), and it plans to air the belated-obituary series Overlooked in partnership with Paramount TV and Anonymous Content. On Netflix, the Times also streams Diagnosis, a medical documentary show which at one point actually features Jake Silverstein, editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine, chuckling over the institution’s pull and saying, “That’s the funny thing about the New York Times, right?”
A top Times executive explained that the show’s objective was “to make millions more people spend much more time with quality, original journalism.”
Outside of Manhattan’s Times Square (which is named for, well, you know), other outlets in search of eyeballs are naturally expanding to television. Where the Times shows lean heavily on the old grey lady’s classic fonts, Vox’s docu-series on Netflix, Explained, is modeled on the web outlet’s wonky-explainer brand. (It uses lots of cutesy animated cartoons, but it does not, to its credit, name-drop its creator nearly as much.) The Wall Street Journal has a cable show, too—The Journal Editorial Report, airing, of course, on Fox News. The Los Angeles Times has L.A. Times Today, on Spectrum News 1. Vice’s shows—airing on the outlet’s eponymous channel, and until recently on HBO—are too many to name, but structurally, The Weekly resembles many of the web outlet’s documentary reports—and while the Times might be offended by the comparison, the guerrilla-stoner bad boys of journalism have undoubtedly mastered the art of branding.
An FX public relations representative wouldn’t give me The Weekly’s ratings data, and the Hulu press team didn’t even answer my email, so we don’t know exactly how many people have been watching the show. But FX, which has thrived in the era of “prestige TV,” was ranked seventeenth in nightly viewership among cable channels at the end of 2018. The Pew Research Center notes: “In 2018, both the evening and daytime cable news audiences increased. Financially, these cable news channels have set themselves apart from other news media with their comparatively robust business model.” The Journal Editorial Report’s host channel, Fox News, is number one in the same rankings.
While the brands and barriers of expensive cable packages add an elite sheen to the TV show as product, they also limit the potential audience—and the outlets know this. The TV newsmagazine was traditionally a format not of the cable channels, but of the networks. Think of Dateline, 20/20, 48 Hours, and 60 Minutes. While they had large audiences to begin with, those shows are now going out of style, losing eight percent of viewership between 2017 and 2018. This follows a declining trend in the network TV audience overall, one compounded by the fact that while most surveyed Americans said they preferred to watch rather than read their news, the watchers are increasingly choosing internet over cable or network media.
This is likely why the Times opted to put The Weekly on both FX and Hulu; Diagnosis on Netflix, and Modern Love on Amazon Prime. Beyond its exclusive deal with Spectrum News 1 (owned by Charter Communications), the Los Angeles Times showed its deep commitment to premium content by partnering with Apple News+, an Apple-exclusive subscription service that will soon be complemented by Apple TV+, set to launch November 1. (Apple TV+ press representatives did not respond to my questions about whether the service will include original journalism, but one of its flagship shows points to the hunger for narratives about journalism: The Morning Show, a work of fiction, “explores the world of morning news and the ego, ambition and the misguided search for power behind the people who help America wake up in the morning.”)
So what are newspapers and web producers up to, besides making extremely expensive pivots-to-video? And why are these outlets willing to bet people like their journalism enough to watch entire TV shows about it? Maybe it’s because they aren’t really about journalism. The best producers money can buy aren’t interested in “all the news that’s fit to print.” What works best on television is one kind of journalism that has a long track record of success, especially for the big-city tabloid newspapers: crime stories—or, as the category became known when translated into entertainment, “true crime.”
A few months after that fated Times Innovation Report, the breakthrough success of Serial sparked a true-crime-podcast fervor, leading newspapers nationwide to develop their own crime pods. There was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Breakdown, the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Accused, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Unsolved, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Three Rivers, Two Mysteries—and dozens more. Christopher Goffard, host and star of the Los Angeles Times’ print and podcast series Dirty John, summarized their purpose nicely: “Maybe the newspaper series will direct people to the podcast medium in a way that they weren’t exposed to before, and maybe the podcast will drive some people to the newspaper series, which will drive them to the LA Times.”
With the sudden emergence of all these crime podcasts came a sudden emergence of podcasts in general, so many that by this point, most outlets you read probably have a podcast or two. The New York Times has had at least fourteen, the most successful one of which is course The Daily, currently ranked number three on Spotify and number four on iTunes charts among all U.S. podcasts. But while The Daily dominates, it also exemplifies the competitive problem in podcasting, at least to the elite news brand: they’re cheap, so just about anyone can make one. And just about everyone did.
The true crime podcast formula goes like this: journalist encounters murder, often by reporting on it, but not always—in the smash-hit Up and Vanished, for example, the host, Payne Lindsey, opens up the Georgia Bureau of Investigations top-ten unsolved cases list and simply picks number one. (Lindsey is a documentarian by training, but he decided to make a podcast because it was cheaper.) The murder is cold! Or perhaps it is “solved,” but the wrong man is in jail. As the journalist pursues the case, the narrative is about two things: making sure the right man ends up in jail, and letting the audience follow the investigative process, step-by-step, with the investigator.
This is how fictional crime shows that glorify cops and hospital soaps that dramatize diagnosis hook you: by making you feel like you are there with the investigator; you understand what’s happening; you know what a rape looks like because you have watched the seemingly infinite seasons of Law & Order SVU. But real cops and doctors don’t typically get in front of a camera or behind a mic and tell us how they do their work (with the exception of Dr. Lisa Sanders, the Yale physician, New York Times Magazine contributor, and former House consultant who stars in Diagnosis. She tells us that diagnosis “is Sherlock Holmes. This is detective work.”).
“Viewers can witness first-hand the hard work and very high ethical standards to which these reporters hold themselves, proving to some that they are not, in fact, enemies of the people,” observed Mediaite’s Colby Hall of The Weekly, gliding smoothly past the fact that the show really doesn’t discuss the reporting or editorial process in-depth. At no point do we see an editor restructure a draft or a fact-checker discover a foundational flaw, but we do get to hear reporter Rukmini Callimachi say: “The lead investigator on the case agreed to show The New York Times much of the evidence he has gathered, on the condition that we hide his identity.” This dramatic statement tells us nothing non-standard about confidential sourcing, but it sure does remind us that the Times has access.
Callimachi stars in and narrates The Weekly’s fourth episode, “Collision” (and also Caliphate, another Times podcast), which is the most glaringly true-crimey on the batch. It opens with a preview of Callimachi confronting Hussein Abdusamadov, one of the killers in an ISIS-claimed attack on tourists in Tajikistan, and saying: “You and your friends used a car and a butcher’s knife to kill four people who had come here as tourists. Two of those people were American citizens, law-abiding people. They were twenty-nine years old.”
This is how fictional crime shows that glorify cops and hospital soaps that dramatize diagnosis hook you: by making you feel like you are there with the investigator.
“Collision” follows the true-crime formula pretty much to a tee: After this dramatic introduction, we meet the victims, who were wholesome, virtuous, white representatives of all that is normal in our society, until they decided to quit their full-time jobs and bike around the world. Then we hear more grisly murder details, zoom out to learn about Tajikistan and ISIS, vaguely follow Callimachi’s reporting process, and bam—interview with a killer, during which we learn how fundamentally and irreconcilably different the scourge on society is from the society at large. If you’ve been wanting to write a true-crime narrative, you’re welcome: there’s your arc.
But “Collision” is not the only episode of The Weekly that embraces a crime-based narrative approach. Here are the topics of the other episodes, in order: the abusive and fraudulent prep school “T.M. Landry”; the fleecing of New York City taxi drivers by the municipal government; the family separation policy under Trump; the unprecedentedly—perhaps criminally?—expensive Trump inauguration; the tech-driven changes to the auto industry; the exploits of Facebook scammers (posing as handsome veterans to lure lonely widows); the encroaching radical left and its potential to break up the Democratic party; the problem of YouTube rabbit holes (radicalizing viewers to fascism); the opioid epidemic and the hidden evidence that might’ve stopped it; the truly horrific cost of drugs for rare diseases; the world of illegal gold mining for tech products; the Russian government’s election meddling in Estonia; the contamination of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder with asbestos; the wild political ride of one Rudolph Giuliani; and the ongoing segregation of New York City public schools.
With the exception of “Collision,” there are no individual murderers in The Weekly. But there are many crimes, and there is a specter that threatens consistently throughout: societal change. “Hard Left,” the episode that focuses on Sunrise Movement activists, does not, ultimately, hope that the surge of youthful energy sweeping the Democratic Party will upend societal inequality. Instead, it leans on a voice of authority in Matt Bennett, the executive vice president for public affairs of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, and gives the final word to Trump, who delivers a fear-mongering speech about “radical socialism” at a North Carolina rally.
“We’re dealing with Donald Trump, and if [the activists are] wrong, and we lose, the downside risk is just catastrophe,” Bennett warns early in the episode. We later see menacing climate kids confronting presidential candidates, pressuring them to sign a no-fossil-fuel-money pledge, and mocking Joe Biden over his refusal to embrace a Green New Deal. The episode lands on Biden’s supposedly “unexpected” climate plan as the safest possible choice: “It embraces a Green New Deal framework,” explains reporter Astead Herndon, but not “all the Green New Deal’s social goals”—the utopian poison that will get Trump reelected.
In The Weekly, the specter of Trump and the specter of change are inextricably linked: they’re at play, whether quietly or overtly, in the family separation episode, the inauguration episode, the Russian meddling episode, the Giuliani episode, and all of the tech episodes (Facebook, YouTube, cars, phone gold). Perhaps the opioid epidemic and rare drug episodes sound like critiques of the pharmaceutical and medical industries, but fundamentally they are about how bad actors have broken or manipulated the rules, not how the rules were always geared toward class-based oppression. Even the taxi episode frames the exploitation of drivers as a newly worsening issue—resulting from a financial bubble that is legal, but feels criminal—rather than questioning, say, whether a top-down economy will do anything but exploit taxi drivers and other service workers.
Throughout the series, these systematic problems are offered up in symptomatic framings, as more or less isolated cases that the reporters are soberly proud to tell you they’ve uncovered. Sound familiar?
Over time, true crime has boomed at moments of moral panic. It’s comforting to be reminded that transgressions will get discovered, investigated, and, if not rectified, at least thoroughly shamed. Viewers, readers, and listeners can sleep easier knowing that there is a system with some sort of authority—whether it be a god, government, or podcast producer—that will impose an ordering system on our chaotic world.
It’s undeniable that we’re in a moment of political chaos, and as fewer people put their faith in a religion or a politician, elite news brands, made more elite by exclusive partnerships and big production budgets, can offer a comforting tether to normalcy. They can also play up the drama of their own position. Mediaite’s Hall described The Weekly’s purpose as: “Reclaiming the stature of [Times] reporters—and journalism in general—in a nation where too many individuals don’t know what journalists truly do, and as a result, hold the media in contempt.” And though he’s right that journalists are under threat, the New York Times (along with the Wall Street Journal) is doing just fine, while smaller papers falter.
In this transformative and fast-paced media moment, perhaps the key to solidifying a publication’s dominance is not focusing on “all the news that’s fit to print.” Maybe it’s about taking your massive trove of resources and putting it toward all the news that’s fit to shoot, dramatize, polish up—and brand.