Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
People who work for newspapers and people who live in rural areas often wish for a good movie or TV treatment of their lives. Too often, both groups are disappointed by cringey representations of them and the people they know.
Thus, when “Alaska Daily” began airing on ABC this fall, some of us were shocked when it was … actually pretty good. At least better than expected.
The series represents, in pretty good fashion, those two groups: newspaper reporters and editors and small-community residents. Sure, “Lou Grant” was a good depiction of life at a newspaper, but it was a major publication in Los Angeles, a huge city.
Rural people, meanwhile, have had to content themselves with being depicted as residents of quaint and quirky towns like Mayberry or backward folks from the backwoods in hundreds of TV series — even in good series, like “The West Wing.” Rural people in these settings were, more often than not, inferior and impediments, if not outright threats, to city slickers.
There’s a little of this vibe as “Alaska Daily” opens. Hilary Swank is big-city reporter Eileen Fitzgerald, who leaves her job at a New York City news outlet after a big story about an Army general blows up in her face.
She’s offered a job by a former editor, Stanley Cornik (Jeff Perry), who’s now editor at The Daily Alaskan, a newspaper in Anchorage. Fitzgerald takes the job but feels she’s above it. It’s a way to practice journalism while she works on a book and hopes to win her way back to the big time.
As such, Fitzgerald is basically playing Lois Lane here: She’s a hotshot who is alternately bossy and condescending to everyone around, and the very idea of these people in this small place practicing journalism is hard for her to imagine.
One of the most amusing moments is in the first episode: Fitzgerald is taken to the offices of the newspaper and stops, gob smacked, in the parking lot when she sees the offices are in a shopping center. That’s not the newspaper office building she saw online, she says, learning that the pictures online are the former newspaper building, before it downsized and moved into a smaller office. I felt like every newspaper reporter watching the show re-enacted that Leonardo DiCaprio “pointing at the TV” meme when they saw this scene.
In the Newsroom
Fitzgerald does gradually learn to do something other than “bigfoot” stories by other staffers, taking over their work and contradicting her new editors. She becomes less condescending and encouraging and more supportive of the rest of the staff.
She does have a knack for not taking no for an answer from small-town cops and state officials, who are not accustomed to reporters pushing them for public information, and the younger reporters benefit from seeing her in action.
The 2015 movie “Spotlight,” about Boston newspaper reporters and editors investigating abuse allegations against the church, was praised by actual newspaper people for the rumpled khakis and button-down oxfords that were the standard uniform of the reporters. “Alaska Daily” gets that right — nobody in the series looks glamorous — and also nails a more universal truth: There are a lot of tedious tasks that go into reporting, like looking up records and requesting information from government offices.
There are also tense duties, like going to someone’s door to tell them you’re writing an explosive story and want to give them a chance to speak. One of the most uncomfortable scenes in “Alaska Daily” is just that, as novice reporter Yuna Park, played by Ami Park, goes to a prominent figure’s door and is told that if she publishes the story, she’ll destroy his life.
Park and Gabriel Tovar, played by Pablo Castelblanco, bring a lot to the series and represent the archetypal newbies in every newsroom. They gain confidence in their work by doing the work.
Chasing a Story
The stories that the Daily Alaskan staff cover are often mundane (the closing of a local restaurant, elevated to melodrama when the restaurant burns) but also stories that are grossly overlooked by larger media. The most important of these concerns murdered and missing Indigenous women. That story is especially highlighted when a young, white woman falls off a cruise ship while taking a selfie. The governor throws a huge amount of money and resources at finding the woman. At the same time, there’s virtually no attention being paid to the deaths and disappearances of several poor and Indigenous women.
The story arc for the first batch of six episodes features Fitzgerald working with Roz Friendly (Grace Dove), an Alaska Native who wants to pursue answers to these disappearances and deaths of young Native women. This puts the spotlight on a horrific, real-life story that is finally getting some attention, in both our world and in pop culture. Roz is not excited about being teamed with the refugee from the big city, but they soon realize they both share the same goal.
The series is shot in British Columbia and the environs are often as lonely as they are beautiful. I can imagine viewers looking at the vistas of the small towns and countryside and alternately thinking, “I wish I could live there” or, “I could never live there.”
“Alaska Daily” ended its sixth episode with a cliffhanger but is due to return for four more episodes on ABC starting Thursday, February 23, 2023. We’ll see not only how the first season’s storylines are wrapped up — because the stories newspapers cover are rarely truly resolved forever — but also how well the series continues to handle the people of the small cities, towns, and isolated areas it depicts.
Keith Roysdon is a native of small-city and rural Indiana who recently retired from a 40-year career as a newspaper reporter and editor. Now living in Knoxville, Tennessee, Keith writes news, pop culture commentary, and fiction in the mystery and true crime genre. His fourth co-authored book will be published in summer 2023 by The History Press.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.