A new television drama series called “Alaska Daily” debuted in October on ABC and Hulu. The show focuses on a fictional newspaper in Anchorage that bears a resemblance to the newspaper and news site you’re currently reading. It’s safe to say Alaskans are going to have questions.
“Alaska Daily” has been promoted heavily by ABC. There’s a good chance you’ve seen the commercials or trailers. If you visited certain cities in the Lower 48, you may have seen billboards or ads on buses promoting the show. It debuted on Oct. 6, with new episodes through the fall (it’s on ABC Thursdays at 9 p.m. Alaska time and streams on Hulu the next day).
Over the past couple decades, Alaska has seen a lot of shows based here. It’s mostly been in the realm of reality TV. (Some of those shows are largely fiction too, but that’s another story.) We’ve seen occasional movies filmed in Alaska or set here. What we haven’t seen much of are scripted, fictional TV shows set in Alaska. Currently there’s the animated comedy “The Great North” and the Peabody Award-winning children’s show “Molly of Denali.” Way back, there was “Northern Exposure.” But not a lot since. That’s about to change.
Here’s some of the backstory on how “Alaska Daily” came to be, our connection with it, what it is — and what it isn’t.
In 2018, after the murder of Ashley Johnson-Barr in Kotzebue and revelations from sexual assault survivors in Nome who said police had failed to investigate their cases, we issued a callout to readers asking for help in reporting on sexual violence in Alaska. A lot of Alaskans responded, many describing specific and repeated failure points within the criminal justice system.
[Q&A: What is ‘Alaska Daily,’ what is it based on and who’s involved?]
That led us to work with ProPublica over the next two years on a series of articles, “Lawless,” that focused on sexual violence, systemic failures and why the problems hadn’t gotten better.
Soon after the first stories were published, the U.S. Department of Justice declared a rural law enforcement emergency in Alaska. A companion series, “Unheard,” was published in 2020, giving voice to survivors of sexual violence in Alaska. “Lawless” was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the ADN’s third.
When the first “Lawless” stories appeared, we started hearing from TV and movie producers interested in adapting the stories.
We met and got to know the director Tom McCarthy. McCarthy co-wrote and directed “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy. The movie was named Best Picture at the 2016 Academy Awards. The film felt like a labor of love, made by someone who understood the methodical, tedious process of doing everyday journalism for the public good.
McCarthy, it turns out, had been thinking about a television show that went deeper inside a local newsroom.
“I felt like the thing I didn’t really get to explore was the personal lives of journalists, get to know who they are,” he recently said. “And especially, I would say, in the last 10 years, the sort of rhetoric and vitriol directed specifically at journalists has really been amped up. And I think, incredibly unfairly and quite on purpose. You know, why not reduce the power of the press? It makes a lot of things easier, including corruption, small and wide scale.
“So I thought, man, what’s something I could do if I had an opportunity to make a TV show? And I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to really get to know who are these journalists, specifically involved in local journalism. … Can I humanize journalists? Can I get a sense of who they are and what makes them tick and why they do the work they do?”
McCarthy imagined a series involving a New York reporter who finds herself in a local newsroom, and merged that idea with some of the themes and reporting we had been covering at the Daily News.
We were intrigued by the idea of a show that introduces a broad audience to local news reporters and to the culture of a small local newsroom. We believe that if people could see how reporters go about gathering and verifying facts, they might have more faith in local news. They’d see them for what they are: members of their communities who work hard to understand the places they live and who are dedicated to holding a mirror up to their communities, holding local institutions accountable and giving others in the community basic facts on which to make decisions. The Anchorage Daily News agreed to work with McCarthy and ABC on the project.
The show features Oscar winner Hilary Swank as the lead character. Alaskans will recognize a couple of Alaska actors in the first episode — and Alaska locations. It’s mostly being shot in and around Vancouver, though some scenes are shot in Anchorage. ABC hired two talented Alaska writers, playwright and journalist Vera Starbard (“Molly of Denali”) and writer/director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean (“On the Ice”). Other writers include journalists Mike Rezendes (formerly part of the Boston Globe “Spotlight” team) and Gabriel Sherman, author of “The Loudest Voice in the Room.” The ADN’s Kyle Hopkins, who was the lead reporter on the “Lawless” stories, spent a couple of months in the television writers’ room. He’s an executive producer on the show, along with Daily News president Ryan Binkley.
The creators of the show talked to a number of ADN staff members about our work. They built a newsroom in some ways eerily similar to our own, complete with a snacks-and-puzzles table. (That was all before we did a remodel this year of our actual workplace.) They studied what we wear. We’ve tried to help them understand our work, and Alaska, as best we’ve been able. We have a lot of respect for what they do. At the end of the day, it’s their story to tell. We produce journalism at the Anchorage Daily News. They make TV about The Daily Alaskan.
The events in the TV series are not based on any one person, story or even place. A central storyline involving an unsolved homicide, for example, takes place in a fictional rural hub and draws on elements of generations of systemic failures. The journalists portrayed on the show are also amalgams or archetypes rather than being based on Daily News employees. Same with other Alaskans.
All of that’s to say, the show is fiction. The “Alaska Daily” newsroom is like the fictional fire station in “Chicago Fire” or the Seattle hospital in “Grey’s Anatomy.” It’s not a documentary. But the idea is to help people, through the lens of a network drama, have a better understanding of local news and the people who produce it. Let us know what you think.
Email dhulen@adn and email@example.com.