Baltimore isn’t anywhere near Alaska, but “Alaska Daily” is closer to what I do than any other newspaper show

What I expected to be Hillary Swank Emmy-bait is actually smart, prescient and reminds me of working at the Baltimore Banner

Published on: November 10, 2022 6:00 AM EST

HILARY SWANK, GRACE DOVE from the ABC's show Alaska Daily.

In the very first episode of ABC’s new hit drama “Alaska Daily,” a mother is having a frustrating conversation with a reporter. And she doesn’t trust her. Who can blame her?

Sylvie (Irene Bedard, the voice of Disney’s “Pocahontas”) is an indigenous Alaskan grieving the death of her daughter, Gloria, a seismic event in her life that no one — not the cops or the local newspaper, The Daily Alaskan — seemed to care about. But here is Eileen (Hilary Swank), a disgraced former New York reporter now at the local paper, swearing she’s going to get to the bottom of it.

Sylvie doesn’t believe her.

“Are you going to do what you always do?” Sylvie asks. “One sad story, and that’s it?”

I have never been to Anchorage, where the occasionally uneven but increasingly excellent “Alaska Daily” is set, more than 71 hours and 4,267 miles from Baltimore. Still, I felt a rush of uncomfortable recognition at this scene, as a journalist, a Baltimorean and as a Black woman. I’ve known too many writers who feel superior to the communities they work in and cover them accordingly. I’ve also worked at publications too eager to accept pat answers from officials that betray an obvious lack of investment in disenfranchised areas and people.

And like Sylvie, a lot of those people, including some Baltimoreans, have unfortunately come to expect that their stories will either be covered haphazardly or not at all, so they eye any grand pronouncements with bitter suspicion. I wanted to change that in my hometown, which is why I came to work at The Baltimore Banner. My mission is to write about issues and people that sometimes get ignored, and I understand why they’re not always trusting of that.

I get it. Trust has to be earned. And like Eileen, I’m working on it.

The show’s major plot follows Eileen as she investigates a string of disappearances of Native or Indigenous women like Gloria, a real-life phenomenon that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. I expected it to be a tired redemption story about a disgraced superstar restoring her reputation in a sea of quaint, quirky people while learning to love herself, which is the greatest love of all. Snore.

“Alaska Daily,” written and directed by Tom McCarthy, does have some of those elements, but it gets closer to the state of real newsrooms, and the real people that work in them, than any TV show or movie I’ve seen. It’s a diverse staff of perpetually exhausted-looking journalists who are underpaid, overworked and still eyed with suspicion by their neighbors.

McCarthy, who wrote the Oscar-winning “Spotlight” about the much-bigger Boston Globe, understands how the decline of print has forced once-proud publications to stretch their remaining reporters and resources thin. The Daily Alaskan has recently relocated to an unglamorous office in a strip mall and everybody is fried. In that first episode, Eileen, an unpleasant person who’s only there because she publicly blew a big story in New York and considers herself to be slumming at this unimpressive rag, is surprised to learn that her new co-worker, Claire, covers both investigations and courts.

“We cover everything,” Claire says nonchalantly, as she heads out to do just that. “Small newsroom.” This reminds me of the first time that I covered a fire on a weekend cop shift at the Palm Beach Post, where I was also a movie critic. (”Did a movie opening break out over here?” a fireman asked.)

“Alaska Daily” also addresses the big-time reporter elephant in the strip-mall newsroom — money. Most movies about print journalism, both historical (”The Post,” “Spotlight,” “All The President’s Men”) and fictional (”The Paper”) are based at big papers in big cities. Everyone’s moving really fast, the stakes are high and the news staff are mostly conventionally attractive with inexplicably gorgeous apartments and endless expense accounts.

But here, longtime staffer Austin (Craig Frank) wonders out loud how much Eileen is getting paid and where the funds to pay her are coming from. If they have money for a big salary, they could have afforded not to be in a strip mall, right? Reporters are increasingly used to that sort of foolishness.

Anchorage may be bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island, but its population, about 288,000 in 2021, is less than that of places like Wichita, Kansas, which I can tell you from personal experience is not a sexy, bustling metropolis. The place is so not-New York that Eileen literally jogs past a moose.

There are no moose in Baltimore, but we do have our own unique quirks that seem weird to outsiders, like crab trucks and Old Bay everything. We’re also a place that those who don’t live here think they know better than we do, and they don’t always love it when their made-up version is challenged. It’s our job as journalists to push past our preconceptions and pay attention.

Like the staff of the Daily Alaskan, we don’t always get it right. We mess up. But we don’t forget why we’re here.

“Alaska Daily” isn’t perfect, but I recognize myself in its staff. Sometimes they have to bring their kids, or their ferret, to work. Or rush out to buy a birthday cake. They strive to get to the truth but still weep, conflicted, when that truth hurts people. They need a nap, but there’s too much to do.

They’re working very hard to be worthy of the trust of the town they write for. That’s the thing I want, most too. Although a nap would be nice.