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Why don't newspaper shows work?

Nearly every great showrunner of the '80s and '90s tried to make a newspaper show. All of them failed. Why?


Emily VanDerWerff

Jan 25 2021

12 min read


A month ago, I attempted to answer a question I’ve seen asked many times in many ways: Why do high school shows work, while college shows rarely do?

Late in that article, I mention that another big question about certain types of TV dramas is why newspaper shows have never really worked, and then earlier this week, Michael Hobbes, the co-host of You’re Wrong About (one of my favorite podcasts out there), brought up exactly the same topic.

I attempted to answer Hobbes in-thread, but I’ve been thinking about this more in the days since. I’ve always hoped there would be a good, solid newspaper drama, or even a drama set at a TV news operation. But across the history of television, you have basically one qualified success (newspaper drama Lou Grant, a huge critical smash that was never particularly well viewed, though it did run five seasons); a few sitcoms set in the news business (Mary Tyler Moore, NewsRadio, etc.) that have very little to do with journalism; Aaron Sorkin’s critically beloved, abysmally rated Sports Night; and Sorkin’s The Newsroom, which, needless to say, belongs in its own category of hubris entirely.

There are other series I could point to here and there, but few of them made it far beyond a season or two, and many of the most well-known ones are newspaper shows only tangentially. Monster-hunting series Kolchak: The Night Stalker is a good example of a newspaper show that has nothing to do with newspapers, and that lasted but a season. Or consider Lois and Clark or Supergirl. Would you consider those “journalism dramas”? I wouldn’t.

Even more intriguingly, nearly every great showrunner of the ‘80s, ‘90s. and ‘00s tried to do a newspaper show, and none of those shows worked, despite said showrunners’ talents with launching hits in other workplace drama subgenres. David Milch tried it. Dick Wolf tried it. Michelle Ashford (who went on to create Masters of Sex) actually saw her first major success in television with a swiftly canceled newspaper show.

Lou Grant is the series that worked. (Credit: The 20th Century Fox TV library)

And that’s just shows that made it to the air. Even more series never advanced beyond the pilot stage. No less a talent than Shonda Rhimes was unable to get a journalism drama (starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, fresh off his initial run as Denny on Grey’s Anatomy) off the ground. She actually failed to get a journalism drama off the ground twice.

The one success story, as mentioned, is Lou Grant, which did hail from powerful creators: James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, both of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Gene Reynolds of M*A*S*H. The series was developed by journeyman writer Leon Tokatyan, who hung around for the first two seasons. Brooks and Burns seem to have tapped out early on, while Reynolds stuck with the series for its entire five-season run. Also, the show had one of the great opening credits sequences of all time.

(The show changed that title sequence in every season after the first, and the new sequence was also pretty good, if not as good as the one above.)

Lou Grant won a bunch of Emmys, including two for drama series, and it ran five years, with a couple of solidly rated seasons in the bunch. The show’s cancellation — which star Ed Asner has always said stemmed from his vocal pushback against the US’s intervention in Central America while he was serving as SAG president and which CBS always said stemmed from the show’s sagging ratings — has always been a little more famous than the show itself, weirdly. (Incidentally, I’d say both Asner and CBS are right. The ratings were down, but it’s easy to imagine the show running another year or two if Asner wasn’t making headlines.)

The important thing to know about Lou Grant is that it’s terrific. You kind of have to look past its incredible ‘70s-ness, particularly in the ways it talks about social issues, but the way it conceived of the newspaper drama as one part investigative show, one part workplace comedy, and one part earnest discussion of social issues feels kind of novel nearly 50 years after it debuted.

I’ve been watching a lot of ‘90s TV lately, and one thing I’ve noticed is how easily these shows shift genres from week to week, even if the underlying formula is often the same. Lou Grant could be a number of different kinds of shows, all operating under the title Lou Grant, and every one of the characters was protagonist of a different version of the show, so when it was time for their place in the spotlight, the show adjusted to accommodate. (There’s been a lot of buzz around shows like Skins, Euphoria, and Lovecraft Country that have new “character focus” episodes each week, but ensemble dramas from the ‘80s and ‘90s were already doing variations on this. Modern dramas just take that idea to its logical extreme.)

So I think if one were to create a journalism show in 2021 — and probably it would have to be a digital journalism show — it would behoove that creator to take a look at the ways Lou Grant balanced tones and different versions of itself within individual episodes. The staff members’ personal drama wasn’t as prominent as it would be on dramas that debuted just a few seasons into the show’s run, but the drama was there. And the ability to balance investigative journalism stories against stories about social issues gave the series a bunch of different tones to play with.

And yet I don’t think Lou Grant was a hit because of impeccable construction. I really think Lou Grant was a hit because it starred Ed Asner as Lou Grant, a character viewers already knew and loved from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s honestly that simple.

Still, the question remains: Why have so few of these shows worked? The blend of investigation/workplace intrigue/social issues discussion that Lou Grant made work so beautifully was largely borrowed for Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, which upped the serialization in that mix and reinvented the TV drama just a few years later. But when the people who made the great workplace dramas of the ‘80s tried to take the things they had learned from police, medical, and legal dramas and apply them to the journalism drama, it just didn’t work.

I don’t have an amazing answer for this question, either. In theory, a journalism drama should have the range of one of the best cop shows, while not particularly glorifying the police. Indeed, the genre should be one of the easiest in which to tell stories that are critical of the police (as Lou Grant could be). And it’s one genre that can easily slip, chameleon like, into other versions of itself. Journalists might work to solve a crime or to exonerate someone wrongly accused. They might even cover the outbreak of a disease. They can even tackle straightforward stories about, like, public housing that might be too boring otherwise.

I suspect it would be hard to do a journalism drama right now, because journalism has become increasingly detached from people’s everyday lives. Ideally, a journalism drama is about reporters and their editors, and it’s a lot easier to build out that relationship when the reporters are working the beat in their local community. As local news outlets circle the drain, it becomes harder and harder to tell stories about them.

But my real answer to why newspaper dramas don’t work is that after Lou Grant paved the way for Hill Street Blues and its ilk, the life-and-death stakes of the cop show, the medical drama, and the legal drama made the stakes of the journalism drama — which are typically one degree removed from life-and-death stakes, because the journalists are rarely in actual danger (or in contact with people in actual danger) — feel small in comparison. Cop shows quickly took over the airwaves even more than they had before because of how much easier it was to tell stories where the characters were in tense, potentially lethal situations every single episode. A journalism show just can’t compete.

So maybe the impulse to wed the journalism show to the workplace drama format is the wrong one, even though Lou Grant is the foremost example of a journalism show succeeding. Maybe the impulse should be to find other genres to wed the journalism show to. You’ll note that a bunch of the series I dismissed as journalism shows above have major sci-fi or superhero elements, and it’s not that difficult to imagine, say, a show about the Daily Planet or Peter Parker’s freelance photography business.

But what other genres might the journalism show hook up with? The small-town series and the family drama both have lower stakes than the workplace drama increasingly requires. My guess is that to find a journalism show that works, you could find real fruitfulness from mashing it up with a genre that’s much more about character stakes than plot stakes

Even then, I’m not sure it would work. For too many viewers, the work of journalism is largely abstracted, and it’s hard to imagine getting excited about it. The bar to clear might just be too high in this case.

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Housekeeping: I am dealing with some health issues, and I am taking the next two weeks off from the newsletter. I have scheduled some of my favorite pieces from the archives of the newsletter to run on Mondays. I hope you don’t mind the pause.

However, I am finally okayed to begin working on the paid edition of the newsletter, which is exciting. The Avatar recaps will begin Friday and continue throughout my absence, as I have the first four filed. I just need to edit and schedule. Then, freelance pieces will begin Wednesday, February 3. Thank you for your patience.

And remember that you can subscribe to this newsletter and help me put money in the pockets of culture freelancers. Read more about this right here.

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What I’ve been up to: Like every other trans cultural journalist, I wrote about Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters’s wonderful new novel. I took on Joe Biden’s inauguration and the very weird attempts to walk the line between “comfort food” and “bleak cynicism.” And I also picked the TV show that defined Donald Trump’s presidency, an important ritual that truly lets you know the old president is gone.

I struggled with this pick. Succession and The Handmaid’s Tale were too obvious, as they were impossible to watch without thinking about Trump at least a little bit. (Ideally, the show that defines an administration isn’t a direct commentary but instead reflects a kind of national mood.) I flirted with Netflix’s Ozark for a long while, as it’s about white, rural, upper-middle-class people struggling endlessly to hold onto the power they’ve accrued in an America where infrastructure has failed so badly that nobody seems to have indoor lighting.

Read me: There’s been tons of discussion about trans women competing in women’s sports, but relatively little about trans men competing in men’s sports. Fortunately, the terrific Britni De La Cretaz reported out this great piece on exactly that question.

In 2017, Ezra* was a high school senior and the co-captain of his cross country team in Maryland. It was only his second year competing on the boys team, having moved over from the girls team at the beginning of his junior season. He had been a star runner on the girls varsity team his freshman year, skipping junior varsity completely, and began coming out to his friends and teammates as transgender before his sophomore season. It was then that he faced a choice: which team he would compete with for his sophomore year. 

His school was accepting and he faced no institutional barriers to competing on the team that aligned with his gender thanks to living in one of the 16 states deemed “friendly” for trans athletes by, nor would he be starting testosterone for at least another year. During his freshman season, his team had suffered a devastating loss in the state championship race — so devastating, in fact, that one of his teammates broke the second place trophy in half. Ezra was seeded to be the top runner on the girls’ team his sophomore year and knew they could not win without him. The team was like his family, and he ultimately made the decision to run with them.

“It was challenging,” says Ezra, now 21 and a student at an Ivy League college. “I had just asked my entire school and my entire community to view me as male, to use he/him pronouns, to call me Ezra. I wanted there to be no residual perception of me as a woman. And then we would have sports assemblies and they’d call up women’s cross country, and I would have to march up there.”

Watch me: A friend has been getting me into Neon Genesis Evangelion, which is something that everybody told me I would love but also something that everybody told me I would need to see more anime to truly appreciate. And, look, maybe that’s true (my friend is pointing out how the series subverts several anime tropes I know nothing about), but the show is still awesome, and it looks incredibly cool. This is to say: If you have been thinking about watching this show, but you are put off by its reputation as being dense and full of references to other anime, don’t be. It’s really easy to follow!

And another thing… Sometimes I forget that Heathcliff has gotten absolutely bonkers. Then I see something like this:

A thing I had to look up: Lou Grant only won the drama series Emmy two times, for its second and third seasons. It lost in season one to The Rockford Files, then lost to Hill Street Blues in its fourth and fifth seasons. I thought it had won for all of its first three seasons, but the show I was thinking of was Taxi, a different James L. Brooks series.

This week’s listening music: “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By” by Mama Cass Elliot

Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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