CNN’s Brian Stelter reported Wednesday that The New York Times has signed a deal to create a new show, The Weekly, that will air on FX and Hulu. In cases like this, the press release sometimes gets more attention on Media Twitter than the actual show. But The Weekly is interesting because it represents a collision of ideas: the new romance about newspapers, the old romance about prestige TV, and the eternally unromantic quest to try to get journalism to pay for itself.
1. The first way you can understand The Weekly is as yet another instance in which Timesmen and women are becoming leading men and women. The Fourth Estate, a documentary series about the paper with a nervy trailer, will air on Showtime later this month. Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the Times reporters who collared Harvey Weinstein, sold the rights to their story to production companies Plan B (Moonlight) and Annapurna (American Hustle). The new movie, Variety reports, “will be in the vein of Spotlight.”
The Weekly is also part of a trend of TV, in its various forms, turning journalists into showrunners. Vice News Tonight, which airs on HBO, won a Peabody for Elle Reeve’s reporting on Charlottesville. In its bid to become the worldwide leader in content, Netflix has looked to both Will Smith’s muscles and Ezra Klein’s explanatory journalism. And in July, Netflix will release a series called Follow This, which shows BuzzFeed writers reporting a news story — something that would have seemed unimaginably boring a few years ago. Which brings us to …
2. Why FX is interested in the Times: The constant pummeling of the press by President Donald Trump has created an odd dichotomy. “The media” is toxic to a certain slice of America. But for another slice, reporters have become romantic figures in a way they haven’t been since Watergate.
Times reporters like Kantor and Twohey, Maggie Haberman, Michael Schmidt, Emily Steel, and Michael Barbaro — plus their counterparts at The Washington Post, Ronan Farrow, et al. — might not cut the same profile that Michael Chiklis did on The Shield. But they have become characters in a national drama. You can imagine them fronting a TV series now more than you could the reporters who covered the Obama and Bush White Houses, even though those reporters worked no less hard and were no less skillful.
3. Why the Times is interested in FX: The Times does really good audio and video on its own. When I was in Australia earlier this year, I heard as many people talk about Barbaro’s podcast, The Daily, as I did American imports like Games of Thrones. And look at the lush video treatment the Times gave to a March story about Easter Island and rising ocean levels.
Yet there’s a certain upside to partnering with FX. Where the Times already has credibility, cable can offer it a place in art and high-middlebrow cultures. It can transfer to the paper some of the prestige created by quality TV. “I saw you on the network that gave the world Atlanta” has a different resonance than “I saw your story about the Iran deal.”
4. The Weekly, Stelter notes, also creates another revenue stream. On May 3, the Times reported that 139,000 new digital subscribers signed up in the first quarter of 2018 — attracted by Trump, #MeToo, and crossword puzzles. But later in the same article, you find this sentence: “However, the company saw a 6 percent decline in digital advertising revenue from the same period a year ago. It was the first time since the second quarter of 2016 that digital advertising declined.”
The entire media is in a bubble. The readers who now say we’re indispensable could find us dispensable as soon as Trump departs the White House. The Weekly deal is newspaper and media economics at their most basic: Everybody needs the money.