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October 03, 2019

A Show Built on Shoe Leather

With FX’s The Weekly and a slate of projects, the New York Times expands into television.

Ann Farmer
  • Catherine Keener and Dev Patel in Modern Love

    Giovanni Rufino/FX
  • An episode of The Weekly covered the story of Constantin Mutu, the youngest child separated from his family at the U.S. border.

    Giovanni Rufino/FX

When the New York Times — which is so traditional that it angsted over adding color to its pages in the '90s — decided to expand into living color, its own staff didn't see the change coming.

"I was surprised, because I didn't even know that the New York Times did TV," metro reporter Brian Rosenthal says. That was a year ago, when he was approached by Jason Stallman, editor and executive producer of The Weekly, the first news-documentary series from the Times.

While lining up the 30 episodes for season one — which premiered on FX in June — Stallman got wind of Rosenthal's investigation into a taxi medallion racket that had bankrupted drivers and even pushed some to suicide. He thought the story would make a compelling TV installment, but he wanted to know how the classic shoe-leather journalist would feel about a camera crew tailing him as he conducted his yearlong probe.

"I was certainly self-conscious and uncomfortable about it," Rosenthal says. "[But] it was very clear that this was going to be a major priority for the paper. And, of course, you want to be a part of it."

The Times may have to change its slogan to "All the news that's fit to print, air and stream." The organization has partnered with Amazon to turn its Modern Love reader essays into a video anthology featuring actors like Tina Fey and Anne Hathaway. Netflix is rejiggering the Times's long-running Diagnosis column to let viewers watch Dr. Lisa Sanders diagnose patients' puzzling medical issues.

The paper has also sold the rights to a movie about how it broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment story. And its Overlooked series of obituaries — which belatedly recognize women, people of color and others who didn't fit earlier criteria — may be developed into a series by Netflix, Anonymous Content, 3dot Productions, and Barack and Michelle Obama's Higher Groun Productions.

Obviously, the Times wants to tap the deep well of viewership. To that end, The Weekly premieres on FX on Sundays and is available on Hulu the next day.

"We see television as the next frontier for us," says assistant managing editor Sam Dolnick, who oversees the Times's film and audio projects. He calls the news operation "a firehose of stories" and notes, "It's fun to think how many can translate to the screen and find new audiences."

The Weekly also lets the Times pull back the curtain on newsgathering — at a time when legitimate media outlets are being undermined by charges of so-called fake news. "More than anything," FX chief John Landgraf says, "I was interested in showing the journalist's relationship to the story and the process of how these stories are found and researched."

He's referring, for instance, to a chilling episode shot when award-winning journalist Rukmini Callimachi traveled to Tajikistan and sat face-to-face with the ISIS terrorist who orchestrated a murderous attack there on international cyclists.

In another story, Caitlin Dickerson tracked down a child who was separated from his parents at the U.S.–Mexico border when he was four months old, making him the youngest-known victim of such treatment. None of the reporters gets a face-powdering before the camera rolls. "We're convinced the idea of the camera-ready, prettified person parachuting in to tell you a story is long dead," Stallman says.

Rather, we observe these professionals even when they get choked up, as Rosenthal briefly did while interviewing a distraught taxi driver. "We are humans," he says. "And I think it's really cool that people get to see us and get to understand the people who are doing this work. I think it's vital for journalism today."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2019

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