Inside the Tabloid Wars

One of the producers of Bravo's new series about the New York Daily News talks about the paper's passionate staff and getting print journalists on camera.

Bravo’s new series Tabloid Wars has shocked journalists and editors with how accurate a picture it paints of life inside a daily newspaper, in this case the New York Daily News. (The second episode of Tabloid Wars will air on Bravo this Monday, July 31 at 9 PM.) One of the show’s executive producers, Belisa Balaban, talks to us about the challenges and insights that came out of reporting on reporters.

Gal Beckerman: What inspired you to take on the Daily News as a subject for a reality show? What were the elements that made you think it would work? And what were the problems you anticipated?

Belisa Balaban: First of all, I would draw a slight distinction between this show and a classic reality show. There is really none of the kind of insider backstabbing and infighting and inter-office flirting and politics that you would see in a classic reality show. You see a group of talented, hard-working people facing a collective villain, chasing the news. And so in that sense I would call this much more of a documentary series.

We were incredibly excited by the opportunity to explore the world of a daily newspaper. And for us the exciting part of it was following a group of people who are extremely passionate about what they do and bringing that to life for television.

GB: Didn’t you worry that you would just end up filming people sitting at their computers and talking on the phone? Because that’s a lot of what we do.

BB: We definitely anticipated that challenge and we knew that was certainly a huge part of what journalists like you and those at the Daily News do everyday, they talk on the phone, they work on their computers, both doing research and writing. And it’s extremely exciting while you’re doing it and filled with drama and jeopardy, but less exciting when you are watching it on your TV. At the same time, the show started to come to life for us as we were spending time with reporters and photographers on the streets and we would feel news break. When a big story broke it was palpable, the newsroom immediately leapt into action, people came together, and this beast would awaken. The first time we saw that, actually, we knew that we had a great, exciting, action-packed show on our hands.

The other huge creative thing we hit upon that we knew would bring the show to life was when we realized that we would have to be multiple places at the same time. So that when we are telling the story of a cop who is shot up in Harlem, we are on the street with Kerry Burke, we are on the street with Jonathan Lemire, and we are in the newsroom with Tracy Conner who is writing the story and Greg Gittrich who is the editor, who’s watching everything come together. And that approach of seeing the story come together through so many essential parts was the key for us, that’s the dynamic that makes it work.

GB: What surprised you about the environment? From reviews, people seemed to be shocked that journalists work so hard and are so concerned with the truth. Did this surprise you as well?

BB: Those reviews certainly surprised me, and I resented them. I was not surprised by how incredibly hard everyone worked — well, I was a bit, after being in a few workplace environments making documentaries, and I would say that the UCLA Hospital has nothing on how hard these journalists work. So, yes, to a certain extent it was surprising and impressive. But not because I thought journalists were lazy. But because you look at somebody like Kerry Burke who absolutely will not rest until he gets the story, and that’s incredible no matter what environment you talk about. I think more than anything we were taken with the level of personal commitment most of these journalists bring to their work, and the level of passion. But perhaps more surprising than anything was the level of idealism. Because I think there’s a myth that journalists are jaded or cynical, and that was not our experience at the Daily News.

GB: That’s interesting, because the Daily News, being a tabloid, people generally think that their motivation is to get the most sensational story, whatever will sell the most papers. That you should find idealism there, even among the gossip columnists, is fascinating.

BB: The other thing that we learned is that the journalists’ definition of what a tabloid, a city paper, is, is very different from what American viewers might bring to their conception of a tabloid paper. For the staff of the Daily News, their paper is the paper for the citizens of the city of New York. The New York Times is a national paper, and they are covering national and international stories. But if you want to read stories about your community in the boroughs of New York, you are going to read the Daily News. Kerry Burke, coming from the suburbs of Dorchester, Massachusetts, always felt growing up that his community was not covered in the Boston Globe. And he always wondered, where am I from? So coming from that, he brings a sense of mission to his reporting in the boroughs of New York. It is more important — as it is to much of the staff of the Daily News — to tell the stories of the communities than it is to tell the stories of the country or the international story.

GB: Did it bother any of the reporters to have cameras following them? Didn’t they feel they might be intimidating their subjects? Newspaper people are generally those who have decided not to be in front of the cameras.

BB: Absolutely. I would say that at no point were our cameras steering our journalists into a broadcaster position, because they were never really talking to the cameras. But certainly it put them in a strange position, and we were conscious of that coming in. But I think if you ask most of them, certainly what Kerry Burke and Greg Gittrich would say, is that they spend their professional lives asking people, sometimes on the worst days of their lives, to come forward and speak on the record. So when it came time and somebody came knocking on their door, they felt like it was hypocritical to say no, and they could tell that we were excited about the opportunity to tell their stories.

In this week’s episode we tell the story of the first New York City cop who was killed in Iraq. And it’s incredibly important to the reporters on a personal level to tell that story well. And with all the cynicism that people project onto journalists, they saw that we were telling not just the salacious stories, but also of how hard they work on telling the emotional stories for the people of New York.

GB: I think when people first heard the concept of the show, I think they imagined that you were going to be inside both the Daily News and the New York Post. But it seems as if it’s going to be exclusively about the Daily News with the Post figuring into the series as this dark force lurking around and stealing stories. I wonder, why did you choose the Daily News?

BB: The Post was never approached. There have been rumors that the Post was approached and they turned it down, but that’s completely untrue. The Daily News was chosen because it is a great paper of New York City. I can understand why people thought it was going to be about both papers, but the fact is that we were only ever going to follow the reporters at one paper. The more overlap we get between the characters and subjects, the better it is for us. We didn’t want to present an informational overview of New York newspapers, we wanted to present a view of what it’s like to work at a great city paper. So as much as possible, even within the Daily News, we choose people whose lives and whose jobs overlap.

I wouldn’t describe the Post as a dark force, but the competition is very real, there are five daily papers in New York City. And yes, the competition with the Post is more targeted. But the journalists at the Daily News always want to be first, they always want to have the best story, whether it’s the Post or any other paper. So that competition is extremely real.

GB: You must have been thrilled to find the kind of personalities you found there among the reporters. Someone like Kerry Burke, it’s gold …

BB: Absolutely. He’s money. He wouldn’t say that about himself, but that’s how he would describe someone else. He’s phenomenal. He works unbelievably hard. He cares so deeply about what he does. He believes in what he’s doing. So as a filmmaker, finding someone like him is a dream come true. How often do you hear someone say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” about their job? It doesn’t happen. And to really, truly mean it. He really cares more about the work that he does than most of us. And that’s an incredible story to tell. And I believe that his approach, when we really started to get to know him and see the level of commitment that he brings to the job, that’s when the show really started to come to life for us.

GB: I wonder what kind of insights about journalism, besides the commitment and passion, emerged for you in the process of working on this project.

BB: I’d have to go back to what we were talking about before. As someone who grew up in New York City and grew up reading the New York Times, I hadn’t really thought about the importance of papers like the Daily News that are much more about the city, that speak to a local audience. Spending the kind of time we did on those stories, I thought a lot about the importance of telling those local stories for a local audience, so that people know their history and they know what the stories are of their own neighborhood.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.