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Yukonomist: Alaska Daily: Paean to Northern journalism

Despite claims we live in the era of Peak TV, streaming services such as Netflix still don’t offer a series set at a Whitehorse newspaper.

Despite claims we live in the era of Peak TV, streaming services such as Netflix still don’t offer a series set at a Whitehorse newspaper.

Instead, you can watch Alaska Daily, starring Academy Award winner Hilary Swank. The series is set at a paper a lot like the Anchorage Daily News. Swank plays Eileen Fitzgerald, a hotshot New York reporter who botches a high-profile story and has to reinvent herself in Alaska.

Fitzgerald partners on an investigative series on missing and murdered Indigenous women with a young Tlingit journalist named Roz Friendly, played by Grace Dove. You may recall Dove, a Secwepemc actor who grew up in Prince George, playing Leonardo diCaprio’s wife in The Revenant.

The tension between the older battle-hardened Outside white reporter with the younger up-and-coming Indigenous journalist provides much of the series’ dramatic momentum. That plus a revolving cast of greedy businessmen, conniving politicians and rear-end-covering bureaucrats.

The series is inspired by real-world, Pulitzer-prize winning events: the blockbuster publication in 2019 of Lawless: Sexual Violence in Alaska. The series was the result of a massive, two-year investigative journalism effort by Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica. It recounted the stories of 29 survivors and the systematic failure of the state’s law enforcement agencies to deal with the problem.

In addition to the many unsolved cases, the journalists also dug deep into problems in schools, lack of police in many communities and police failure to collect DNA samples from people arrested for violent crimes as required by law.

The twists and turns of the main plotline make the series worth watching. But northerners will also enjoy the charming ensemble cast in Anchorage and remote Alaska communities. The rest of the newsroom follows sub-plots related to local news, including a jet fighter crash at the local base, the closure of an iconic local restaurant and the contest for biggest cabbage at the state fair.

In its television form, working at a local paper seems like an adrenaline rush. Each episode, someone from the newsroom breaks a big story. Even the cub reporter assigned to the state fair manages to unearth an eco-terrorist plot behind the biggest cabbage.

There is no footage of journalists spending hours listening to zoning debates at Anchorage city council.

It’s fun to see our neighbours on the big screen, and other than the charming bush pilot who is also a poet, most of the characters avoid cliché.

The filmmakers make Anchorage look good, with stunning floatplane footage and shots of the city’s skyline with the mountains in the background. You may also recognize the Captain Cook Hotel, the Crow’s Nest restaurant as well as the Lake Hood floatplane base.

Some of the locations, it turns out, were filmed in Dettah, Northwest Territories and Squamish, British Columbia. The Alaska Daily headquarters scenes were filmed in Burnaby, B.C.

Despite some dramatic license, Alaska Daily also makes an important point about journalism in the North.

Until Friendly and Fitzgerald begin digging, the violent criminals behind the missing and murdered statistics are largely getting off scot free. So are the justice officials and police officers, who are variously incompetent, complacent or even personally involved. The governor always says the right thing, and even announces a task force to tackle the problem, but is never held accountable for his failure to make a dent in the problem.

The newsroom’s side plots include investigations into dodgy land deals, questionable mining permits and big business shenanigans.

As budget cuts loom, the characters fiercely defend the need for a community newspaper. It is clear they are not writing to get their 15 minutes of fame in the national media, but for local Alaskans in their community. As the series progresses, even big-city transplant Fitzgerald begins to get into her Alaska groove.

Here in the Yukon, we are fortunate to have two quality newspapers (full disclosure: I write for one of them, as you can probably tell if you are reading this) and news departments at several radio stations. As our governments grow bigger, and ever bigger international mining companies take an interest in the Yukon, local news hounds are critical to keeping citizens informed.

No one else has the time or credibility to dig into stories the local elite may not want you to know about. Whistleblowers and social media are an important new source of truth, but also one easily dismissed by big organizations as rumour and fake news.

Unfortunately, news budgets in the Yukon are under more pressure than ever before. As government was growing in size and complexity, the internet was siphoning away advertising budgets.

Back in the day, Commissioner Doug Bell famously typed his own press releases. Nowadays, the Yukon government has more public relations personnel than all the journalists in the Yukon combined.

We shall see what happens to local newspapers in the Yukon. In the meantime, enjoy Alaska Daily and – if you can – think about subscribing to a local paper if you haven’t already.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.