"Spotlight" director Tom McCarthy isn't done investigating journalism.
His 2015 Oscar-winning film showcased how the Boston Globe exposed the widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests, leaning on its all-star investigative team, legal advisers and generous expense accounts.
The characters in McCarthy's new ABC TV series don't have those kinds of resources.
In "Alaska Daily," airing at 9 p.m. Thursdays on KSTP, Ch. 5, the staff at a fictional publication in Anchorage is determined to get to the bottom of a string of murders, despite facing massive cuts and waning readership. In these parts, you're more likely to run into a moose than someone with a newspaper subscription.
Some might argue that the city is lucky to have any sort of daily news outlet. The show premieres at a time when many communities no longer have professional journalists covering zoning-board meetings, let alone a killing spree.
"Local journalism is really, really struggling," McCarthy said during a virtual news conference last month. "You know the number of these papers that have just not only dried up but disappeared over the last 10 years. It's staggering and terrifying."
It's not the kind of mission you often see on network TV, where one-hour dramas are usually reserved for whodunits, prime-time soaps and superhero adventures.
"We thought there was a real audience to reach, a broad American audience, that we could make a smart show that was both entertaining and had real value," said McCarthy, who spent time in the late '80s doing improv and stand-up comedy in the Twin Cities. "And so it's a gamble. You never know what's going to work, what's going to connect. But we felt it was the right platform for the show, and we're thrilled that ABC took a shot on us."
Because "Alaska" needs to attract millions of viewers to stay on the air, it can't just be about database researching and budget meetings. The writers have added some fluffy padding, most notably the creation of a hard-nosed protagonist, Eileen Fitzgerald. She's a disgraced journalist from New York who heads to Alaska with all the trepidation Joel Fleischman packed for his trip in "Northern Exposure."
Within days she's secured a corner office, has a one-night stand with a local bush pilot and starts to unravel the mystery that has stymied her new colleagues for years.
She's not very realistic, but it's just the kind of part that would attract a big star like Hilary Swank.
"I love people who persevere through adversity," said Swank, who won Oscars for "Boys Don't Cry" and "Million Dollar Baby." "I want everyone to be seen and I think everyone deserves justice. I think a lot of the roles that I choose have that theme in one way or another."
Fitzgerald's personal trials, including bouts of panic attacks, dominate the first two episodes, but McCarthy still finds room to sneak in little touches that anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom will recognize: a reporter celebrating her first Page 1 byline, editors debating the ethics of accepting free food, the ongoing search for a decent cup of coffee.
Those moments don't make "Alaska" the modern-day version of "All the President's Men," but for anyone who thinks local journalism needs some love, they're welcome news.
"We're trying to reach people who may or may not have lost respect for journalists and we're trying to regain that," said co-executive producer Peter Elkoff. "Good journalists are truth-seekers, and everybody should care about the truth."