Kerry Burke isn’t your average reality television star.
To begin with, the 43-year-old reporter with a heavy Dorchester, Mass., accent and rumpled white shirts doesn’t resemble the glossy, striving characters that dominate most shows of the genre. In fact, the self-described “blue-collar boy” recoils at the thought of being on camera. He’s not even planning on watching his television debut Monday on “Tabloid Wars,” Bravo’s new “docu-series” about the inner workings of the New York Daily News.
“I’m going to work,” declared Burke, who covers breaking news -- i.e., “murder and mayhem” -- on the late shift for the paper. “That’s what I do. I’m going to chase stories, like I always do.”
Burke’s unrelenting focus on getting the story is one of the central conceits of “Tabloid Wars,” a six-episode series that takes viewers inside the manic, hurly-burly world of a New York tabloid. The program, filmed documentary-style over three months last summer, is in many ways a nostalgic paean to a rapidly disappearing phenomenon: the local newspaper war. It may also be the most positive view of newspaper types on TV since the days of “Lou Grant.”
New York City, with three major daily newspapers, is one of the last cities in America where print reporters are engaged in a fierce, day-in and day-out competition over local stories. The rivalry is particularly acute between the two tabloids, the Daily News and the New York Post, which never miss an opportunity to take a swipe at each another.
In recent years, the circulation gap between the papers has narrowed, with the News now selling an average of 708,477 papers on weekdays to the Post’s 673,379. Quipped Col Allan, editor in chief of the Post: “If I look at the circulation trajectories of both papers, I would call the Daily News series ‘Tabloid Surrender.’ ” (Daily News editors note that the Post charges half as much and has fewer readers.)
The heated climate means that every story -- whether a tawdry celebrity antic or brutal urban crime, the subjects of the first episodes -- is a race to be first. “Tabloid Wars” spotlights the daily adrenaline-filled contest, following Daily News reporters as they rush to nail down details of such stories as the thievery of actor Robert DeNiro’s nanny, a racially motivated beating in Howard Beach, Queens, and a police shooting in Harlem with a doggedness reminiscent of Michael Keaton’s character in “The Paper,” the 1994 film that itself was loosely based on the Daily News.
The show’s producers expected that the enmity between the two tabloids would provide a dominant narrative for the program. But what they discovered in the newsroom surprised them.
“I think what you actually find when you spend time with these people is they live by a really intense code, and they care deeply about the role that the news plays in society and community,” said Ted Skillman, one of the show’s executive producers. “The thing that really struck us was that, to a person, they would tell you that they’re cynics, yet really they’re about as idealistic a group of people you’d ever meet.”
The ‘other’ media
Indeed, a reverence for the job colors much of the series, which comes across as a warmhearted tribute to the work of local newspaper reporters, a sharp counterpoint to the spate of media-bashing lately so in vogue.
“The media as represented in our show is very different than what we picture when we talk about the media in America today,” said executive producer Belisa Balaban. “They truly love what they do.”
Such a reaction is what the editors were hoping for when they signed off on the idea last year after being approached by Hearst Entertainment, which conceived the project.
“Journalists score on the likability chart a little bit below secondhand car salesmen,” said former Daily News editor in chief Michael Cooke, who approved the project before he left last year to take a job as an executive with Hollinger International Inc., the parent of the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think if people get to know us a little bit, we might move up a couple notches.”
The show represents quite a departure from Bravo’s other reality fare, such as “Project Runway” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
“For us it was an instant yes,” said Frances Berwick, executive vice president of programming and production at Bravo. “We’re all about exploring the creative process, and this is kind of an unknown world.”
But the project didn’t initially thrill the newspaper staff.
“No one in any job likes to have someone sitting over their shoulder watching what they’re doing, so, as you might expect, people weren’t excited about the idea,” said Deputy Metro Editor Gregory Gittrich. “None of us have aspirations of being on TV or celebrities or anything like that.”
That reluctance to be in the spotlight made the Daily News staff even more appealing as subjects.
“A lot of reality television is filled with people who want to be on the TV,” said Skillman. “What was really exciting for us was to work with people whose priority was not to be.”
Ultimately, After meeting with the producers and hearing how they wanted to approach the series, a large share of the staff signed release forms agreeing to be filmed.
“I think the press has to be transparent -- it’s about legitimacy,” Burke said. “And that’s one of the major things I wanted out of this, for people to see how we do our work and that we’re not predators, trying to take people down.”
Added Gittrich: “What we do every day is ask people to tell us their stories and let us into their lives and, at their worst moments, talk to us. So it seemed hypocritical to not let other people do that with us.”
Capturing the feel
Still, editors had one major concern: that filming the show would jeopardize the newspaper’s relationship with its sources. The producers agreed to turn their cameras off if the staff said they needed to talk about a confidential source, and Gittrich insisted on viewing the rough cuts of the show in case the cameras inadvertently picked up discussion of a source’s name or caught a glimpse of sensitive information on a computer screen.
In the end, many Daily News staffers who were initially reluctant to participate said they were impressed with the final product, even if they winced at seeing themselves on camera.
“They really, really captured that competitive feeling that at deadline they let out the German shepherds and then sirens start to blow,” said gossip columnist Joanna Molloy.
In the pilot episode, the cameras follow Burke as he pounds the pavement in Howard Beach, rushing against deadline to try to get details about an altercation between several black youths and white teenagers in a neighborhood with a charged racial history. Doors are slammed in his face even as his editors, wary of prematurely calling the attack a hate crime, press him to figure out exactly what happened. In the end, the newspaper runs a story that suggests race played a role in the beating. (On Monday the attacker, Nicholas Minucci, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for committing a hate crime.)
Because of such story lines, the series in many ways resembles a procedural drama, said Bravo’s Berwick. “There’s a time crunch and they’re racing against their competitors. It’s very suspenseful and you engage with the characters.”
That’s exactly what Burke was afraid of. He has already been stopped once on the street by someone who recognized him from an ad for “Tabloid Wars.”
“Anonymity in this game is a real asset,” he said, sighing. “I’ve done undercover work. It doesn’t look like that’s going to be happening for a while.”