The HBO drama series The Wire is best known for its unflinching portrayal of murderous drug dealers, boozing cops, and crooked politicians that infest the urban pathways of Baltimore. This season, (the show's last), much of the action will also center on "The Baltimore Sun," a fictionalized version of the city's real-life publication.
While traditional branding wisdom might not recommend tying the name of a respectable news outlet to a show rife with drugs, cursing, and bloodshed, the pop culture tie-in may be a big life preserver for a rapidly fading industry.
The show's content makes it beloved by its intense fan base, but it has never quite been a blockbuster hit. And making matters more interesting, the show's creator, David Simon - a former Sun reporter who still holds a host of grudges - has made no secret of the fact he will take pointed digs at what he perceives as the flaws and sellouts of the paper.
So what prompted The Baltimore Sun's management to cooperate with the show, even with the knowledge that its portrayal would hardly be a positive one?
Two words: hard times. The Sun is quite emblematic of the newspaper industry as a whole. It is a once-proud paper that has recently been forced to shutter foreign bureaus, slash staff, and, frankly, lose quality in the face of declining economic prospects.
In the same week as the show's premiere, The Sun announced that it was moving its public editor into the newsroom and replacing him with a blog. And in dire times, the much derided "all publicity is good publicity" maxim starts looking a lot more attractive. Especially when said publicity is free.
Sun employees referred questions to a spokesperson, who was not available before press time. But Simon has been vocal about the grudges he holds against two of his former editors there, accusing them of "destroying" the paper and even naming a repellent police sergeant on The Wire after one of them. This season, he said, he hopes to hold all of newspaper journalism up to a critical lens.
"The story line reflects the problems that I saw inherent in journalism," he told the LA Times. "And those problems have to do with more than The Sun and more than those particular editors."
For The Sun, the burning question is whether a season of primetime exposure on HBO (which should at least make the job look dramatic, if not perfectly executed) will actually translate into a measurable business impact.
The product placement, as it were, could certainly sell for millions, and in that sense the storyline is a PR coup. But considering what The Sun and other papers are up against - nationwide economic decline in important advertising sectors, free competition from the Internet, and an entire generation that puts little value in print - the mandate to only pursue PR work that directly drives economic results is a strong one.
So what can The Sun's beleaguered colleagues in the industry take away from all this? The top lesson should be that the dramatic potential of newspapers themselves shouldn't be underestimated. Papers may be financially shaky, but they are an enduring symbol of Americana that are ripe for integration into the Hollywood machine.
Just look what Sex in the City did for Manolo Blahniks, or what movie stars have done for the sexy image of smoking. By those standards, turning old-fashioned print papers into the next intellectual status item could be as close as the end of the season.
A concerted effort by an industry group like the Newspaper Association of America to use the entertainment world to help rebrand papers could have more effect on public perceptions than anything else they could waste their money on - like newspaper ads.