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Jan. 21, 2020, 2:42 p.m.
Reporting & Production

This former HBO executive is trying to use dramatic techniques to highlight the injustice in criminal justice

And hopefully to make some good TV along the way. Kary Antholis’ site Crime Story uses “a much more thematic, character-driven way of exploring these stories than how traditional media might pursue.”

The true-crime boom seems to have no end in sight. While crime reporting has long been a staple of newspapers and television news, the podcasting boom has unleashed a torrent; there are now more than 1,300 true-crime shows listed in Apple Podcasts. Lists of “best true-crime podcasts” can stretch to 25, 40, 50, or more. And true crime is increasingly catnip for streaming platforms.

Many of these stories have flowed from journalism — local reporters covering the case — to the world of entertainment. But Kary Antholis is moving in the other direction: After a 25-year career in TV producing, including plenty of crime dramas and documentaries, he’s pivoting to journalism.

Antholis spent 25 years in various roles at HBO, including director of documentary programming and president of HBO miniseries and Cinemax programming. (He also won the Oscar for Best Short Documentary in 1996. You can see his (and his subject’s) acceptance speech here.) He oversaw a lot of projects you probably recognize, like Angels in America, John Adams, Chernobyl, Mildred Pierce, and Olive Kitteridge.

He accepted an early retirement package a few months after AT&T closed its deal to buy Time Warner. Now he’s the editor and publisher of Crime Story, where he and a team of writers tell stories about crime and the criminal justice system, centered mostly in Los Angeles — with some help from the politics site Talking Points Memo. All those HBO years have helped him get guests on his podcast most news startups can’t, both from the world of TV (Vince Gilligan, Steve Zaillian, Jared Harris, David Simon, George Pelecanos, David Chase) and outside it (attorney general William Barr, Amanda Knox, Sarah Koenig).

I spoke with Antholis about the career shift, his plans for the site, and what he makes of the boom in stories about crime. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Hanaa’ Tameez: So how did the idea for Crime Story originate?

Kary Antholis: I worked as a television executive for 25 years — I started in documentaries and moved over to scripted shows. Over the course of that time, I had three abiding interests. One was in the criminal justice system. I went to law school, but I only practiced for a year. I was always interested in stories of crime and justice, both as a law student and a reader of literature and a watcher of television and film, in the way that crime stories are told.

The second is that I’ve had a long interest in journalism, and specifically a 15-year friendship and dialogue with Josh Marshall, who runs Talking Points Memo.

The third was the experience working on a television series called “The Night Of” that Steven Zaillian wrote and directed and John Turturro starred in. It was an eight-hour series that explored the experience of a lawyer and a defendant in a murder case. And through my work on the board of visitors at Georgetown Law School, we did an event at the law school that brought together the creators of the show and law professors.

That event was really powerful and impactful, for both the professors and creators — and the audience for that matter. And I thought: This is an area where I can, in the longer term, add value. Examining how justice shapes our narratives and narrative shapes justice. I was working on shows at HBO, I was thinking about what lay beyond my time at HBO, and I started to focus on this area and began a dialogue with Josh Marshall.

I started teaching classes at USC [on crime dramas and documentaries] and that’s how the idea was born. That event was right after the presidential election in 2016 and so I’ve been thinking about it since then — working up concepts, teaching a couple of those classes, recording interviews for those classes — primarily for the students to use, but also with the idea that I could possibly use them for podcast interviews down the road.

Tameez: There’s a lot of reporting and content around “true crime” as well as the criminal justice system right now. How does Crime Story fit into the greater crime news landscape, if it does at all?

Antholis: Its primary purpose is for me to work through the coverage of stories and develop ideas for intellectual property that I can go sell in the television and film world and for other forms of narrative, like higher-budget podcasts and the like. Because of my contacts and the people I have access to, I also think it serves as a forum for people at the higher levels of criminal justice policy thinking and policymaking and people in the narrative creation business, the culture business, to engage, listen, and think about the way we tell stories.

Finally, I think it’s a bit a petri dish for a different kind of coverage of the court system and of our local justice systems around the country, Los Angeles being my personal petri dish — covering the L.A. courts with a different kind of sensibility. Not a traditional journalistic sensibility of who, what, when, where, why, but a more literary sensibility in the tradition of Truman Capote and Joan Didion and people like that. I think that’s where it fits.

The people that are listening to our podcasts that I engage anecdotally are people who are in the world of policymaking and in the world of telling stories, because those are who my friends are. And then, as time goes on, we’ll see where it goes. We’ll see if it begins to spread beyond that.

Tameez: How does your style of coverage differentiate itself from the way local news outlets traditionally cover crime and criminal justice in L.A.?

Antholis: The way we cover trials is much more story-focused. We’re not covering events — we’re covering stories and characters, at least in our day-to-day coverage.

For example, we’re covering the Robert Durst trials. There’s information about what’s going on in those trials in our articles. We focus much more heavily in our articles on a particular character and particular themes that resonate to us in the trial. In a couple of the pieces we’ve written about Durst, we juxtapose the extremely laconic pace of the Durst hearings with the almost machine-gun pace of the other proceedings that are taking place in that same courtroom for people who are represented by court-appointed attorneys, whether they’re public defenders or bar panel attorneys. We also explore the themes that go with a media case like the Durst cases.

We’ve also taken a look at the different ways judges approach certain kinds of cases. Wobbler cases, for example, are cases that are on the cusp of misdemeanors and felonies. We’re going to explore the way the L.A. County prosecutor uses gang conspiracy laws and merges them with an interpretation of rap culture and explore the tension between prosecuting people under those laws and First Amendment rights. It’s a much more thematic, character-driven way of exploring these stories than how traditional media might pursue.

Tameez: What sort of lessons are you carrying over from your career at HBO that inform that approach?

Antholis: The way I learned storytelling is that character, emotional engagement, visceral engagement were the paramount elements. In every story we do, I try to make sure the story hooks you from the beginning with an emotional connection, with a character connection. I think that’s the primary way. On a day-to-day basis, what I learned at HBO impacts what we’re doing at Crime Story.

Tameez: What kind of a learning curve have you had in starting a project like this?

Antholis: I’m self-funding through an overall producing deal that I have at HBO. I don’t have the resources I had at HBO. I’ve had to learn to find talented people who are hungry for the opportunity to tell stories on this level and are looking for a chance to do just that. Not looking for a career move, necessarily.

You could argue that this is a great career move if your career ambitions are to learn to tell stories in a really compelling way. But it’s not a corporate career move, for sure. So I’ve had to find people who understood the mission, had the abilities to help me execute the mission, and to do it on a daily basis, because I’m trying to publish at least one new story every weekday.

I’m beginning to understand what impacts people. I started out doing it for myself and the people whose opinions matter to me. As I try to institutionalize it and expand the audience reach, there’s a lot for me to learn as well. The big thing is finding the right people to help me realize a vision when I’m going from mega-budgets to micro-budgets, which has probably been the biggest learning curve.

Tameez: What is your editorial workflow like?

Antholis: It starts in different places. There’s a core team of four people right now. My wife [Karen Ann Coburn] was a working journalist for a number of years, and she’s been helping me editorially. Sean Smith, with whom I went to graduate school back in the 1980s, he’s worked in film and television for the last 20 years and he was the first person I went to to help me start this. He and I have spoken conceptually about many things.

At the beginning, I hired a bunch of young screenwriters, people who had recently received their MFAs. Between the four of us, we kick around ideas. Molly Miller spends a ton of time in court. We also talk about ideas outside of the courtroom that we can pursue. Every week, I try to have at least one or two pieces from the L.A. court system, I try to have one or two podcast interviews, and I try to have one expert witness national story. I try to have one justice story a week that explores the lives of people who are trying to avoid that pipeline into incarceration or are trying to get back into civilian life after being incarcerated. Generally thinking about those things as I reach out to people that I know, like Amanda Knox or Paul Butler or Andy Block. Or as I’m talking to Molly about what she’s observing in the courtroom and systemic issues that we want to be covering — I’m usually thinking ahead a week or two ahead about how that’s going to lay out.

Tameez: How are you measuring success and impact?

Antholis: For now, because we don’t have any real forums or an area where people can post, social media engagement isn’t that robust or ongoing. I find that two primary ways of assessing engagement or interest are, first, the newsletter I send out every week. I use MailChimp and I get some metrics back from that on what people click on and what they look at. The second is Google Analytics to see which stories generate the most reader or listener engagement. And then the anecdotal input is from the people whose thoughts about this I trust and I’m interested in, when they call me and engage me and tell me what they think. Those are the primary ways that I assess success.

I made a deal with Josh Marshall and Talking Points Memo. He has anywhere from 15 to 20 million unique pageviews a month. We have a box on the homepage. Most of the traffic, I’d say 85 to 90 percent, comes from the people who read Talking Points Memo. That’s been a really great way to get eyeballs and feel like I’m having an impact out of the gate.

Tameez: Do you have plans to expand Crime Story down the line?

Antholis: I’m looking to spread the word about what we’re doing through the digital media world — my going on podcasts, my having partnerships with digital businesses, platforms, that appreciate what we do and feel that there’s value in bringing what we do to larger audiences.

And then, finally, taking the knowledge and intellectual property that we have and then going out and pitching bigger shows. Television shows, for example — developing bigger-budgeted podcasts, documentaries, and performance pieces based on the material we’re accumulating, that someone like Wondery or Luminary or Gimlet can finance and give us a larger audience and extend our brand out there.

In the immediate sense, that’s my plan for expansion and then we’ll see where we go from there.

Tameez: What is it about true crime that makes it so appealing right now in digital media?

Antholis: Crime has always been a compelling storytelling genre, going back to the Bible and Shakespeare. Transgression is a driver of plot and is compelling to people. That’s been the case in all genres of storytelling.

I think that it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing with podcasts, where crime storytelling drove the growth of the podcast business, beginning with Serial. I think similarly, as you got into this binging television landscape, it’s not a surprise that a show like Making a Murderer gave birth to the kind of concept of binging crime documentaries. If you look at the history of television and radio, The Untouchables and Dragnet kind of launched radio and then television. Those were both crime shows.

I think there was a kind of different watershed in the telling of crime stories, at least in the modern American cultural landscape, with the publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and then the release of the Richard Brooks film based on that book. What you had there was a kind of shift in focus — from plot and kind of traditional journalistic nonfiction storytelling style to a more character, environment, and thematic focus in crime storytelling.

I think you see that in the landscape of crime storytelling in this burgeoning podcast universe. You have the whodunits, the run-and-gun podcasts, ones that are plot-driven. And then you have things like Dirty John that are much more character-driven and atmospheric, and they get their compelling elements from things other than just plot.

That’s the area of the podcast landscape that I’m interested in — that area of how and why stories of crime and justice stories are told. It’s kind of an indirect answer to your question, but that’s what I make of it all. I’m interested in it partly because I think crime is of endless interest to people, but I’m particularly interested in it from a storytelling perspective and looking at the reasons for storytelling and what that tells us about the justice system and what that tells us about the way we approach these stories — with the hope that, in mining these issues, you make the ground more fertile for meaningful reform and begin to approach justice.

Tameez: How do you think about addressing the deep-rooted issues in the criminal justice system, like racism and inequality, in your storytelling in a thoughtful way that doesn’t feel like capitalizing on these real problems happening to real people?

Antholis: One of the facets that we’re focusing on is directly related to that. We’re covering the L.A. court system with our Crime Story L.A. section. We have writers telling Capote-esque, Joan Didion-esque, new journalism-style stories from these trials and hearings that our storytellers are observing.

We go into that mindful of the work that’s been done before us, specifically by people like Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, especially in season 3 of Serial, which was a year in the criminal system in Cleveland. The conclusion that they reached in documenting a year in that courthouse was that the deck is stacked against young black men and the system is structured in a way that perpetuates the mass incarceration that began in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. We begin with that as a kind of backdrop to what we’re studying.

When we go into the courthouse, we’re carrying the lessons from that — lessons from the work of people like Michelle Alexander who wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, from Emily Bazelon, who wrote Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration, James Forman Jr., who wrote Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, and Paul Butler who wrote Chokehold: Policing Black Men. So we go in with those things in the back of our heads.

What are the stories that we’re gravitating towards? There’s a lot of domestic abuse and sexual abuse stories, so we cover those. There’s a lot of stories of the D.A.s and the prosecutors stacking charges and pushing judges to consider counts as felonies that might otherwise be considered as misdemeanors in order to leverage plea agreements with the defendants. There’s a lot of people doing time in the county jail because they can’t afford bail. We had a bail reform bill that was signed by Governor Jerry Brown that was stayed because the bail industry was able to get a proposition on the California ballot to let the public make a decision about bail reform. You’ve got a lot of poor people sitting in jail because they can’t afford bail.

This phenomenon of prosecutors charging people on gang conspiracy charges for benefiting in some way from gang activity with a loose connection — so things like graffiti are charged as gang crimes and rise to the level of a felony. We focused on the trial of a rapper named Drakeo the Ruler, who was acquitted on murder charges and charges of conspiracy to commit murder, but the jury was hung on somewhat vague gang-conspiracy laws, so he’s been in jail and in solitary confinement for the last eight months since he was acquitted on most of the charges against him and is going on trial again for gang conspiracy charges — relating to a murder that the jury found he had nothing to do with. But because his music capitalizes on gang life, in the view and interpretation of the prosecutor, they have linked this murder to him in a way that defies double-jeopardy clauses. We’re very much thinking about those things in picking the things we choose to cover and in interpreting things we observe in the courtroom.

Tameez: How do you expect to make this project sustainable?

Antholis: At least initially, the thing that makes it sustainable is my producing career — what’s underwriting it right now is an overall deal I have with HBO. HBO has given me a producing deal, and I’m using that money to fund the work of Crime Story. My hope is that work generates enough intellectual property that I can sell ideas to places like Luminary or Wondery or Gimlet or other elevated podcast companies, and then use that to develop the intellectual property further to pitch it out into television shows or scripted shows. So I’m using the writers I’m hiring to also develop this intellectual property that I’m pitching into other places that have resources that can let me develop them further and move them up the food chain of media.

I hope that with a large enough following, I can follow in the steps of what Josh Marshall has done at Talking Points Memo and begin to hire more people, so we can be doing more stories on a daily basis and ultimately get people to pay a subscription fee. I also think there’s an opportunity for continuing legal education, digital seminars, digital classes, where writers with whom I have an affiliation or have actually taught dramatic storytelling to lawyers for litigation purposes — we can use this site as a platform to offer those kinds of services.

There are a lot of different ideas, but it begins with the intellectual property creation, because that’s where my experience is and that’s where I think I can feed these ideas back into.

Photo of prison cells at Alcatraz by used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 21, 2020, 2:42 p.m.
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