February 4, 2013

House of Cards” is primarily about politics — old-style power and manipulation in the capital — but it’s also about journalism, and how the new replaces the old, over and over.

Spoilers throughout: In the 13-episode first season of the original Netflix series, journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) rises quickly from metro reporter at The Washington Herald to be offered the job of chief White House correspondent, which she turns down.

“The White House is where news goes to die,” Zoe tells her editor. The position used to be prestigious “when I was in ninth grade. Now it’s a graveyard.”

When she tells the executive editor she doesn’t want the promotion, he insults her. She responds, “Remember, these days, when you’re talking to one person, you’re talking to a thousand.” Soon, there is a hashtag defending her: #gozoe.

During a CNN interview with Soledad O’Brien, Zoe describes the tension with her boss over publishing quickly and carefully: “It can be frustrating at times. He makes you double and triple check things and you want to get the news out the moment you have it. And he makes you rewrite until it’s perfect. But that’s what makes the Herald the Herald.”

Zoe was supported by the paper’s owner, a Katharine Graham-like character who tells her executive editor, “We don’t need people who follow the rules, we need people with personality. We want Zoe’s face, her energy, we want to get her on TV as much as possible; it helps us cut through the noise.”

After Zoe leaves the paper, the executive editor defends himself to the owner:

Zoe Barnes, Twitter, blogs, enriched media — they’re all surface, they’re fads. They aren’t the foundation this paper was built on and they aren’t what will keep it alive. We have a core readership that thirsts for hard news. Those are the people I work 80 hours a week for. And I won’t be distracted by what’s fashionable.

The owner hands him his resignation letter.

Zoe chooses to work at the online news site Slugline. “Six months from now, Slugline will be what Politico was a year and a half ago. Everyone at Politico reads it because Slugline’s breaking stories before they are,” Zoe tells her source and lover, U.S. Rep. Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey). “Everyone’s a free agent, they write whatever they want, wherever they are. Most people write from their phones.”

Showrunner Beau Willimon explains the name Slugline by email: “‘Slug’ is a journalistic term with play on deadline. Also the ‘slug’ is what you call the locale and time of a scene in a screenplay, I.e. INT – OVAL OFFICE – DAY. And finally, we liked the pugilistic connotation of slug as in I slugged him in the face.” (Willimon also said on Twitter that his time as a columnist for the Columbia Spectator inspired an early plot twist involving a student newspaper.)

While at the Herald, Zoe pushed her bosses to let her post news more quickly and resisted the layers of editing that slowed the process. But at Slugline, she is surprised when her new boss says, “You don’t have to send me things before you post. The goal here is for everyone to post things faster than I have a chance to read ‘em. If you’re satisfied with the article, just put it up. … Whatever hoops the Herald made you jump through, let them go.”

Actress Constance Zimmer (right) plays Janine Skorsky. She told The Hollywood Reporter, “We were filming in the Baltimore Sun’s building, and half of their offices were closed down. It’s very depressing.”

Over the next few episodes, we see Slugline grow. The office adds desks and staff; it starts to look less like a student lounge and more like BuzzFeed. After Zoe recruits her former rival, the Herald’s chief White House correspondent, to work with her at Slugline, we see the editing process become more journalistic. In the season’s final episodes, the two women work together and talk with their editor about sourcing and the big story they hope to break.

Slugline has become Politico. What was new becomes old. And the next new thing will certainly take its place.

Related: Actress Kate Mara did not talk to reporters for the role | Actor Sebastian Arcelus watched New York Times documentary “Page One” as preparation for playing an editor | The show rented space at The Baltimore Sun to build a fake news set

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Julie Moos (jmoos@poynter.org) has been Director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications since 2009. Previously, she was Editor of Poynter Online (2007-2009) and Poynter Publications…
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