Inside the Times: “There’s been a relentlessness of bad news and a difficulty in getting outside the 24-hour news cycle”

From a Times Insider column by Sarah Bahr headlined “Stepping Back to Look Ahead”:

In 2018, despite having recently published a series of articles on how climate change was challenging the world’s cities that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times’s architecture critic, felt unsatisfied.

He wanted more. He wanted to find a way to explore the variety of intersecting challenges — such as immigration and housing affordability — that the world’s urban hubs face, as well as how addressing those issues could enable social and economic progress.

So he approached Joseph Kahn, the managing editor of The Times, with a pitch: I want to step back from the news cycle and examine how the challenges that the world’s communities are facing will shape their future. A few years later, that idea became the mission behind Headway, a new Times initiative that uses journalism to evaluate the progress that the world has made toward large-scale goals and interrogates what progress even means.

“Especially during the last several years, there’s been both a relentlessness of bad news and a difficulty in getting outside the 24-hour news cycle,” said Mr. Kimmelman, who serves as Headway’s editor at large. “There’s an appetite for another conversation at another pace.”

In Headway’s first article, which was published in December, Mr. Kimmelman examined the battle to protect Lower Manhattan from rising seas through the lens of climate resiliency. The article was part of Headway’s debut series, “Hindsight,” which followed up on forecasts from decades past to see whether goals had been met. Five of the articles in the series included a multiple-choice question that asked readers to gauge the world’s progress on long-term goals, such as controlling the spread of H.I.V. or reducing carbon emissions, that were expected to have been achieved by 2021. (The results may inspire future Headway projects.)

“I was surprised how pessimistic people were,” said Matt Thompson, Headway’s lead editor. “They answered assuming the worst-case scenario.” He said that most readers answered only one out of five questions correctly.

But Mr. Thompson said he was not discouraged by the low correct-response rate.

“The whole point was to get people to look past their visions of how they expected the future would play out,” he said.

Two additional Hindsight articles — one about the divergent fortunes of wind and solar energy in the United States and another on the urbanization of the megacity Delhi in India — were published online in January. Accompanying them was a letter from Mr. Thompson inviting readers to share their hopes, fears and expectations for 2022, as a way to inform future Headway reporting projects. This month, the Headway team will begin to roll out longer stories, including one that explores efforts to protect a precious natural resource in Africa whose greatest value to humans is contingent upon its remaining in the ground.

Vera Titunik, Headway’s deputy editor, said the team of reporters, editors and visual journalists, who are part of The Times’s special projects group, led by Monica Drake, aims to publish about 10 to 12 major projects per year. She anticipates these will include 5,000-word long-form pieces or ambitious visual journalism as well as shorter stories.

Because the initiative receives nonprofit funding by organizations such as the Ford Foundation, there is no paywall on Headway’s stories, Ms. Titunik said. “It’s the spirit that it’s open to everybody,” she said.

A crucial part of the Headway initiative — and one that is still in the early stages of development — is a community forum known as the Public Square. The team plans to create a collaborative space for readers to exchange ideas about solutions to global challenges both online and through in-person debates and events. Headway hopes to host the events at high schools, museums and universities across the country once coronavirus restrictions are lifted, Terry Parris Jr., Headway’s Public Square editor, said.

“We want to reach as many people as possible, particularly young people,” he said. “We want to step back and see how we can inject ourselves directly into communities that might not otherwise be engaging with us.”

In the coming years, the Headway team hopes to explore topics like the inefficiency of the global waste cycle, the effectiveness of rewilding, the effort to conserve and restore natural physical resources and the innovative ways that cities in the United States have tried to tackle homelessness. One target is to produce another set of Hindsight stories late this year that revisits past hopes and expectations and asks what we can learn from the outcome.

Ultimately, Mr. Thompson said, the Headway team acknowledges that bringing attention to problems does not automatically solve them. But maybe, he says, over the three years the initiative is currently set to last, the team can create a forum to help the world more consciously think its way forward.

“One of the most powerful things journalism can do is help people concentrate their attention over time, not just in a narrow window of what is happening at this moment,” he said. “How is what’s unfolding now going to ripple out for decades to come?”

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