Stories About America As More Than Its Crises

From a Times Insider column by John Otis headlined “America as More Than Its Crises”:

At The New York Times, one of the National desk’s primary goals is to sharpen readers’ understanding of how Americans live and what they believe in. But often, the barrage of breaking news, whether mass shootings or deadly storms, demands reporters’ attention, overshadowing stories of everyday American life.

“We realized as a desk that we often have to be very reactive,” Meghan Louttit, a deputy National editor, said. “We were going to places around the country often when they’re at their worst moments.”

Ms. Louttit and several of her colleagues on the National desk wanted to explore how communities live and interact on more ordinary days. So the desk started Across the Country, a series of articles on the history, people and local fabrics of U.S. towns and cities.

Since the first article was published in September, the series has profiled a town in Washington and its nuclear legacy, a fight over a statue in a shrinking parish in Chicago and the return of trick-or-treating to parts of Detroit. For the latest article, published on Thursday, The Times’s Miami bureau chief, Patricia Mazzei, went to Santa’s Enchanted Forest, a seasonal theme park that has become one of South Florida’s most enduring holiday traditions.

“We’re telling stories outside of major news moments that are still of national interest,” said Chelsea Matiash, a deputy National editor.

In the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, Julie Bosman, The Times’s bureau chief in the city, spoke with members of the Polish and Latino Catholic communities who found common cause in protesting the removal of a beloved Pietà statue from St. Adalbert Church, which the Archdiocese of Chicago closed in 2019. The statue, which those in the neighborhood said had served as a reminder of their history in the community, was moved to another Catholic parish nearby.

While the local press has covered the dispute between parishioners and the archdiocese for months, it was not an obvious candidate for a national news spotlight, which made it a perfect fit for Across the Country.

“One thing that this series does is plucks out stories that may not be what the National desk thinks of as a news story,” Ms. Bosman said. “But this one does have a strong sense of place and history and tells you a little something about one Chicago neighborhood, one Chicago block.”

Creating a sense of place is essential to the series. Every article is visually rich and includes a locator map and photography. Ms. Matiash explained that readers may also notice reporters’ use of first-person language to integrate themselves into the scene.

“We hope our readers will understand that our reporters are out in the country and on the ground,” she said, which can be “hard to convey.”

In the first article, published in September, Mike Baker, The Times’s Seattle bureau chief, wrote about Richland, Wash., which helped produce the radioactive material for the Nagasaki bomb. Evidence of this legacy can be found throughout the town — the menu at one local brewpub features Reactor Core pizza and Plutonium Porter — and has prompted a debate over how to balance civic pride with respect for a grave historical moment.
Reporting from Detroit, Mitch Smith examined how the city was recovering from years of disinvestment, using Halloween, a holiday notorious for arson, as a lens.

“I wanted to use that as a way to ask people about how their city had changed over the years — how they have reclaimed this holiday, how there had been real progress in some areas, but also learn more about what areas issues persisted in,” Mr. Smith said.

The Times has published roughly two Across the Country stories per month since September. Ms. Louttit said that she wanted the series to include a variety of places and states, noting that it was important to establish why a story was being told from a certain location.

“We don’t want to just go to places because there is something quirky going on,” she said. “We want to go to places where we can see something happening or see trends or take the mood of a place that is somehow reflective of something going on across the country.”

Of course, sometimes quirky themes are welcome, as evidenced by an article Mr. Smith wrote about Cuero, Texas, and why the town embraces the turkey. The name of the town’s high school football team is the Fightin’ Gobblers.

Mr. Smith, who has written extensively about serious issues such as gun violence, said he enjoyed the opportunity to tell a fun story about a small-town community and what made it tick.

“It’s a chance to do a different kind of writing,” he said, “and a chance to talk to people who are having a good day.”

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