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Feb. 3, 2016, 10:55 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The New York Times is unearthing unpublished photos from its archives for Black History Month

The Times is grappling with the past, present, and future of its race coverage, encouraging readers to share their own materials and memories and along the way shedding a little light on the journalistic process.

Times-BlackHistoryMonth-commentIn this black and white photo taken by a New York Times staff photographer, two unidentified second graders at Princeton’s Nassau Street Elementary School stand in front of a classroom blackboard. Some background text accompanies the image, pointing to a 1964 Times article about school integration and adding that the story “offered a caveat that still resonates, noting that in the search for a thriving and equal community, ‘good schooling is not enough.'”

Times readers wrote in to ask specifically about the second graders in the photo, so the Times updated the post with a comment form asking readers to share anything they might know about the girl and boy depicted.

Unpublished Black History, a new Times project, is unearthing images from the paper’s vast photo archives that have never been published before (with the exception of a widely circulated headshot of Martin Luther King Jr.) and contextualizing them, both in the grander scheme of history and in the historical coverage by the Times. Each day this month, in honor of Black History Month, the Times is running a photo or series of photos and telling their back stories. It’s sending occasional email updates about the photo project. It will continue these conversations in a broader newsletter, “Race/Related,” that will include elements of the current project along with other Times coverage.

“We didn’t run photos back then the way we do today,” Times photo editor Darcy Eveleigh said. Eveleigh is the curator and creator of The Lively Morgue, a Times Tumblr that surfaces photos from the archives. “The Times had a small photo staff, and if these photographers were lucky, they might get one or two columns in the paper. The words ran long, and sometimes there wasn’t room to include them — it was a word paper back then.”

A few months ago, Times senior editor Dana Canedy approached Eveleigh about leveraging the Times photo archives — roughly five to six million prints and contact sheets and 300,000 sacks of negatives, plus DVDs — for Black History Month. Eveleigh began poring over the photos in search of a set of unpublished images to showcase, with the rule being that the images must have been taken by Times staff photographers (no wire photos allowed, for instance).

Her research turned up surprises: Eveleigh discovered, for instance, that the iconic 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. portrait, which ran the first day of the project but has been published countless times throughout Times history, was actually taken on set during a taping of a roundtable for NBC and was later cropped to look like a headshot, its context lost.

“I tried to pick a range of sports figures, civil rights figures, cultural events, dividing categories up in my brain the way the Times does, with a mix of light and serious moments,” Eveleigh said. “We can only show readers a very small portion of our collection of 10, 12 million images in 29 days.”

Times metro columnist Rachel Swarns and Times national desk deputy editor for digital Damien Cave joined the project, paring down the final collection and writing the text, with others helping figure out how to lay out the images digitally.

The project serves as a way for the Times to grapple with the past, present, and future of its race coverage, encouraging readers to share their own materials and memories and along the way shedding a little light on the journalistic process. (The reader responses on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are a mix: moving praise, but also some searing criticism of the Times’s record on coverage of issues of race and ethnicity.)

“What’s important is not only what you see but also what you don’t, and one of the things that was very striking as we were looking for images was just how many notable people we couldn’t find,” Swarns said (no staff photos of W.E.B. DuBois or Richard Wright, for instance). Some of that was due to limited staffing at the paper at the time and its emphasis on text, but “some of those holes were very likely because of the bias of some of our editors back then.”

“My thought as a digital deputy was to look for new ways to tell stories that is more Timesian, and this was a way to explore not just the stories we publish but also the process, and how things are published and when things aren’t, what gets left on the cutting room floor,” Cave said. “We also wanted to bring in the audience — do you know anything about this? Did you live through this? From the beginning, this was a community-driven project.”

A photo depicting Jackie Robinson in front of a lecture hall addressing a City College Sociology Society meeting, for instance, ran under the title “A Jackie Robinson Mystery.” “The New York Times didn’t publish an article about the ballplayer’s visit to City College that day,” the post reads. “So this morning we turned to you for help.”

As readers wrote in, sharing clippings from papers that had covered the talk, The Times updated the post to reflect the new information. A back-end system that collects reader comments tags these specific asks (e.g., What was going on in this Jackie Robinson photo? Do you know those second graders at the integrated Princeton school?) so editors can grab and share particular responses.

A team of writers, editors, and developers worked together to figure out the right order and rhythm for a project that would work as a frequently updating daily, but will also be a self-contained archive online after this month. The project got an accompanying two-page spread in the print Times after it launched online, and select images and stories will also run in print throughout the month, as well as through the usual social channels. A few online readers have complained about running into the Times paywall when trying to access Unpublished Black History; The Times is working to sort out that issue at the moment, Cave said.

“We’ve gotten hundreds of people writing in on the form, and I don’t even know how many more through social media,” Swarns said. “We’ll continue to put up things we get from readers. We’re interested in engaging our readers in a conversation about black history and about race more broadly, and we’re just getting started. These things have a way of taking you to unexpected places.” (“Thousands” are signed up to receive updates and the forthcoming newsletter, according to Cave.)

“We felt that the voice of this project needed to be contemplative and self-examining rather than congratulatory,” Cave said. “We worked hard to make sure both the introduction and all the posts included a degree of transparency and openness and humility, and we’re hoping it can be a bit of a model for how we think about coverage of race moving forward.”

Two second graders at Nassau Street Elementary School in Princeton, NJ. Photograph by Sam Falk. Used with permission from The New York Times.

POSTED     Feb. 3, 2016, 10:55 a.m.
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