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Jan. 30, 2018, 11:35 a.m.
Reporting & Production

With “Times in Person,” The New York Times puts its national journalists in front of local crowds

“If you parachute into a place, whether it’s a foreign place or your own country, and think you’ll never go back, you’re not accountable to people in the same way.”

Last October, The New York Times published a story about a steelworker named Shannon Mulcahy. The Indianapolis factory where she worked was closing, and about 300 workers would lose their jobs.

“For months, Shannon kept working as the factory shut down around her,” wrote Farah Stockman, a Times national correspondent. “She struggled with straightforward questions: Should she train workers from Mexico for extra pay or refuse? Should she go back to school or find a new job, no matter what it paid? And she was forced to confront a more sweeping question that nags at many of the 67 percent of adults in this country who do not have a four-year college degree: What does my future look like in the new American economy?”

It might seem a little strange to write about the possible future of somebody you will never see again. But in the case of Stockman and Mulcahy, that wasn’t the case. In December, Stockman was back in Indianapolis (her ninth visit of the year) to moderate a public panel about the future of blue-collar work. Mulcahy was a member of that panel. “A lot of people came just to see what had happened to her, if she had a new job,” Stockman said.

Stockman’s return to Indianapolis was part of Times in Person, an initiative that the paper’s national desk launched last year to send Times reporters back into communities they’ve already covered and engage with local readers. The events are tied into Reader Center (the initiative that essentially took the place of the paper’s public editor last spring) and are part of a national strategy that includes regional reporting by correspondents, issue reporting, and in-depth enterprise reporters like Stockman.

“This project is an effort to take the in-depth journalism that we’ve done over the past year out into the country,” said Marc Lacey, national editor. So far, six stories have been part of the Times in Person project: Sabrina Tavernise’s story on the vandalism of a mosque in Fort Smith, Arkansas; Audra Burch’s story on hate crimes in Olathe, Kansas; Monica Davey’s story on immigration in West Frankfort, Illinois; Amy Harmon’s story on climate change education in Athens, Ohio; and Trip Gabriel’s story on small businesses in Jackson, Michigan.

“Instead of editors sitting in New York City deciding on issues that we ought to be covering, we’re tapping much more closely into communities, asking them about the big issues that they think a big national newspaper like the Times ought to be exploring,” Lacey said, adding that one thing he’s wanted to do since he took on the national editor position in 2016 is “not just have reporters in the big urban centers.” (In 2017, the Times added correspondents in Albuquerque and Pittsburgh; Lacey said he has “dreams” of additional bureaus that he’s not ready to announce yet.)

“If you parachute into a place, whether it’s a foreign place or your own country, and think you’ll never go back, you’re not accountable to people in the same way,” Stockman said.

The events are promoted through a mixture of promo boxes integrated into the online versions of the original stories, separate online stories, and Facebook events. The Times began promoting the in-person Indianapolis event, which was held on December 7, in mid-October shortly after Stockman’s story ran, with Facebook event posts (where readers could RSVP) as well as a separate RSVP page and online sidebars. Stockman publicized the event again on December 1, a week before it happened, with a post on Reader Center. The event itself was held at the headquarters of WFYI, Indianapolis’ public radio station. “As soon as we’d started talking about this, I’d said we needed to have a local partner,” Stockman said. “Otherwise, it’s like throwing a party in a town you don’t live in.” The Polis Center was also a partner, and staff from WFYI and Polis helped find Stockman panelists and helped promote the event. Around 60 people attended. On December 29, Stockman posted an event follow-up post to Reader Center, and the Times’ The Daily podcast revisited the story that same day.

The Times plans to do more in-person events in 2018. “People were thrilled to meet a New York Times correspondent and to get beyond viewing the Times as an institution,” Lacey said. “We got a lot of positive feedback from people who said they appreciated the Times more, or even if they didn’t agree with us, they respected that we showed up and listened to them.” While “everybody who showed up had an opinion on the big issues of the day, on the media, and on The New York Times, and it ran the gamut from big fans to critics,” the events are meant to focus on the specific issues in the stories (immigration, the future of work, and so on), not on The Media as an institution. There hasn’t been heckling, and “these are not yelling and screaming events.”

While Stockman’s panel focused on solutions, she wasn’t in the position of prescribing them, she said. “The economy as it is is going to leave a whole lot of people behind,” she said. “We’re not going to solve the problem. But we write about the problem and we can give a platform to people who think they have solutions, or convene a forum of people who are experts or might put forward some ideas. This, to me, was a new form of journalism, in that we were giving a platform, in a public space, to an important discussion, and letting the people in that community come up with solutions and questions. I was just the moderator.”

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Jan. 30, 2018, 11:35 a.m.
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