What Unifies the National Desk

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No day is dull on the National desk. We arrive at work — which now means striding a few steps from our beds to our laptops — and the barrage begins. Will it be a raging wildfire today that occupies us? Or another grim police shooting? Will coronavirus cases surge in a new part of America? Or will cars line up by the scores, their occupants in search of food? Reporting on all this, and making sense of it, is what we do.

Nobody who covers national news in 2020 is at a loss for meaning in the work. It overwhelms us all, coming by morning, by noon and by night. Earlier in the year, before we left the newsroom for our homes amid the coronavirus outbreak, we gathered as a staff to put our mission into words, part of an effort to focus our resources on what matters most.

How do you get a team of 45 busy journalists scattered around the country who do a wide range of jobs — breaking news, telling deep narrative stories, building ambitious visual articles, tracking coronavirus cases — to agree on a unified mission statement? In our roles as national editor and the desk’s director of operations, we held a few brainstorms with our colleagues in New York, Miami, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and Albuquerque, asking both serious and icebreaker questions:

  • “What voice or tone should the National desk speak to you in?”

  • “What role could the National desk play in your family/friends’ lives?”

  • “What would be on the National desk tombstone?” (Don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere.)

Then we sifted through the answers to come up with some key themes that define us. Our mission statement, we believe, captures the essential work that Mike Baker is doing in the Pacific Northwest. He covered the virus outbreak at nursing homes in Seattle and then traveled to Portland, Ore., to cover the protests against police abuse.

Similarly, John Eligon showed the inequality of the virus by riding a bus with essential care workers in Detroit. Then he traveled to Minneapolis to cover George Floyd’s death, which came six years after John and his colleagues had covered the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown’s death.

With our mission in mind, Julie Bosman, who was also in Ferguson, recently returned to her hometown, Kenosha, Wis., to cover the unrest there over the shooting of Jacob Blake. Before that, Manny Fernandez and Audra Burch had teamed up for a searching profile of Mr. Floyd.

Another national correspondent, Mitch Smith, began tracking every single case of coronavirus infections in the country, to provide readers with much-needed hyperlocal data. That effort has turned into a 70-person operation jointly run by Graphics and National. By tracking the cases, The Times has been out front in reporting on racial disparities in infection rates, and on outbreaks in nursing homes, prisons, meatpacking plants and other clusters. But we felt that this data should not be kept to ourselves. We released it to the world, so that government officials, scientists, local health agencies and other news organizations would have access.

Elizabeth Dias was doing mission-driven work when she delved into the reasons behind white evangelicals’ support for President Trump, as was Tim Arango when he traversed the country interviewing Americans who had once been middle class, but now found themselves hungry.

Credit…The New York Times; photograph by Petrina Watkins
Credit…The New York Times; photograph by Petrina Watkins

We could go on and on. There is not a member of our staff who is not contributing to our mission. So here’s the mission statement, which we’ve had printed on coffee cups and distributed to our staff. What better way to refocus every morning on our essential role in this extraordinary year:

We create journalism that is revelatory and impactful, that is rooted in on-the-ground reporting and that deepens our understanding of America.

  • Readers — both existing and future — are central to how we pick and write stories. We seek a wide variety of perspectives from different racial and ethnic backgrounds that reflect communities across the country, and we’re always learning from those we encounter.

  • We out-hustle, we out-think and we out-write our competition. We dig deeply and hold leaders accountable. Collaboration is a key to our journalism, both within The Times and with local news outlets.

  • We write with authority and intelligence, but we’re also conversational. We realize the power of visual journalism and are innovative in new ways to tell stories.

Now, as you can imagine, we’ve got to get back to work.

Marc Lacey, a former correspondent based in Washington, Nairobi, Mexico City and Phoenix, has been the national editor of The Times since 2016. Shreeya Sinha recently wound up a three-year stint as the national director of operations and audience.

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