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Twenty-two million U.S. jobs were lost in March and April because of the pandemic — as many as the total in the Great Depression and Great Recession combined.
To examine the human impact of those numbers, The Times’s National desk collaborated with 11 local news organizations across the country to tell the stories of unemployed Americans in their own words. The accounts of a dozen people, including an inventory coordinator in Carlisle, Pa.; an Army veteran in Augusta, Ga.; and a bartender in Las Vegas, appear in “Out of Work in America,” a special section in today’s newspaper.
The two of you came up with the idea in April with the National editor, Marc Lacey. How did it originate?
CLINTON CARGILL It was immediately clear that the economic effects of the pandemic would be far-reaching, and we needed a way to address the longer term issues. Marc Lacey has a great habit of reminding editors that we are writing not just for today’s or tomorrow’s audience, but for whoever is reading a century from now. Jia Lynn said we needed to hear from people as directly as possible.
JIA LYNN YANG Back when I was a business reporter I’d covered the financial crisis in 2008 and the Great Recession that followed. It struck me that we were heading into something at least as dire, and this would have consequences for our nation that we’d be living with for years to come. So it was important for the National Desk to document in a big way how this was upending people’s lives. What did these job losses feel like from the ground? How were people managing?
The National Desk has more than 40 reporters scattered around the country, but over the last year Mr. Lacey has prioritized partnerships with local news organizations, as with this project.
YANG We wanted to showcase the work of local news organizations, which are getting fewer in number, unfortunately, and yet are doing such important work covering their communities. We also wanted a cross section of the country, so you would get a feel for the commonalities in the experience of the downturn but also local distinctions around the types of industries people work in.
CARGILL Local news organizations have a special authority in the communities they cover. They know the big employers, the community groups, the state and local policies that make all the difference for people seeking unemployment. We thought they could bring some of that depth at the individual scale.
I got to make the initial call to a lot of editors. Some of our partners were navigating furloughs and even layoffs in the course of the reporting. That made it very real to me how important it is that we invest in local news.
With more than 12 million people unemployed in the nation, why did local reporters return to the same dozen — often over a few months — at different stages?
YANG The idea was to capture not just one snapshot but to do more sustained work tracking a person’s highs and lows. For anyone who’s ever lost a job, it can be such a grueling emotional experience, with very bad days followed by a day where everything turns up for you. We wanted to show that larger arc, and maybe stick around with some long enough that they actually found a job.
CARGILL One of our subjects, Marina Moya in Victoria, Texas, talks about having a tire blow out shortly after she was laid off and her husband was furloughed. No money coming in, and unforeseen expenses: That is what joblessness looks like. It’s a compounding problem. Evetta Applewhite talks about the toll it took on her sense of self-worth. That is what unemployment feels like. You can scratch at the surface of those issues in a single conversation, but we want readers to feel it on a deeper level. That’s why telling these stories over time is so meaningful.
You chose to preserve their words instead of folding them into a traditional news article. Why?
YANG As a reader, I have been struck by how often I am moved by hearing someone’s voice more directly, and in longer waves than you sometimes get with a quote here and there. During a time when so many of us are isolated, it felt like this format would feel more intimate, too, like sitting in someone’s living room hearing them talk about what was happening in their lives. I have been craving that kind of emotional connection in stories right now: that sense of deep listening.
What do you hope readers get from this project?
YANG At a time when we are so cut off from one another, I hope readers feel a sense of empathy and connection. For those who have been blessed enough to keep their jobs, I hope they get a better sense of what it feels like for those who have been less fortunate. For those who have lost work, you are hardly alone.
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