How the New York Times took poverty reporting beyond the statistics

by Bailey Bates & Mariah Botkin


During the first year of lockdowns following broad outbreaks of COVID-19 in the U.S. Jason DeParle approached community director Sona Patel with an idea. What if poverty coverage was more personal? Instead of throwing abstract numbers and figures around, what if stories showed people living under the poverty line? People clearly had stories to tell during such uncertain times.  Thus began an engaged journalism project.

Organization Background: The New York Times is an American newspaper based in New York City dedicated to deeply reported independent journalism. It is also regarded as a national newspaper of record, and it has a worldwide readership. The NYT’s two key players concerning this project were Sona Patel and Jason DeParle. Sona leads the Times’ efforts around crowdsourcing and reader-sourced reporting, so she is usually brought into the reporting process early on to find what the needs of the reporter are. For this project, she worked closely with Jason DeParle, a senior writer at the Times who focuses on poverty reporting, helping him promote callouts to reach a different audience.


Project Goals: The team from the Times wanted to find and report on more personal stories about people living under the poverty line. The team’s main goals were:

  • To learn more about and better understand people living under the poverty line.
  • To make connections with and build a database of people living under the poverty lines to benefit further poverty coverage.

Project Resources: The team worked with intermediaries. The feedback from these intermediaries was invaluable in the question development process. Additionally, the team had a limited amount of time to work on this project, which affected what they could and couldn’t do.

Tools & Technology: The Times’ initial callout sought people to interview. Fresh EBT was the primary source for reaching people living under the poverty line. WhatsApp was also used as an alternative method for connecting with community members.

Impact: Sona and her team gauged the project’s impact based on reader response. Commenters thanked the NYT team for approaching issues that people in poverty face in a more personal way. According to Sona, some even wrote that they appreciated the coverage because they’d lived under the poverty line previously. It was clear that the Times’ readership was interested in stories that covered marginalized communities on a more engaged level.

The callout through Fresh EBT allowed the team to connect with a high volume of people. Fresh EBT collected more than 1k responses, and about 60% of respondents wanted to share their contact information with the NYT.

This project also changed how the Times approached callouts as a whole. Going forward, the Times no longer put callouts behind its paywall, broadening the audiences that it could reach.

Here’s How it Happened

During the first year of lockdowns following broad outbreaks of COVID-19 in the U.S. Jason DeParle approached community director Sona Patel with an idea. What if poverty coverage was more personal? Instead of throwing abstract numbers and figures around, what if stories showed people living under the poverty line? People clearly had stories to tell during such uncertain times.  Thus began an engaged journalism project.

Research & Writing Questions: Before the NYT team tried to reach out to anyone, they went about crafting interview questions with care and intention. The team wrote questions about a broad range of topics: childcare, unemployment, housing, etc. Then, Sona sent the questions on to intermediaries — social workers, foodbank administrators, economists — to make sure they were sensitive and relevant.  The intermediaries would send feedback in response. Then the questions would be revised and resent. This back-and-forth process went on for a few weeks.

The Initial Callout: The NYT team started reaching out with a callout asking for people interested in talking with Jason. It was published in the paper and on the publication’s site. It didn’t take long for the team to realize that the Times’ readership didn’t overlap with the community they were trying to reach for interviews. The team simply wasn’t getting the response it had been looking for.

Partnering with Fresh EBT: So the team pivoted. They partnered with Fresh EBT, an app used to manage food stamps benefits. The callout was adapted to work within the app. It became a survey, and people interested in giving interviews about their experiences could opt to be contacted afterward. According to Sona, the team received tons of responses from the Fresh EBT survey.

Other Outreach Initiatives: The team also had another option available for those who may not have used Fresh EBT; people interested in giving interviews were encouraged to contact Jason through WhatsApp if they didn’t have any other way to participate.The Outcome: The responses that Jason received from these outreach initiatives helped the NYT team build a diverse database of people living under the poverty line who were willing to talk about their experiences. This became a resource for Jason’s reporting. The team also learned about new, effective ways to connect with a community via callouts.

Here’s What Worked

1. Carefully crafted questions with intermediaries

Sona and her team sent their questions to intermediaries– those close to the issue, such as food bank administrators, social workers, and research institutions that focus on medicare/medicaid, food stamps, and social security – and then used the intermediaries’ feedback to refine questions to ensure accuracy and sensitivity. The process took several weeks. 

For example, two questions Sona’s team were “Has the pandemic caused you to fall behind on your mortgage or rent?” and “Have you experienced eviction or closure, or are you in danger of doing so?” After collaborating with Princeton’s Eviction Lab, they changed the question to “Did you try to negotiate with your landlord about rent during the pandemic, and if so, how did that conversation go?” This process of reshaping questions allowed them to ask things they had not initially been thinking of to get the strongest anecdotes. 

2. Thought of broad categories of questions

Sona and her team didn’t go into the reporting knowing exactly what they wanted to write about, so they focused on asking questions based on broader themes and categories. For example, her team broadly asked how people were dealing with not having enough money, which led to powerful anecdotes they couldn’t have planned otherwise, such as individuals attempting to sell their eggs or blood. 

“These are the types of stories we wouldn’t ask specific questions around,” Sona said. “So that’s why we opted to go the broader question route so that we could just get people talking, and we could follow up with them based on their like, individual experiences and stories.”

3. Considered accessibility when promoting the form

This project varied from what the Times usually does in terms of promotion. Typically, the Times promotes callouts on its homepage or social media sites, meaning it reaches people who read the Times. Sona and her team wanted to go beyond the Times’ core audience and make the callout as accessible as possible. It reached out to audiences through Fresh EBT and WhatsApp alongside the initial callout, broadening its reach.

“This particular project was the impetus for making sure that all our callouts appear in front of the registration and paywall,” Sona said.

Here’s What Could Have Worked Better

1. Figuring out how to keep readers engaged in reporting

Sona was struck by the large number of commenters who expressed their gratitude in illuminating an important topic. She has continued to wonder, though: how can we keep these readers who were interested in the narrative reporting coming back when the NYT covers similar topics later on? Some ideas she has brainstormed include a newsletter, events, enabling push notifications in the app when a story is published on poverty, and encouraging readers to follow Jason’s social media but little has been done to directly tackle this challenge.

2. Looking for other avenues to promote the callout

The Times very rarely does any in-person engagement around their projects, but after this specific project, Sona thought about how she and her team could have thought about ways to reach people IRL.
“We wanted to hear from people who receive assistance at food banks,” Sona said. “Maybe they go pick up boxes of food. Could we have printed a flier that had a QR code or something where people could have scanned it and our survey would have popped up? Could that flier have been promoted or posted at a food bank site? Or could it have been inserted in Food Bank box deliveries?

3. Collaborating across departments

Sona thought about how her team could have collaborated with various NYT departments to produce video content of survey respondents (such as day-in-the-life videos or selfie videos), as well as how the project could have integrated graphics. Sona also thought about working with the events team to host virtual events that connected readers with Jason, story subjects, and intermediaries to discuss the process of finding stories and to hear more from those affected.

4. Reaching out to the most affected groups

In their story, the NYT reported how Black people and Latinos are more than twice as likely as white people to be poor. Sona recognizes that a concerted effort should have gone into reaching these groups that were being disproportionately affected.

“We did not think about what are the groups that reach Latinos, what are the groups that reach African Americans,” Sona said. “But we could have and we should have.”

Here’s What Else You Should Know

The power of partnership for callouts: Reporters often solely rely on intermediaries to find subjects, but that risks a kind of selection bias creeping into stories. The innovative collaboration between the NYT’s and Fresh EBT to promote the callout allowed people to willingly share their stories and let that inform the reporting. Doing so also meant slowing down, finding nuance, and building relationships.

Learn More

To learn more, feel free to reach out to Sona Patel on Twitter (@sona).

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