On a recent cover of the New York Times “At Home” section, a mother and her adult child fold their hands. The older hands are weathered, the younger ones have brightly colored tattoos. Two generations come together who have pulled through the common experience of the past year. Under the illustration, a headline captures the feeling: “We stretch out our hand and hold on.”
While the world endured lockdowns and other coronavirus restrictions for over a year, that mix of empathy and hope defines At Home, a section that offers a sense of solidarity along with practical advice for readers who suddenly faced the greatest Part of life mostly within four walls.
With pandemic restrictions easing, readers tiptoe or out into the world, and the Times covering the many facets of the reopening, the weekly home page of the Sunday Times is drawing to a close. The final issue comes out on May 30th, although a digital iteration continues online.
At Home “was really born from that moment when we all needed guidance and help,” said Amy Virshup, editor of At Home. “We tried to create a supportive culture in the section itself.”
The section began as an attempt to provide comfort in an abruptly distorted way of life and to fill in the void left by a travel pressure section on break. (Ms. Virshup is also the travel editor.) A group of designers and editors – many of whom had never met before the lockdown – volunteered to produce Layouts and content in addition to her regular duties at The Times.
The area they designed developed into a resource for many readers that gives tips on cooking, entertainment, parenting, wellness, home office and simply constructive pastime.
“From the beginning there has been a clear reader need for distraction, empathy, and understanding,” said Sam Sifton, The Times deputy editor-in-chief who oversees the At Home team.
The Section also published observations and suggestions from readers, whose personal considerations in many cases seemed universal. In response to an article on listening to family members, one reader wrote that reading the story was “like a warm hug.”
For the At Home team, maintaining a connection with readers has been an ongoing goal. “One of the things we did every week is this activity where you physically interact with the newspaper,” said Ms. Virshup.
Readers were given instructions on how to turn the newspaper into items like Halloween masks or piñatas, and then sent photos of their finished projects. In some cases, the team received dozens of images.
“There were a lot of great elements in the section that could potentially lead to a new section or be used elsewhere in the paper,” said Tom Jolly, associate editor in charge of the print paper.
At home, “got to the moment because it was a moment,” added Mr Jolly, referring to the impact the pandemic had on everyone. “That is one of the things that made the section unique: It was a touchstone for this experience.”
The feedback from readers – both positive and negative – continuously helped the team to refine its offers. “The mental health tips are great – the list of superlatives is endless,” wrote one reader. Another was “horrified” by the plates of untouched food in a dirty sink depicted on a lid.
“I love to see the circle that readers see themselves in in our coverage,” said Mr Sifton. “And we see them and assign a cover to allow this to continue.”
The bi-weekly At Home digital newsletter, authored by Melissa Kirsch, assistant editor for culture and lifestyle, continues – it will switch to At Home and Away this week and will relate to travel – as will her monitoring of At Home Inbox. Reader emails conveyed “a feel for the global community of people who were mostly at home during this time,” said Ms. Kirsch.
The newsletter invites you to write and often contains your thoughts or answers to requests. A friendly downward direction simply says, “Tell us.”
This approach has also proven itself in the print sector, as the steady influx of letters shows. And while the section is dropped, the work that resulted from that ethos is a point of pride for the At Home team.
“We bet we’d be radically empathic with the reader,” said Sifton. “And I think that was a good bet.”