Once upon a time, a great newspaper called The Wall Street Journal (not to be confused with the product currently on sale at your local newsstand) regularly published what it called "Column One" stories -- pieces that put social, political and economic trends into human terms. With a combination of global reporting and multiple short profiles, the WSJ gave its readers a uniquely human dimension to a changing American society.
That WSJ is long gone, of course. Its tragically-altered front page now packages news stories and features in a conventional format and reduces stories to bare-bones accounts. The WSJ has all but abandoned its mission to offer unique human-interest journalism on important topics to an audience starved for it.
Today in the NYT, reporter Michael Luo revives the form in eloquent fashion with his look at a painful and growing phenomenon: Americans who have lost hope that they will ever work again. These are people not even counted in unemployment figures because they're not even actively looking for jobs.
To Luo's credit, he hasn't just done the basic talking-to-experts reporting. He has also traveled the country in search of real-life examples, and delivered four powerful portraits that tell his story better than any professor or number-cruncher. It's ground-level reporting we need more than ever right now, and it's to the NYT's credit that it still finances a form of journalism rapidly becoming obsolete.
Luo is a young, Harvard-educated national-desk reporter who joined the NYT in 2003. His beat is to cover the human impact of the current economic crisis. Even as news coverage constricts, Luo -- a star in the making -- should be allowed by his editors to roam the country and continue his exploration. We need his coverage, as an industry and as a nation, just as much as we require on-scene reporting of war zones or politicians.
Read Luo's story in the paper. It will remind you, among other things, that all the slide shows, podcasts and videos in the world don't substitute for the power of the written word.