The project, which started in 2020, aims to direct readers toward beautifully crafted stories they might otherwise overlook.
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The New York Times publishes around 150 original pieces of journalism a day, on average. So in January 2020, to shine a light on some of the publication’s most absorbing, off-the-beaten-path reporting, The Times introduced The Great Read, a column that designates one article each weekday as an editor’s pick — a paragon of nuanced, sparkling writing that readers know will engage them and make them care, no matter the subject.
Readers often come to The Times for the latest news, but The Great Read is one way the publication showcases its narrative storytelling, says Claire Gutierrez, a longtime story editor for The New York Times Magazine who took over as editor of The Great Read in January 2021. To make her selections, she reads dozens of articles each week, searching for quirky tales that will bring delight, depth and often a new perspective to screens and inboxes. The Great Read article appears near the top of The Times’s home page each weekday and is sent out in a newsletter.
Featured articles can come from any section, from Sports to International to the magazine. Recent Great Reads have traced the history of the Staten Island home of a 90-year-old former schoolteacher that houses one of the nation’s largest collections of African American historical artifacts; provided a first-person look inside a new Star Wars hotel at Walt Disney World; and unraveled the tale of true crime-obsessed philanthropists who pay to solve cold cases with DNA databases when the police can’t afford to. A recent Great Read told the story of GuiYing Ma, who moved with her husband 6,500 miles from their home in northeastern China to New York City — where she was brutally attacked and killed.
In a recent conversation, Ms. Gutierrez shared how she chooses articles, the X factor that makes for an engaging read and some of her favorite picks. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What makes a Great Read?
It’s narrative writing that’s elegant, jumps off the page and isn’t necessarily tied to the day’s headlines. These are stories with a beginning, middle and end, with a narrative style or topic that feels rich and surprising. Sometimes, it’s a profile that stands out; sometimes, it’s a personal essay or a piece of criticism.
Do you choose articles before or after they publish?
Ideally, before. I comb through The Times’s content management system, where reporters write stories, desk by desk to see what’s in the works. It’s best when a reporter or editor reaches out to me to say, “Hey, we have this story coming up, what do you think?” Sometimes, it’s perfect for a Great Read. And sometimes, I can suggest edits to make it work.
How involved are you with the editing of the articles?
More often than not, the stories come to me already edited. But if editors loop me in earlier in the process rather than later, then there’s a chance to try a slightly different lead, or to not give all the information in the fifth paragraph, but to delay it a bit and give the story more of a narrative or playful structure.
Do you consider visual elements when you’re making your selections?
The goal of The Great Read has always been to keep the focus on the writing — there are other places on the site where we can highlight photo or video components of a story.
Is there a minimum word count for a Great Read?
I generally look at stories over 1,000 words. It’s been an adjustment coming from the magazine, where I was dealing with 12,000-word stories, and a short story was 3,500 words! But you can do a really rich narrative story in 2,500 words that doesn’t require the same commitment from the reader.
Do you try to balance picks from desks across the newsroom?
I try to be conscious of it, and I do track it. I think having lots of variety is more pleasurable for readers because then they don’t know what to expect.
What are a few of your favorite Great Reads?
Ellen Barry wrote about a dying tree, which stood on the site of an awful episode in Vermont history, that was being chopped down. She wrote about how it affected the community, which was surprisingly moving. Readers were moved by it and spent a lot of time with it, which reinforced that even these small stories can have a great impact. And Jason Horowitz recently did a profile of an Italian princess, and every detail was charming. I love when we can highlight a playful piece like that. The New York Times has a reputation for being serious, so when we can highlight stuff like that in the paper, it’s always great.
How We Choose The Great Read – The New York Times