This summer the editors and writers for A Journey through NYC religions tackled the problem of how to introduce historical narratives into the daily news media. To many readers, when you mention history, they hit the snooze button. To many reporters, history is the opposite of news, which by its name means that it should be about something new. In five parts here is what we came up with.
“Retrospectare,” Latin for taking a look back. “Retrospectives,” Journey’s word for our look back at the tremendous religious dramas of New York City, the dramas that have made the city what it is, what New Yorkers are, and, maybe, what it will be. Short version, “Journey Retros.”
Our Retros are artisanal history: tactile, visual, personally tailored for our audiences, practical, and authoritative. We show new pathways to understanding the past so that our readers can craft their present into a continuity with New York City’s biography. Our journalists find a widespread attraction to the past as a way of being modern. “From Steampunk to vintage to the hashtag #tbt, we are constantly looking to incorporate the past into our present,” reports Pauline Dolle. If one can personify a city as a living being with a memory, a soul and a hope, that is what Journey Retros do.
Journey Retros look back at what counts.
Journey Retros give balanced, deeply researched narratives about the religious heroes, villains, events, movements, cultures and trends accompanied by spectacular photos, videos, music, sounds and other archival materials that are authentic to the events, people and times described.
(Discover some of our Retros by tapping the photo montage below.)
For example, in our coverage of the impact on the evangelicals caused by the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge called “The Bridge to the Land of the Devils,” we gently added some restorations to a silent film by the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company that showed the opening day parade across the Williamsburg Bridge.
We could not figure out what music usually accompanied the showing of the video, nor did the various newspaper accounts mention what marches the band played during the festivities. So, we chose a march by John Phillip Sousa that was published a few years before for the opening of Manhattan Beach Park in Brooklyn and was still very popular in 1903. In fact Sousa was very interested in Brooklyn and wrote several marches about it. (He was also interested in religion and wrote the “Salvation Army March” for the organization’s fiftieth anniversary celebration in New York City.) The music was recorded on a gramophone disk in 1898 and transferred to digital media by the Library of Congress.
The archivists preferred to leave the scratchy sound imperfections but we decided to make some slight filtering and sound adjustments to more closely approximate the original sound. Our photos used in the feature were also archival to the period, and several have never been published since their original usage.
The narrative is based on archival and scholarly material that has never before been brought together into a wider picture of the history of evangelicals in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. In other words our readers gained a never before experience of the spectacle of this part of New York City’s past.
Will it last?
For most of Journey features we challenge ourselves to do something that will have a long shelf life. We admire the philosophy of the artist Mako Fujimura who says his goal is to do art that will last 500 years. Can we do journalism this way?
A step toward making journalism that has a long shelf-life is to set coverage of contemporary religious activities and personalities within Journey Retrospectives. We don’t do this for nostalgia or to claim that the religious culture of today derives from the past. Rather, we show that New Yorkers around the corner, down the street and in our neighborhood have always asked great existential questions at different points in their lives. They are doing so now, and likely will do so again.