New York Times portraits resonate coast to coast

This fall, Chelsea Hand, a high school freshman in Yamhill, Ore., was asked to read a newspaper for 10 minutes a day for a journalism class. That's when she discovered that her state's main paper, The Oregonian, was reprinting "Portraits of Grief" from The New York Times - short tributes that honor the victims of the World Trade Center attacks.

While respectful of the people who lost their lives on Sept. 11, Chelsea and her peers started tiring of the media coverage of the tragedy after a few weeks - it was in all the commercials, it was all over the news. It made the events feel less relevant than they had at first, especially 3,000 miles away.

Then she read the profiles - like the one about the man who was a little goofy and loved to buy bagels for everyone, including his grown daughter - and her attitude changed.

"It just sort of made me realize that this is really happening. That all these people died, and that they're real people, and that people's families are going through a hard time," she says. "Some of the people they talk about" - like the bagel man - "remind me of my family."

It's been almost three months since the attacks on the US. TV programs have returned to their regular schedules, and even some news is back to being sensational and trivial. But the portraits continue daily in the Times - and in The Oregonian, which picks them up from a Times news service and publishes them on page A2, the second page of the paper.

They usually appear a few days after the Times runs them, and in fewer numbers. The Oregonian has published about 1000 since Sept. 17; the Times, between 1200 and 1300 since Sept. 15 (www.nytimes.com/portraits).

New Yorkers talk about how the 150-to-200 word write-ups are hard to put down, but readers in the Northwest are equally engaged. The Oregonian found that out when its ombudsman, Dan Hortsch, asked in an Oct. 7 column if people were still interested. He explained that the paper was trying to decide how long to stick with the remembrances. They received about 200 responses in the next two weeks. People from cities and towns said the profiles helped them understand how much was lost, and to see that they weren't that different from the businessmen, chefs, and public servants on the opposite coast.

"Reading the details of these people's lives has helped readers here understand that the people in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are much like everybody else. More than one letter-writer has said, 'I never really understood why people want to live there,' " says Mr. Hortsch.

And they are still voluntarily responding, he says, which should not be underestimated. "As you know, getting positive comments happens less often than getting negative," he says.

That's the same thing Jonathan Landman, Metro editor at the Times, says of the response. "It's been staggering, really. I've never really seen anything like it. People mostly write and say 'Thank you,' which, as you know, is unusual."

Chelsea reads the profiles a few times a week, and last month she wrote her own letter to The Oregonian, which plans to continue publishing them at least into 2002. "Reading about what the families went through added a taste of reality," she wrote. "The saddest one to me was 'Like a kid, with bagels.' I can connect my father with hers and it makes me sad but it also makes me grateful that my father is still here.... I am sorry for the families who lost someone, and to the families that didn't, don't take your family for granted."

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