Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and offers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.
As of early 2020, The New York Times’ 36 Hours column had been running for nearly two decades. The series, one of the longest running in the Travel section, provides readers with a recommended itinerary for a weekend trip to a bustling location. It is, by nature, destination-oriented and offers travel guides for a variety of places such as Berlin, Milwaukee and Yokohama; therefore, it was the first column to go on hiatus when the Covid-19 pandemic began.
Now, 36 Hours is finally back. And to kick off the reboot, the editors chose a challenging and particularly nuanced location: New York.
The return of the column has been long awaited. During the height of Covid, the travel bureau focused primarily on news and service journalism related to the pandemic: how and where to travel safely, how to navigate a country’s changing restrictions, and how to spend leisure time at home. But through a combination of site metrics and reader feedback, Travel editors noted that readers were still interested in far-flung travel articles.
“Little by little we started to add stories back: domestic first, travel nearby, vacation-at-home type items,” said Amy Virshup, editor of Travel. “And we have gradually expanded our geographic horizons again to include domestic and international travel.”
In November 2018, when Ms. Virshup wrote about the future of the Travel section, she shared her plans to “reboot our travel journalism for the digital age.” The pandemic supercharged these plans and the new 36 Hours column includes new features that make it more digital. Each column begins with a bulleted list that quickly identifies the key points of the itinerary. The column now also features a downloadable Google Map with pinned locations, great for those following the guide on their phones.
Now, readers can dive into the story, skim through the main points or, if they’re on the go, jump to the bulleted list to find interesting reference points. “If you’re really not interested in following in our writer’s footsteps through this journey through the city,” said Ms. Virshup, “you can choose your own adventure.”
But the tone of the series – voice, personal, intelligent – is the same. When 36 Hours began, the writers documented their own experiences as visitors. But the series evolved and is now often written by the locals of the destination. Identifying the right writers and highlighting a diversity of perspectives are the most important aspects of crafting the series.
Once a piece is assigned, the writer and editors discuss what to include (food, culture, nightlife, history) and how to factor in time to travel from one place to another. Photo editor Phaedra Brown sends a local photographer a list of places to shoot. (The rebooted column features more photos than ever.) The photos are taken as close to the publication date as possible so that the column presents the destination in its most authentic form, said Suzanne MacNeille, a senior editor who has worked on 36 Hours since 2013.
The stories include accommodation and food options at various prices: an expensive place to dine may be accompanied by cheaper alternatives or followed by a cheap breakfast the next day. And since 36 Hours features a location only once every three years or so, the recommendations work for many seasons and circumstances, and will still feel fresh if Covid-related restrictions delay travel yet again.
“The great thing about 36 Hours is that it really offers a weekend you can do,” said Tacey Rychter, a travel desk editor who works on the column. “It’s not just the main attractions that you must visit if it’s your first time visiting them. It’s one layer down.”
This approach is reflected in the New York guide. In the column’s introduction, writer Becky Hughes admits that “you can’t see New York City in 36 hours” and that the guide offers “visitors a slice of New York life.” Travel editors hope readers will have feedback on how to experience the city in such a short time. But that is the point.
“We are asking people in the comments to share with us: Where would you send people? What are your favorite places to go? Mrs. Virshup said. “There are many, many New Yorks.”