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AP team tells the poignant stories behind ‘empty spaces’ as US nears 1 million COVID deaths

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How do you chronicle a million people dead, in the richest country in the world, from a disease no one had heard of a few years ago? The answer from AP journalists who collaborated to capture the approaching toll of 1 million U.S. deaths from COVID: Look for the empty spaces, then tell the stories of those who had filled them. And let the voices of those left behind reveal the mosaic of loss that has forever marked the country.

In true AP fashion, the stories came together with extensive coordination across departments and formats. National writer Adam Geller worked with health and science reporter Carla K. Johnson in Seattle and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City to identify and interview the subjects.

Photographer David Goldman visited eight cities and 11 families in 12 days as the 1 million milestone approached, and also worked with fellow photographer Maye-E Wong and Geller on a separate photo package. Jim Anderson in Denver jumped in to conduct an interview in Spanish when Johnson sought help. Video journalist Shelby Lum,with the health and science team, pulled together not just newsroom and consumer-ready video but also a number of character vignettes that found wide used online.

Samantha Shotzbarger,with the Top Stories desk, designed and constructed an immersive presentation featuring Goldman’s photos of empty spaces along with audio diaries from families of those lost. For the lead story,Shotzbarger used the text and Lum’s video vignettes,plus photos,to score impressively high reader engagement time on apnews.com. Audio also played well with AP’s radio clients.

Elise Ryan,with the digital news team,handled a sophisticated social promotion plan,helping the package emerge as one of the most popular on AP News throughout the weekend. The story also appeared on numerous U.S. front pages,both online and print; it will be republished and promoted when the Centers for Disease Control’s official toll hits 1 million. The video was used by customers including the Houston Chronicle,San Francisco Chronicle,and the Detroit News. Lum’s videos also attracted attention on Twitter,with a combined 123,000 views and counting.

Perhaps the greatest barometer of success came in the words of grateful loved ones of those featured in the stories:

— “The text explains loss,of course,but it highlights love.” — David Lawyer,son of Neil Lawyer.
— “Thank you for all your hard work on the COVID article. … to think of the large scale … my mind can not really even grasp that.” — Cathie Quackenbush,wife of Larry Quackenbush.
— “I feel like the great task of giving testimony and of mourning has been boosted,as if by some miraculous assist,to help me through this moment with pride,dignity and honor. You’ve done for me what I could not do for myself.” — Larry Mass,partner of Arnie Kantrowitz.

For bringing fresh eyes and new voice to a once-unimaginable loss that will shape the way we live for years to come,the team of Geller,Goldman,Lum,Johnson,Hollingsworth,Wong,Anderson, Shotzbarger and Ryan is AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.

Visit AP.org to request a trial subscription to AP’s video,photo and text services.

For breaking news, visit apnews.com

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