Making Politics Coverage More Personal

BEHIND THE BYLINE • ASTEAD W. HERNDON

The reporter Astead W. Herndon on focusing on what matters to readers, the challenge of caring for plants and why Guy Fieri might want to worry.

By Katie Van Syckle

Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

As a political reporter for The New York Times, Astead W. Herndon tries to cover politics from a perspective that everyone will understand: focusing not on personalities of political figures but on the people who are affected by those in power. Recently, he has also been serving as an occasional host of “The Daily” podcast.

Here, he talks about how he got started in journalism, his interest in plants and his quest to master FIFA, the soccer video game.

What stories are you drawn to? I write often about issues of race and identity, but also about the workings of the progressive left. During the previous presidential cycle, I followed Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and the current vice president, former Senator Kamala Harris of California.

What questions are you interested in exploring in your work?

I don’t think there’s a singular question. But I find myself drawn to stories that seek to expose things the political consensus may have missed. In political reporting , I believe there can be a sense of conventional wisdom that is taken as fact, about certain communities and their priorities. I believe this hive mind was exposed in the 2016 election, where it became clear that the media did not have the correct pulse on the respective bases of the Democratic and Republican parties. I want to be part of that solution — making sure we better prepare the public to understand elections in the future.

What do you enjoy most about political reporting?

It has really allowed me to see America in a unique way, traveling across the country and meeting people who are invested in their local communities. I eat great food everywhere I go. I meet lovely people who are passionate and committed to their neighbors. I care about that more than I care about meeting any politician. Telling the stories of those people feels like a real privilege.

Where did you grow up? How does that shape your work?

I grew up in Homewood-Flossmoor, a suburban neighborhood south of Chicago. My father is a pastor in a nearby community, and I grew up in a church and family that talked constantly about politics. More than anything, it’s a region of working and middle-class Black families, many of whom felt the brunt of the Great Recession and were part of the changing demographic landscape of Chicago. I think it taught me how politics and policy can impact people, positively and negatively. I learned about how politics could inspire marginalized communities to believe that better was possible — and also that there was no guarantee such optimism would lead to improvement. Most of all, I think the Black church has been so involved in the country’s struggle for civil and voting rights that it gave me an early focus on things that remain core to the political conversation. I always knew democracy was fraught.

When did you decide to pursue journalism? What drew you to it?

I can’t say I was drawn to journalism for any good reason. My entry to reporting was reading sports columns in The Chicago Tribune. I joined my high school paper and had a column called “Get in Astead’s Head,” but I always thought of it as a joke. I wanted to work in political campaigns, maybe as a speechwriter, and then left college for a year and joined City Year, the AmeriCorps program. In City Year, I was working in Milwaukee Public Schools as a secondary and support educator — and it really changed my life. When I returned to college I was able to get an education reporting internship at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from that experience, and that really kicked off a change of thinking for me. I liked that newsroom way more than I ever liked a journalism class in school.

How do you spend your time outside of work? Do you have any hobbies that readers might find surprising or interesting?

I watch a lot of sports to turn my brain off — soccer and basketball, mostly. I listen to several podcasts (my only rule is it has to have nothing to do with politics) about pop culture and music history. I once was in the top division of FIFA soccer video game players in the world, though the campaign trail sucked up too much time, and I’ve unfortunately lost that distinction. I think the best part of living in New York is the food, and I can frequently be found on a Citi Bike in Brooklyn heading to the next place on my list.

How do you decompress from work?

My two pandemic indulgences have been plant care and sneakers. I have 12 plants in my apartment that I’m constantly trying to keep alive — my first attempt at caring for a living thing outside of myself. I’ve never had a pet. I also lean on friends and family who are totally removed from politics and media and want to talk about other things. Most recently, I bought one of those in-home exercise bikes and have been playing a lot of Scrabble — it works.

What was your favorite pandemic media?

I spent the pandemic watching a ton of media while being stuck in hotel rooms across battleground states. In the last year alone, I watched “The Sopranos” for the first time, read “Harry Potter” for the first time and watched the movies. I also watched “Boardwalk Empire,” “Peaky Blinders,” “Euphoria,” “The Mandalorian” and “Big Mouth.” If we’re talking reality shows, I’m a fan of “Married at First Sight” and the classics that can help you pass 30 minutes whenever — “Chopped,” “Four Weddings,” and “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

One of your first jobs was as a sports reporter. Do you still watch a lot of sports?

I watched six N.B.A. playoff games on a recent weekend. I am a big, lifelong fan of the Chicago Bulls. I’ve spent 10-ish years as a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur in London, a team in the English Premier League. I’ve seen Tottenham twice in Britain and twice in America during their preseason tours. I plan to go again as soon it’s safe to do. My newest team allegiance is the W.N.B.A.’s Chicago Sky.

If you could cover another beat at The Times, what would it be?

I could be talked into several beats — education, the London bureau and sports investigations are the first things that pop into mind.

If you could have any other job, not in journalism, what would it be?

One hundred percent, absolutely, the host of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” It’s basically journalism. I could take Guy Fieri’s job.

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