Christine Kay, a veteran editor at The New York Times who had a strong hand in shaping prizewinning articles and investigative projects and who helped conceive “Portraits of Grief,” a celebrated series of remembrances about the victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, died Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 54.
Her brother-in-law Mark Kovac said the cause was metastatic breast cancer.
Ms. Kay was widely admired for deftly and tirelessly handling complex long-form journalism in the Times. But she was probably best known as a member of a team of editors and reporters that took on the challenge of reporting on those who died on 9/11, when hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center’s twin towers, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa.
With its initial focus on Manhattan, the Times had little information about the victims to rely on. There was no authoritative list of people who had been in the World Trade Center, and, despite the scope of the attacks, a surge of survivors at hospital emergency rooms never materialized.
“I know people want to hear that we had this thoughtful conversation and sat in a room for three hours and came up with this magical approach,” Ms. Kay was quoted as saying by Roy J. Harris Jr. in his book “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service” (2007). “But that is not what happened.”
The solution was crystallized with the appearance of a flurry of flyers and posters bearing the names and faces of missing people, which family members passed out in hospitals and posted on walls and store windows around the city. Two Times reporters, Janny Scott and Jane Gross, wrote about the phenomenon on Sept. 13.
“We had this fantastic raw material,” Scott said in a phone interview. She remembered suggesting that reporters call relatives listed on the flyers and write short sketches about the missing.
Fascinated by the flyers, Ms. Kay collected some at her desk and took them to a meeting on Sept. 14 with Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, as well as Scott and other reporters.
In that meeting, Ms. Kay proposed that reporters, as the deaths of the victims were confirmed, treat the sketches not as small, traditional obituaries but as glimpses of the victims, emphasizing personal details — a hobby, a passion, a charitable endeavor — over professional achievements.
“What if you focused on this one woman gardening, one man taking his daughter to ice-skating lessons or maybe smoking cigars?” she was quoted in “Pulitzer’s Gold.” Landman agreed to the approach.
“None of us knew how it would turn out,” Landman, who is now an editor at Bloomberg Opinion, said in a phone interview. “It was just a solution to a journalism problem.”
The first sketches — published at first under the heading “Among the Missing” — appeared Sept. 15. The next day, the feature was rechristened “Portraits of Grief,” and by the end of the year, 1,910 sketches, written by many reporters, had been published, with more following in early 2002.
The series generated an enormous readership.
“Nothing published in The New York Times during my 24 years on the newspaper has elicited a reader response like the one we’ve gotten on ‘Portraits of Grief,’ ” Howell Raines, the executive editor at the time, wrote in the foreword to a compilation of the sketches published in book form in 2002.
When the Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its 9/11 coverage, about two dozen “Portraits” were among the articles cited.
“Everybody loved Lucy,” one of them started. “And why not? Lucy Crifasi was the kind of woman who always seemed to have a big smile and time to solve somebody else’s problems.”
Ms. Kay, in an interview in late 2001 on “PBS NewsHour,” said of the “Portraits,” “If it’s shown us one thing, it is that nobody’s life was ordinary, that everybody is unique in their own way.”
Christine Kay was born Dec. 16, 1964, in Pittsburgh to Gaza and Carmelia (Arguto) Kay and grew up in nearby Carnegie, Pa. Her father was a gas station mechanic, her mother a homemaker.
“As soon as she could write, she started writing stories,” Judy Kovac, one of her sisters, said in a telephone interview. In high school, Ms. Kay won a summer scholarship to study writing at Allegheny College. She graduated from Penn State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
After working at The Pittsburgh Press and Newsday, on Long Island, she was hired by the Times as a copy editor in 1995. As the metro desk’s enterprise editor, she edited a Pulitzer-winning series by Clifford Levy about the neglect of mentally ill people at privately run adult homes. She was promoted to deputy investigations editor in 2004.
Another series she edited, by Andrea Elliott, about a homeless 11-year-old Brooklyn girl named Dasani, won a George Polk Award for local reporting.
Ms. Kay’s best traits as an editor were on display in her work on that series, said Matthew Purdy, a Times deputy managing editor and former investigations editor: “a fine-tuned moral outrage, a vision of the untold story, a stubbornness for detail and structure, a drive for impact, and, above all, a devotion to the story.”
In addition to her sister Judy, Ms. Kay is survived by two other sisters, Kathleen Spechtold and Mary Beth Abraham, and her mother.
In 2015, Ms. Kay took on a new position in which she was charged with conceiving and editing enterprise articles and projects throughout the news department. The next year, she shared the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award with reporters Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Michael Corkery, and Robert Gebeloff for “Beware the Fine Print,” a three-part series that uncovered the powerful impact of arbitration clauses on Americans’ lives. The series also won a Polk Award.
“At the very start, she believed, against all odds, that we could get readers enraged about a seemingly arcane subject: the fine print in millions of contracts,” Silver-Greenberg said in an e-mail. “To help me expose how big banks and major American retailers have built a way out of the justice system, she basically went to law school, teaching herself the intricacies of constitutional and contract law.”