9/11 journalism course from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times Pulitzer-winning teams – Poynter
Of the thousands of articles written and circulated to coincide with this month’s anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, few have focused on what newsrooms, across the spectrum of national and local media , learned while covering the disaster.
The two of us – former Wall Street Journal reporting colleagues from years before September 11 – have each written about Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism through publications that covered this tragedy.
(Recent book by Rotbart “September 12: Ground Zero September 11 with the Wall Street Journal” examines the work that culminated in this newspaper’s Pulitzer for Breaking News Reporting in 2002. And Harris 2016 “Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism” dedicates a chapter to the coverage of September 11 by The New York Times, which won that newspaper’s public service award in 2002. Harris also wrote an article 10 years later for Poynter, in 2011, on the work of the Journal.)
The Times and the Journal were two of the most prominent news organizations addressing the many challenges that the September 11 terrorist attacks presented. However, they were far from alone. Broadcast and cable news channels provided vivid, uninterrupted wall-to-wall coverage, with videos and stories from the field that none of us can forget.
The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times ran same-day 9/11 editions of the attacks. The Associated Press provided real-time updates, mobilizing its staff to gather feedback from around the world. And many emerging online news sites foreshadowed their eventual rise to prominence with original and timely reporting.
Before the media criticism of this 20-year-old tragedy wears off, we want to highlight some lessons that news outlets of all stripes can learn from The Times and Journal’s experience of covering what we have. called the Pearl Harbor of our generation.
This exchange of questions and answers is the result.
Did the Journal or The Times have contingency plans in place to effectively cover a major disaster such as September 11?
Roy Harris: Neither newspaper had any plans to deal with a disaster of the magnitude of 9/11, although The Times is better suited for this, as the newspaper’s core job often involves covering the New York disturbances. at different levels.
It would have been difficult to conceive of an “exercise” at The Times that would model such a massive disaster, with so many variables.
From a production standpoint, however, the Times had some role models to follow, including a system to remove ads from its first section and free up space for unexpected chunks of news in the event of a crisis.
The Times had another advantage in facilitating coverage of the first day: it was prepared on September 11 to report on the New York primary elections that day. This allowed for the reassignment of editors and journalists in the short term – especially after the cancellation of the primary.
Dean Rotbart: No one at the Journal ever imagined a disaster that would decimate their newsroom and shut down all journalists and editors for nearly a year.
The Journal has held back-up drills from time to time, considering the possibility of a power outage or weather system that would require a very temporary move.
The South Brunswick, New Jersey, administrative offices of Dow Jones, owner of The Journal, is 50 miles southwest of the Lower Manhattan Newsroom. These offices had training rooms that most editors knew could, in a pinch, be converted into temporary news offices. By September 11, about 40 Journal staff – about a tenth of its regular staff in New York – had directed the gauntlet to southern Brunswick and were responsible for editing and composing the next day’s edition.
How did Journal culture – driven from its main newsroom and headquarters – come into play on September 11?
Rotbart: In the Journal’s pop-up newsroom in South Brunswick, New Jersey, and in apartments scattered across the five boroughs of New York and New Jersey where Journal staff members gathered in small groups, the “ghosts” of the former newsroom leaders were undoubtedly present.
Dating back to the early 1940s, when Bernard “Barney” Kilgore began transforming The Journal from a failed 33,000-copy business newspaper into one of the most respected and widely read newspapers in the country, an unbroken chain of executives transmitted and strengthened Kilgore’s core business. principles.
This included giving journalists ample leeway to work independently and take reasonable risks in an effort to elevate the journalistic advantage of the newspaper. On September 11, Journal staff did not have to be told what to do. On their own, they thought about how they could be most useful, and they got down to it.
Journal culture also involved making sure that most journalists with regular industry rhythms also devote time to general “spotlight”. Thus, writing on subjects of general interest was familiar even to its specialists in economic information.
An unassailable standard governed September 11, as it did every other day: journalists had to establish their facts without exception. Integrity and professionalism have remained their guides.
The Times and the Journal are both known for their excellent newsroom editors, with strong management structures below them. How were these personalities tasked with bringing staff to such extraordinary results under extreme pressure?
Rotbart: If anyone ever needed an illustration of why it is essential for a news organization to have a “deep bench” of knowledgeable editors, the Wall Street Journal’s experience of 9/11 is a great help. almost perfect example. Until early afternoon, Paul E. Steiger, editor of the newspaper and North Star reporter, was missing and feared his death.
With the closure of bridges and tunnels, Steiger’s four deputy directors were unable to reach the emergency pop-up press room in southern Brunswick. Barely missing a beat, Alan Murray, then Washington, DC bureau chief, assigned and oversaw most of the front page stories that day. National news editor Marcus Brauchli, working from his home in Brooklyn Heights, generated the “sked” – the plan for the next day’s newspaper and kept a diary of people who reported and were still missing.
Office managers Karen Blumenthal, Kevin Helliker and Jonathan Friedland, in Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively, mobilized their staff and handled overflow editing tasks and coverage of other offices.
Perhaps most impressive of all, Frank James “Jim” Pensiero, a senior newsroom administrator who managed the Journal’s newsroom budget and negotiated contracts, among other management duties, took on responsibility in southern Brunswick for staffing and overseeing the writing and production teams.
If need be, any of those editorial lieutenants – and at least a dozen others in the Journal – could easily have permanently filled Steiger’s oversized shoes if they had been loaded with them.
Steiger’s most significant influence on 9/11 occurred long before that day, recruiting, promoting and setting an example for his deputies.
Harris: Veteran Times Editor-in-Chief Howell Raines and newly-appointed Editor-in-Chief Gerald Boyd were instrumental in redirecting nearly all of New York’s staff to cover the World Trade Center disaster. They freed up immense space in the next day’s newspaper and in the editions of the following days, and scheduled additional editor meetings each day to allow coverage to expand quickly, with superior planning.
A whole new regime had to be put in place to cover the “catastrophe” of September 11 which did not exist the day before. What types of covers had to be created on the fly? And what did the staff at The Times and The Journal learn from having to make this adjustment?
Harris: At The Times, a huge success has been his extraordinary design and execution of a whole new way of writing about victims. Thousands of people were missing in the attacks on the Twin Towers, in a form of devastation that made it impossible to identify the bodies. Thus, the vital task of producing obituaries has become quite chaotic.
This pressure on The Times resulted in a special section called “Portraits of Mourning”. The approach, specifically cited as part of “A Nation Challenged” – the special daily section noted in his quote from Public Service Pulitzer – evolved from a plan by editor Christine Kay. She devised a system in which journalists prepared 200-word mini-profiles of people missing as a result of the disaster. The profiles avoided the normal “death notice” information, instead choosing a characteristic of the person that set them apart.
Beyond concentrating related information in one place for readers, Editor Boyd noted that the daily meetings on what belonged to the section inspired an increased level of staff input. “I’ve always been amazed how, on any given day, someone I never thought of would have a brilliant idea,” Boyd said. “There really was a belief that people could be heard.”
Rotbart: The Journal starting September 12 was a different journal than it had been on September 11, and it never reverted to its old self.
More importantly, for decades the Journal’s three front-page articles (left column, middle column, and right column) were thought-provoking, analytical, and other in-depth or original articles. But they did not contain breaking news. A column on the left on a Monday could just as easily be released the following Friday, or even a few weeks later, without appearing dated.
But breaking news became a staple of the Journal’s front page starting Wednesday, September 12, with an increased focus on politics, foreign policy and national security throughout the newspaper.