May 31, 2002, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scattered WSJ staff use e-mail, phones, N.J. office to publish, by Barney Calame,
Editor’s note: How the Wall Street Journal managed to publish September 12 is a remarkable testament to human ingenuity and technological innovation. The American Editor asked Journal Deputy Managing Editor and ASNE board member and committee chairman Barney Calame, to share the tale. He offers his account here, but notes that “the horror and enormity of the attack on the World Trade Center can, in hindsight, make it seem a little self-absorbed to try to recount how The Wall Street Journal managed to publish the following day despite being forced out of its damaged main office across the street from the twin towers.” The most important fact for the Journal, he added, is that none of its news staff was killed or seriously injured by the attack.
The official starting time for most of the Journal reporting staff based in New York is 9:30 a.m. So with the planes hitting the two towers at 8:45 a.m. and 9:06 a.m., the procession of commuting editors and reporters stretched across the region: Managing Editor Paul Steiger and Jim Pensiero, an assistant managing editor, were in the office early to discuss the news department budget; some staffers were coming out of subways underneath the Trade Center or on the streets outside; others were on subways and suburban commuter trains — or just stepping out of the shower in their Manhattan apartments.
Near the Journal’s main office, physical danger was everywhere. Reporting assistant Robert Hughes was trapped in an office building’s basement hallway across the street from the Trade Center and, with others, eventually pried open a door and escaped into an adjoining building. Joanne Lipman, a deputy managing editor, was in the shopping mall under the Trade Center and had to pick her way through body parts on the street to make her way out of the area. For those staffers who were in the area, the sight of people jumping from high floors of the Trade Center towers seems to be one of the hardest memories to put aside.
Getting the scattered staff directed to an alternative work site became the top priority. Fortunately, Journal parent Dow Jones & Co. has an office complex in South Brunswick, N.J., where many of its administrative, technical, circulation and other support staffs work. Backup servers and some workstations for the news department’s new text-editing and pagination system were in place there.
Steiger and Pensiero, pressed by security officers to get out of the World Financial Center newsroom, quickly agreed editors should be directed to South Brunswick. Pensiero, who proved to be the key anchor for the whole day’s effort, was uniquely positioned. A veteran editor, he had over the past two years headed the task force that brought an upgraded editing system and a new pagination system to the Journal. He knew the key folks in both the news department and the technical department in South Brunswick.
At 9:23 a.m. Pensiero alerted by e-mail key players in both departments to start setting up an emergency newsroom and pagination operation in South Brunswick. Steiger managed to get a call through to Washington bureau chief Alan Murray and asked that his staff count on pulling together the major stories — especially those for the next day’s page one. Other editors used e-mail to find out who was where and steer fellow editors toward South Brunswick; reporters were urged to go home or to other safe places and try to establish contact with their news editors by e-mail or phone. Steiger scoured the area outside the Journal’s building, looking for editors to direct to New Jersey; covered with white dust from the falling debris — like many other Journal staffers who escaped from the Trade Center area — he finally managed to walk north and get to his apartment.
E-mail was quickly emerging as the communications medium of choice —especially for staffers equipped with Blackberry handheld devices. Despite difficulty getting a dial tone in the whole metropolitan area, many staffers managed to get into the company e-mail system. Cell-phone connections were intermittent, at best. With Steiger and Pensiero on the move, an editor working from his upper west side apartment used e-mail to give Dow Jones Chief Executive Officer and Journal publisher Peter Kann an update on the situation; Kann was in Hong Kong to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Asian Wall Street Journal. E-mails also brought in the vice presidents of technology, production and circulation and initiated plans for one edition — versus the usual three —in two sections — versus the usual three.
Pensiero, who managed to catch a ferry to New Jersey, finally got to South Brunswick about 11:30 a.m. Other senior editors who lived in New Jersey were already gathering there. With bridges and tunnels out of Manhattan closed, top editors such as Steiger, his four deputy managing editors and the editors in charge of page one and the Marketplace page were unable to get to New Jersey. Steiger suggested that they gather at the centrally located apartment of one deputy. Most reporters had returned home — and those who lived near the office had found shelter with colleagues or friends.
Gathering and editing the news
E-mail was just as crucial to gathering and editing the news as it was for assembling the staff. At 1:38 p.m., with the national editor unable to get out of Manhattan, Pensiero e-mailed key editors a preliminary schedule of stories. A staffer was assigned to keep sending out e-mails listing where reporters were and their phone numbers. Reporters used e-mail to file stories. Despite the crash at the Pentagon, the Washington bureau was fully staffed and intact, as Steiger had envisioned that morning — and assumed a key role in pulling together the “leders” for the next day’s front page.
A conference call of key editors was set for 4 p.m. Not all editors were able to make phone connections, but the story list was revised and updated. Editors at hastily configured computers in South Brunswick often didn’t have phones — and even if they had phones, few others knew the numbers. Since the page one editor was stuck in Manhattan, the actual editing of front-page stories in South Brunswick was handled by New Jersey resident Larry Rout, the Journal’s special projects editor, who got across the Hudson just before ferry service was halted.
The people hastily configuring dozens of computers were the troops of Bill Godfrey, vice president for technology. Using everyone from regular technicians to top programmers and designers, they loaded e-mail and editing software on additional computers as editors arrived to use them. And the technical staff worked late into the night to get scores more computers ready for the surge in editors expected to arrive in South Brunswick the next morning.
Reporters in the Journal’s bureaus across the country were vital in augmenting the reporting of stories that Manhattan-based colleagues couldn’t tackle because of jammed phone systems and physical obstacles. Still, the Manhattan reporters were resourceful. Reporter Gordon Fairclough fell from a crowded fireboat in the Hudson River while being evacuated; after about 20 minutes in the water, he was rescued by a police boat and taken to the shore, where he continued his reporting. Some reporters — without the aid of police press passes — managed to do reporting in the devastated Trade Center area to supplement what fleeing staffers had observed earlier in the day.
Operating from the apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan with e-mail and two regular phone lines, flowing through two PCs on two regular telephone lines and four Blackberry devices, Steiger made the decision to go with a six-column, two-line head across the top of page one and radically alter the Journal’s traditional layout for the front. The unusual page-one layout required some special configuring by Joe Dizney, the Journal’s art director. The six-column banner was only the second in Journal history; the first was Pearl Harbor.
Because an upgrade of the editing system had been made just days before, the laptops and home computers used by most editors didn’t have the update. So editors working remotely couldn’t edit stories or view headlines and pages as they normally would.
Steiger and other apartment-bound editors in Manhattan were able to get PDF files of Dizney's layout ideas as e-mail attachments and settle on a version that made room for five stories on the page. The banner headline was revised by Steiger as the 8:30 p.m. deadline set for the start of the night’s single edition drew nearer. Edited versions of stories received by e-mail at the apartment were slowly printed out on a small home printer and passed around for review.
The editing process concluded with a conference call among key editors at about 10:30 p.m. to plan for the next day. The best news: It appeared that no news department staffers had been harmed.
Publishing the news
The last page of the Journal’s Wednesday edition was off to the production plants shortly after 9 p.m. to get printing started. Production and circulation managers had agreed earlier in the day to operate the presses and truck dispatches on a stop-and-go basis. The presses would run off enough papers to meet the next truck departure, then stop and wait until papers were needed for the next departure. This gave the news department time to replate pages with updated information and stories late into the night.
As a national publication, the Journal circulation department had special headaches because of the government ban on air travel. So, in general, papers at the company’s 17 printing plants across the country had to be off the presses earlier than on a normal publishing night to give delivery trucks more time to get to their destinations.
The 600,000 paid subscribers to WSJ.com, the online Journal, didn’t have to wait for delivery trucks. Steve Adler, a Journal deputy managing editor who is also editorial director of the online publication, paid special attention during the day to getting the disaster stories to WSJ.com. A list of almost every company with offices in the Trade Center, which was carried in the Wednesday print Journal, became the foundation for a continuing WSJ.com interactive feature that allowed subscribers to get the latest information on the fate of each company’s employees in the towers.
Only 10 percent to 15 percent of the Journal’s 1.8 million subscribers didn’t get their papers on Wednesday. Unfortunately, most of the missed papers were where the news struck closest to home. A delivery truck carrying about 60,000 papers bound for Manhattan from the South Brunswick printing plant got caught in a roadblock at the George Washington Bridge. A van suspected of carrying explosives had been stopped — and the entire inbound bridge lanes were closed, trapping the Journal delivery truck for several hours. But the subscribers who got their Journal Wednesday morning proved quite appreciative in e-mails and phone calls. One referred to the “comfort” of finding the Journal in his driveway. Others expressed surprise that the paper had been able to publish at all without its main office. Another subscriber, a former newspaper editor, said simply, “You guys done good.”
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