Riding the Roller Coaster  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 2002

Riding the Roller Coaster   

The Wall Street Journal’s Manhattan headquarters was destroyed in the September 11 attacks, and terrorists later kidnapped and killed Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Two other key staffers died during a harrowing 15-month period. Meanwhile, the Journal published distinguished coverage of rampant corporate scandals, won a Pulitzer for its reporting on the terrorist attacks and underwent a dramatic redesign.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     


Television screens throughout the cramped makeshift newsroom beam images of grim-faced WorldCom executives being grilled by a congressional committee. Reporters keep ears tuned to the unfolding corporate scandal as they pound out copy in their temporary home in New York City's trendy SoHo neighborhood.

"This is just a phenomenal time to be a business journalist," says Media and Marketing Editor Nikhil Deogun, eyeing the TV in his cubicle.

The scrappy mood is a far cry from a late afternoon in February when broken-hearted reporters and editors, Deogun among them, abandoned their posts at deadline to gather at the Red Bench, a dark, quiet bar a few blocks away. For hours, they shared hugs and tears over the hideous murder of Daniel Pearl, a cherished colleague and friend.

Summer brought a welcome lull in the Wall Street Journal's tumultuous roller-coaster ride--the most extraordinary 15 months in the newspaper's 113-year history. Echoing a common newsroom sentiment, senior special writer Charles Gasparino calls it "the most bizarre, gut-wrenching series of events I've heard of at any newspaper in the country."

In early April, there was the exquisite joy of winning a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The newspaper won even though its journalists were forced to flee their offices as steel and glass exploded, leaving their headquarters across from the World Trade Center in ruins. News media around the globe hailed their bravery and resourcefulness in getting an edition out the next day.

Months later, Daniel Pearl's kidnapping and murder dominated international news.

Meanwhile, as its journalists struggled with the twin traumas, the Journal broke news and published seminal reporting on the flagging economy and the seemingly endless parade of business scandals. Reporters John Emshwiller and Rebecca Smith are widely credited with leading the pack in the coverage of Enron's collapse.

Despite the angst over untimely deaths, a staff left homeless and a brutal advertising recession, "This is the best news year we've ever had," says Managing Editor Paul E. Steiger, who believes coverage challenges have helped the newsroom recover. The day before we talked, on July 8, Steiger had traveled to parent Dow Jones' offices in New Jersey to oversee the hanging of the Pulitzer plaque, a tribute, he says, to all employees who performed brilliantly after the evacuation. Each staffer will receive a copy of the Pulitzer certificate.

Yet collective memories of shock, horror and dread weigh heavily at the Journal. At times during the past 15 months, the staff worked through a fog of grief.

An assistant managing editor leads the way to a quiet conference room, the site for daily news huddles. A large American flag is stretched across the outside of the windowpanes. In a steady voice, sometimes struggling to control her emotions, Cathy Panagoulias starts with the event that marked the beginning of a remarkable period for the Journal, a grim foreshadowing of the heartbreak to follow.

On January 24, 2001, the staff was stunned by the news that the paper's heralded aerospace editor, Jeff Cole, 45, had been killed in the crash of a fighter jet piloted by a CEO he had been interviewing for a story. Panagoulias, who has worked at the Journal for a quarter-century, remembers thinking at the time, "This is the worst thing that could ever happen" at this newspaper.

In a tribute to Cole, Steiger wrote: "Jeff was an immensely gifted, relentlessly hard-working, brilliantly successful reporter, one of the best among the 400 or so on the Journal's worldwide staff."

Nearly a year after Cole's death and on the heels of September 11, the Journal once again was rocked by personal tragedy.

On January 23, Foreign Editor John Bussey received word that Daniel Pearl, 38, the Journal's South Asia bureau chief, had not returned from an assignment in Karachi, Pakistan, a shadowy city notorious for ghastly crime and terrorism. Bussey, who has since been promoted to deputy managing editor, flew to be with Pearl's pregnant wife, Mariane, and to serve as a liaison between American and Pakistani investigators.

When videos surfaced of Pearl being forced to say he is Jewish, then having his throat slashed, it was Bussey who made the definitive identification.

During this same tortuous period, David Rosenberg, 45, the highly regarded managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Television News, lost his fight with brain cancer. In March, while some reporters and editors attended a memorial for Pearl in Los Angeles, others paid respects to Rosenberg in New York City.

"This has been an insane time," says Gasparino, whose father, an ironworker, helped build the World Trade Center. "When we heard a [premature] TV report that Danny's body was found, it was like somebody smacked us in the head." Later that day, when networks issued a correction saying it was not Pearl, "There was this great feeling of joy and hope. We were up and down like a roller coaster."

Many in the newsroom credit two editors who "bleed this place," as some reporters put it, with keeping staff on a steady course during the darkest hours.

Steiger, under whose leadership the paper has amassed 10 Pulitzer Prizes, and Deputy Managing Editor Daniel Hertzberg, a Pulitzer winner for his reporting on the market crash of 1987 and insider trading, are the names mentioned in response to the question: Who were the most influential--and calming--voices during the worst of times?

The managing editor's defiant statement, "We're not going to let the bastards chase us out of here"--a reference to terrorists who rammed passenger jets into the World Trade Center--served as a rallying cry when the headquarters was a shambles and the paper's journalists were working in scattered locations. In late July, the paper's offices in lower Manhattan overlooking Ground Zero were reopened.

"It is remarkable how Paul has handled all this. He is just a rock," says Deogun, who offered the following anecdote to illustrate his point.

In tense weeks following Pearl's disappearance, Steiger played the dual role of editor and hostage negotiator, working behind the scenes to secure the reporter's release. One afternoon, he attended a 4 o'clock news meeting where Deogun was pitching a front-page-worthy scoop from reporter Gordon Fairclough, who had learned the name of the new CEO for Phillip Morris ahead of the competition.

But the markets were going crazy, and Steiger wanted a front-page leader on the turmoil, pushing Fairclough's piece to the cover of the B section. "We were a little disappointed, but it wasn't a huge thing," Deogun recalled.

The next afternoon, the ME came in search of Fairclough to reassure him that his story was "grade-A page-one material" and that he was sorry for being the "jerk" to bump it off. When he couldn't find him the first time, he made a return visit to the reporter's desk to deliver the message in person.

"I was just so struck by this," says Deogun. "This guy's got a million things on his plate, most of all Danny and the stress he was under with that. It was a very, very classy thing to do."

Perhaps that's why some staffers refer to Steiger as a "mensch." Coworkers describe him as a hands-off manager who does not look over their shoulders.

Hertzberg, who has run the U.S. bureaus since 1995, is praised for circulating "herograms." Several staffers reached into their desk drawers and displayed printouts of praise-filled messages that the deputy managing editor sent when they hit a home run. "He's a cheerleader for everybody," says Economics Editor Constance Mitchell Ford. "It's nice to know your work is being appreciated and recognized."

The newspaper's network of bureaus around the globe tends to foster collaboration. Multiple bylines are common, and it is not unusual for a story to draw input from correspondents in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Hertzberg believes this built-in system of collegiality and decentralization was a plus in the wake of the World Trade Center attack. The point hit home two weeks afterward when the editor noticed 300 unread e-mail messages sent by staffers on September 11, a day when he, like so many others, had no access to computers.

"It was amazing to read this. It was like, 'I'm OK, where are you? I am doing this and that. Who do I file to?' Nobody asked, 'What should I do?' People just naturally went out and did their jobs," Hertzberg says with a hint of pride. "Everybody knew we were going to put out a paper. Nobody doubted that."

On September 12, despite the newsroom evacuation, busted communication networks and a staff scattered in all directions, a two-section, 32-page edition of the paper wound up in the hands of subscribers. Technical staff and editors made their own way to South Brunswick, New Jersey, where Dow Jones had a backup system that helped save the day.

Steiger believes a strong sense of mission kept journalists focused. "You didn't have time to commune with your emotions and wrap yourself in the horror," he says. "You were just busy, and I think that was a blessing."

That was not the case four months later, when the Journal staff was reeling from another cataclysmic event. This time, all they could do was worry and wait.

On January 24, Pakistan time, Asra Nomani, a reporter on leave to write a book about Islam, contacted Foreign Editor Bussey with worrisome news. Pearl had not returned from an assignment.

For weeks, seesaw reports as to whether Pearl was dead or alive kept the staff on edge. They were tormented by e-mailed photos of the reporter in chains with a gun to his head and later by macabre videos on Web sites displaying Pearl's severed head.

Steiger and Dow Jones CEO Peter Kann delivered confirmation of his death to the staff via e-mail at 4:24 p.m. on February 21. Stunned reporters and editors spontaneously gathered in the newsroom for a moment of silence to honor a congenial, guitar-playing reporter who had a reputation for generously sharing his byline with colleagues, even if they only contributed a couple of graphs to the story.

Assistant Managing Editor Panagoulias draws a distinct line between the catastrophic events of September 11 and Pearl's murder. Her eyes well with tears when she mentions his name. "Danny's death took a little piece of everybody's heart," she says. "His friends are still suffering terribly." Money and Investing Editor Larry Ingrassia is one of them.

Early on a Tuesday morning in July, he sat at his computer, scrolling through an in-house site devoted to reminiscences of Pearl. The two worked together and became friends in 1996 when Ingrassia, then London bureau chief, brought Pearl over to work in Europe. When word of the death came, it literally knocked the wind out of him.

"I actually had a hard time just catching my breath. I really couldn't even talk to people," the editor recalls. "I walked outside to a little square. I just had to sit down and cry a little bit by myself. It was shattering; people were numb here." After a short time, he returned to his computer and methodically began editing copy.

Then a realization struck. "I knew I didn't want to be here. Deadlines didn't matter that night," says Ingrassia, who, along with other close friends of Pearl's, headed to a nearby bar to grieve.

One member of the group was reporter Robert Frank, whom many call Pearl's best friend. Frank and his wife vacationed with Danny and Mariane about eight months before the kidnapping. Frank attended their Paris wedding in August 1999 and recalls that Pearl got lost while leading friends through back alleys to a municipal building where the ceremony was to take place. "It was vintage Danny," he says.

After a few hours of beer drinking and sharing Danny stories, some in the group went to dinner. Frank, who had been married earlier in the year, remembered that, just days before, he had received a wedding gift from the Pearls at the office. He headed to retrieve the colorful Indian wall hanging to take to his home.

The card that accompanied the gift showed a flash of Pearl's humor that warmed his friend's heart. It said: "To Robert and Rebecca. You make a great couple. Love, Danny, Mariane and the fetus." Pearl's son, Adam, was born in May.

Some staffers were miffed that word of Pearl's death was delivered by e-mail rather than in person by a top editor. To management, it was the only way the global staff in so many time zones could receive the news simultaneously.

Some Journal staffers believe that adversity has toughened them and drawn them closer. "When you go through something horrible together, you are bound together," Panagoulias says. "It sort of made everything else seem terribly unimportant." In their temporary quarters, some took to typing their names on sheets of paper and taping them to desks, a meager sign of ownership in the crowded newsroom. If they left for an interview or a few days vacation, they were likely to find someone else at their computer.

"Two years ago, it would have been pretty hard to get some of these reporters to sit on top of each other at work this way. Nobody's even complained about the crowded conditions," says Panagoulias, a point person for the reorganization. "Everyone has been very gracious."

There still are 18,000 unopened boxes of reporters' notes, personal belongings, documents and other paraphernalia waiting in New Jersey for delivery orders.

During conversations, Journal reporters and editors express pride at maintaining a level of excellence despite the obstacles, a feat that has not gone unnoticed by media watchers.

Bob Haiman, president emeritus of the Poynter Institute and a Freedom Forum senior fellow, calls the Journal "one of the class acts of journalism in the English-speaking world. To me, it is a remarkable paper every day and an extraordinary paper on many days."

Haiman says he was moved by a speech he heard Steiger make at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention this year. "I saw a quiet strength that was really built on enormous character and a strong sense of compassion. That answered a lot of my questions about how they not only managed to endure but triumph" during the trying times.

Says Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation, "Overall, the Wall Street Journal's a model of professionalism, from the way they managed to put out a newspaper the day after September 11 to the caring and aggressive way they sought to find Daniel Pearl to the great creativity the [recent] redesign shows. I really like it."

Giles says the paper's Enron coverage and related business stories have had "a great deal of impact on public reaction and the marketplace."

But despite the paper's impressive performance in the midst of adversity, despite all the talk of collegiality and the Journal as a "second family," there are points of contention. Chief among them: a reluctance by many to move back to their old offices.

When a group of editors and reporters took an informal poll in the newsroom earlier this year, of the 175 employees responding, 72 percent opposed moving back to the World Financial Center offices. They cited concerns about asbestos and toxic substances; lack of transportation, restaurants and other amenities near Ground Zero; and, not least, harrowing memories.

Some who witnessed human beings leaping from the World Trade Center fear the move will affect them psychologically. "People who were there that day just see it as a grave site," Panagoulias says. "It's a small group who don't relish the idea of having to relive what they saw."

Staffers began returning to their old headquarters in late July.

An ultramodern newsroom has been completed in South Brunswick, New Jersey, to house the copyediting and pagination operations. For many, it has come down to accepting a horrendous commute from places like Brooklyn or Long Island or moving. Employees for whom the move is a hardship have been offered an option to quit and take full severance. If they stay until February of next year, they will get a bonus of 50 percent of their base salary, with a minimum of $25,000, and $50 a week for a year to help with commuting expenses. Steiger calls it "a pretty good retention policy."

The Journal eliminated 300 positions before September 11, mostly in the production, circulation and advertising departments. Newsroom personnel worry that with declining ad revenue and a crippled economy, they could be targeted in the next round. The Journal has been hit by a recession that struck its core technology and financial advertising. In 2000, ad revenue stood at around $1.07 billion; that dropped 34 percent to $706 million last year. No one is predicting a turnaround.

"You tell me what the economy is going to do and I'll tell you if we're having any more [layoffs], but I hope we don't," says Steiger, who believes he's pinched enough pennies to stave off more job losses.

Dow Jones this year completed a $225 million upgrade of the printing plants and embarked on a major makeover of the newspaper, the first in 60 years. For the first time, there is color on the front page and a new thrice-weekly section, Personal Journal, that delivers user-friendly information on everything from investments to travel. Circulation stands at 1.8 million, making the Journal the nation's second-largest newspaper, behind USA Today.

Some have criticized the April facelift. In a scathing review, LA Weekly reporter John Powers wrote: "I'm sorry to see the Journal chasing after popularity with lip gloss. It has long been America's most rigorously designed and best-written daily, and this less stern version feels paradoxically less seductive--like swapping your favorite dominatrix for the girl next door."

Some say the Journal is going after softer, consumer-oriented reporting to tap into new advertising bases.

But always, at the Journal, the conversation turns back to the turbulent times.

The afternoon news meeting is 90 minutes away, and Paul Steiger is in his sparse interim office talking about the unprecedented events at his newspaper. So far, Pearl's position in South Asia has not been filled, but there is no hint of cutting back foreign coverage. The ME talks of expanding the Journal's presence in Europe and Asia, in print editions and on the Web.

After Pearl's death, Steiger offered correspondents an out. "We told our reporters who are likely to be more at risk than others, if they wanted a change of beat, they could have it at no cost to their careers," Steiger says. "No one has taken us up on that."

How has he coped personally with the emotional turmoil? "I have less hair and more of it is gray," he teases in a rare moment of levity. Then this: "Over time, it's tough. It seeps in, and you feel it. I sometimes find myself thinking, 'What would Danny do? What would Jeff Cole do? What would David Rosenberg do?' Not just on stories....

"They pop into your mind the way things sometimes do on your computer screen," he says. "When you least expect it."

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