"The simple act of getting to work was an ordeal."  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 2001

"The simple act of getting to work was an ordeal."   

As local reporters scrambled to cover the biggest story of their lifetimes, they encountered massive obstacles while trying to navigate New York City.

By Alina Tugend
Alina Tugend is a writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.     


THEY PARKED THEIR CARS in New Jersey and walked by foot across the George Washington Bridge. They bullied police into letting them onto closed highways. They caught the famous Manhattan Circle Line boat and had it ferry them across the Hudson River.

Virtually every media organization in the country struggled to cover the horrific unfolding events of September 11. But journalists in New York had to face even greater obstacles while recording a story of such magnitude in their hometown.

"The simple act of getting to work was an ordeal," says New York Times Metropolitan Editor Jonathan Landman.

Many of the city's newspaper reporters, a large number of whom live outside of Manhattan, found themselves shut out. As soon as it became apparent that a terrorist attack had leveled the towers of the World Trade Center, all of Manhattan's bridges, highways and train and bus services shut down. The island was cut off.

September 11 was also the day of the primary mayoral race in New York City. Much of the Times metro staff planned to come in late, preparing for a long night.

That was the case with Times Deputy Metropolitan Editor Peter Applebome, who was driving to Manhattan from his home in Chappaqua, about an hour outside the city, when he heard the news on the radio.

"I couldn't get in and drove back," he says. "I tried to get a train in and couldn't do that. I drove back to the entrance of the Henry Hudson Bridge" into Manhattan. There, he said, police wouldn't let anyone in, and they ignored Applebome's pleas. They finally let a TV truck in, and Applebome declared that print media should be allowed to enter as well.

The officer "told me, 'Sir, I can't spend the whole day arguing,' and let me go," Applebome says.

Times reporter N.R. "Sonny" Kleinfield had no trouble getting in the city. He lives in the shadow of the World Trade Center and came to work, not knowing where his wife was or if his house was still standing, and "wrote two stunningly beautiful front-page pieces," Landman says.

Kleinfield's wife was fine, but two days after the attacks, he was still worried about his dog, trapped in a home that Kleinfield couldn't yet return to.

At Newsday, Editor Tony Marro says planning the news that day was the simple part.

"All the decisions are easy ones," he says. "You don't have discussions--you just figure out how you can do it--you just scramble. You don't have to argue about throwing everything else out."

Once the reporters and photographers were in the field, they faced, among other difficulties, the problem of calling the office. Cell phone lines were often jammed, both by the sheer volume of calls and because antennas on top of the World Trade towers had been destroyed. Lines to use pay phones often ran 20 people deep. But they persisted, and reports started flowing back to the office faster than editors could handle them.

At the Times, for more than 12 hours, advertising and strategic planning department workers staffed the dictation desk, taking feeds from reporters and photographers and eyewitness accounts from callers. At Newsday, sports copy editors pitched in to read news copy.

Editors and staff kept a constant eye on the television news. Graphics people rushed to put together useful and readable material. And everyone waited for the next target. The George Washington Bridge? The Empire State Building? Grand Central Station?

How to choose from the endless stream of terrible photographs was another dilemma.

In the end, most New York papers included a photo by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew of a person freefalling out of one of the towers--the picture that seemed to shock readers the most.

Marro says similar pictures were coming in all day. "Half of all the stories were people saying how horrifying it was to see people jump or be thrown out," Marro says. "We decided to run this because it was small enough and the person was unidentifiable." The next day, the paper fielded reader complaints about the picture.

The papers also had to decide what to place on Web sites. At the Times, the volume of hits on NYTimes.com was so high that the system couldn't record them.

By the end of the day, Newsday bumped up its paper by 40 pages and Wednesday's edition included 162 reporters' bylines. The Times took out all ads in the A section except for a full page ad on the back and added an extra press run of 410,000 papers. For Thursday's edition, it was an additional 900,000.

The next problem arose--getting the papers to subscribers.

"Our delivery staff...battled closed roads, bridges and tunnels to try and serve our readers," Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. noted in a long memo to the staff complimenting them on their work. "In Manhattan, which many carriers were simply unable to enter, only half of our 130,000 home delivery subscribers received their papers by morning."

Once the work was done, many staff members could not get back to their homes in downtown Manhattan and the paper's human resources department searched for hotel rooms for them.

One thing that wasn't lacking was food. Since a newsroom, like an army, moves on its stomach, there was plenty of it. "I think there's an exercise in transference through eating," Applebome says. Pasta, sandwiches, drinks and salads were brought in nonstop.

Counseling services and tips for staff members on dealing with the shock were also available. The story, happening in the paper's backyard, shook up reporters in a way Applebome says he hadn't seen before.

"On most stories, no matter how horrible, you have reportorial distance," he says. "This one tore down that wall."

It's not only that the disaster was so big and so close to home, but "that it's going to go on for so long," he says. "With any hurricane or fire, it's over. But here, what's going to happen next? It might be a one-time thing, but then again, it might be a whole new world."

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