The Biggest Story  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 2001

The Biggest Story   

A firsthand look at how the Chicago Tribune geared up to cover the carnage of September 11, 2001

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


JAMES O'SHEA WAS OUT FOR A LEISURELY morning jog around Chicago's quiet Lincoln Park neighborhood when the first jetliner slammed into the World Trade Center September 11. He walked back into the house on the balmy, sun-streaked morning and glanced at the TV screen. Like millions of other Americans, he stared in horrified disbelief.

Suddenly, the adrenaline kicked in. The hideous drama unfolding live was a colossal story, perhaps the biggest in his long career. The Chicago Tribune's managing editor grabbed a telephone and began calling his heavy hitters.

In New York, Tribune Bureau Chief Lisa Anderson was in a cab rushing to the paper's Park Avenue office, located within sight of the billowing black smoke that rose over Manhattan. She called correspondent Stevenson Swanson, who was on his way to the dentist to have a tooth crowned. Just 30 minutes after the first collision, he made his way to the World Trade Center. By then cell phone signals were completely jammed in New York City; the reporter was in the eye of the storm but out of contact.

O'Shea jumped into the shower, then pulled on a slate gray, pin-striped suit and headed to his office on the fourth floor of the stately Tribune building. His mind was racing. How would his newspaper cover what was shaping up to be the worst and most audacious terrorist attack in America's history?

When he walked into the newsroom around 9 a.m. Central time, like his colleagues throughout the country, he had hardly a clue.

The top story of the day was supposed to have been Chicago icon Michael Jordan coming out of retirement‹not an act of war against the United States by suicide hijackers who used American passenger planes as detonation devices.

The inner workings of the Chicago Tribune on September 11 offer a window into how America's newspapers lived the story of a modern-day Pearl Harbor.

Early that morning, reporters and editors gathered around TV sets in the newsroom, mesmerized by an unimaginable tragedy. To editors like O'Shea and his staff, the hunt for what one Trib reporter called a "wormhole" into a series of events that defied imagination was the challenge of a lifetime. The clicking of the deadline clock was deafening.

"I have never felt more helpless on a story," investigative projects reporter Michael Berens said that day. "The lack of information is maddening. We don't know the airlines, who was on board, who was flying the plane.

"Reporters were literally standing around commiserating and asking: What is our portal into the story? How do we attack it? We desperately were grappling for a hook. We didn't have a game plan."

At 9:30 a.m., the top editors at the Tribune were plotting coverage that included on-the-scene reports from their New York City and Washington, D.C., bureaus. Correspondents around the world were put on standby.

On instinct, Berens headed to his cubicle and began a frantic search of the Internet for militia movements and hate groups in the United States and abroad. He scoured chat rooms and message centers for any sign of involvement in or knowledge of the attacks. He was hoping that "some idiot out there" might be bragging. Berens came up cold.

Another projects reporter was on a fishing expedition with aviation terrorist experts around the country, simply asking, "What have you heard?"

The conference room became a ghoulish exhibit site for bloody images of terror and scenes of mass destruction. Photos, moving on the wire, papered the walls where top editors and department heads met in frantic back-to-back planning sessions.

In the meantime, correspondent Swanson, still with a dead cell phone, was moving through back streets toward the twin towers. He was six blocks away when he heard the dull roar of the second tower collapsing. He remembers struggling in the face of "indefinable horror" to record visual impressions of the steel beams buckling, windows popping out and debris flying like deadly shrapnel onto the street.

He described it as "the most remarkable, extraordinary, horrifying thing I have ever seen." The 21-year veteran had vital pieces of the story but no way to dump his notes to Chicago. When he tried calling from a phone in a bar, he discovered that many land lines also were dead.

In the midst of the mayhem, he faced a dilemma. How much time should he take from interviewing eyewitnesses and survivors to find a phone? At another bar he had success. Swanson managed to dictate enough color for a few inches in the extra. "I looked for people covered with the most ash because they had been the closest," he says.

Back at home base, reporter Alex Rodriguez headed out to record shock waves shaking Chicagoans. He found gridlock on the streets as workers streamed out of the Sears Tower and other high-rise buildings as a precaution.

At 10:34 a.m., staffers received a memo slugged "high importance" from the CEO of the Tribune Co., John W. Madigan. The newsroom would not be evacuated. "We have a responsibility to report these events‹a responsibility heightened at times of confusion," Madigan told the troops.

The paper immediately implemented security measures. It worked with Chicago police to secure the Tribune Tower, closed one of the main entrances and added a second security guard to check employee badges. No vehicles were allowed to park in front of the building or near the loading dock.

By midmorning, the Tribune's publisher had given the green light for an eight-page extra, some 50,000 copies, scheduled to be hawked on the street by noon. Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, was tapped for a report on the structural vulnerability of the World Trade Center, touted just a week before as "designed to withstand the impact of a 707 jetliner" by its structural engineer.

Berens, frustrated and perspiring, kept pumping hunches into the computer. Maybe September 11 has special significance in the murky world of terrorism, he thought as he began surfing. Again, he drew a blank. A book on a shelf above his computer seemed glumly prophetic. "America: Who Stole the Dream?"

By this time, the Trib's support staff was preparing for the long haul. Toiletries, including toothbrushes and tubes of Colgate toothpaste, showed up in the newsroom, along with bags of green apples, bunches of bananas, bags of Tootsie Rolls and microwave popcorn. Trays of cinnamon coffeecake gave way to deli sandwiches, Polish sausages and Caesar salad.

Then, a decision, unprecedented in the newspaper's history, was made by the Tribune's top brass. Stretching their talent to the limit, they would put out a second extra, a 24-page, ad-free evening edition to be delivered to the homes of 600,000 subscribers. Reporters suddenly had 15 to 20 minutes to file.

(On an average day, the paper's A section contains 24 pages with ads. On September 11, the Tribune staff filled a total of 56 ad-free pages with copy about the tragedy in the two extras and in the Wednesday morning edition. Editor Ann Marie Lipinski pronounced the effort "extraordinary.")

Early in the afternoon, Berens and reporter Jon Hilkevitch hit pay dirt. Painstakingly sifting through reports from the Federal Aviation Administration, General Accounting Office, Department of Transportation and other federal agencies, they discovered that government investigators had warned last year of a tendency for today's terrorists to go for "large-scale incidents designed for maximum destruction, terror and media impact."

They also learned that scantily trained security checkpoint workers earn less than the people flipping burgers at the airport fast-food outlets. Berens zeroed in with laser-beam precision. Who, he wondered, holds security contracts at the nation's airports? Were they mom-and-pop operations or big conglomerates?

Finally, he had a wormhole into the story. Investigative reporters would begin taking a definitive look at the landscape of the air security industry in the United States.

As he scoured Internet search engines, Berens stumbled on a gem: a floor-by-floor list of World Trade Center tenants, which he rushed to the graphics department.

At a 4:30 p.m. meeting, Editor Lipinski listened intently as her lieutenants, gathered around a long black table, provided updates of stories in the works. She asked, "Do we have every copy editor in our employ in the building? If there is anybody that can copy edit in the system, bring them in." There was no sense of panic; it was simply a precautionary move as an avalanche of information began to come together.

The mood in the room was somber. There was no dark humor, just a low buzz as editors debated where to put a story about cellular phone calls passengers made moments before death. They decided to run the images of human beings clinging to ledges and leaping out of the flames. On this day, there was no talk about shielding readers' sensibilities.

After the meeting, O'Shea vented frustration with the lack of tangible data. "We don't know where the hell we are at this juncture. A coordinated attack like this doesn't seem like the work of some loonies out in a jungle somewhere. I don't think this is over."

At the other end of the fourth floor, Mark Hinojosa, the Trib's associate managing editor for electronic news, was overseeing minute-by-minute updates of the Tribune's Web site, which was getting four times the traffic of a normal Tuesday. Ads, subscriber information and everything else had been stripped off. "We're serving just the story, nothing else," he said.

An uneaten ham sandwich sat on his desk next to a TV set transmitting images reminiscent of the movie "Independence Day," in which aliens from outer space blow up the White House and other landmarks in the nation's capital.

Hinojosa heard the first reports of the attacks on National Public Radio as he was driving to work. He dialed his cell phone and, while trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic, began planning a Web package "before we even knew the scope of what was going on."

By the time the Pentagon was hit, "We already were in full swing, drafting people to write. The metro desk loaned us a reporter," said Hinojosa, who moved swiftly, working two computers.

On this day, the Trib had gone back to the basics of delivering news without video streams. "I don't believe we've even begun to get our arms around this story‹and the humongous repercussions," Hinojosa said as he headed to another meeting.

Newsroom historian Ron Grossman doesn't remember a time in 21 years with the paper that as many people‹close to 500 counting international bureaus‹were thrown into coverage of a breaking story. The rapid-fire response demanded by two special editions also was a first. "I have never seen this much energy put into anything before," said Grossman, who covers ethnic communities.

As the drama wore on and investigators began focusing their attention on renegade Saudi exile Osama bin Laden as the likely perpetrator, Grossman became a key player in the Tribune's coverage. His beat includes the 350,000 Muslims in the newspaper's circulation area.

The most obvious story was possible retaliation against the local Islamic population. Grossman didn't have to look far. The director of the Arab American Action Network was closing the social center's doors at noon when a passer-by stopped his car and accused him of being a "baby killer."

Someone had tacked up signs saying "Kill All Arab Terrorists" on telephone posts along 79th Street. In a suburb, a van flying American flags circled a complex of schools and a mosque. A driver made obscene gestures.

Grossman knew instantly that the day's events would mark a new chapter in the lives of the Muslims he covered.

His day in the newsroom had a humble beginning. When he first rushed in after hearing the news from a neighbor, Grossman, like dozens of other staffers, went straight to the metro desk and asked, "How can I help?" His first "assignment" was to stay by the telephone, acting as a navigator for young reporters who were hopelessly lost on their way to assignments.

"They come from Harvard with a lot of book learning, but they don't know where Crawford Street is," the veteran reporter grumbled.

By midday, he was inside the Islamic community, listening to fears about "misplaced blame," his story for Wednesday. Grossman already was plotting strategy for a story on how Muslims would deal with what appeared to be the terrible truth.

It was past 7 p.m., and Publisher Scott C. Smith was back in the newsroom to join Lipinski and O'Shea for President Bush's address to the nation. When it was over, Wednesday's banner headline, "Our Nation Saw Evil," was born.

An eerie silence filled the vast newsroom during the speech, as staffers gravitated to television sets. A few wiped tears from their eyes as Bush talked about acts of mass murder against their fellow citizens.

By 9 p.m., Berens had received a visit from Deputy Projects Editor George Pappajohn and learned he had been assigned to a team of reporters focusing on airport security. Someone would zero in on Chicago's O'Hare Airport, one of the world's busiest; others would look at those involved in the hijackings. Before it is over, every major airport in the country will be analyzed.

"This is the biggest story anybody on this newspaper ever worked. What could be bigger?" Pappajohn asked, as he reflected on the cataclysmic events of the day. The reporters "just wanted to roll. Maybe that is our way of coping."

At 1 a.m., there still were a couple hundred staffers milling about the newsroom, sipping the last of the cold coffee and trading war stories about the small‹and large‹victories they had chalked up unearthing details of a story that would warrant its own chapter in the history books.

O'Shea issued his last assignment of the day. "Let's go have a beer," the managing editor said, heading off to the Billy Goat Tavern with an entourage of some 30 reporters and editors. The dark, smoky haunt long has provided refuge to Tribune staffers coming down after pursuing challenging stories.

This one was different. After a day of going at breakneck speed, the discovery process had hardly begun. There was grim speculation about the consequences, everything from the start of World War III to a deadly biological attack as a follow-up. Maybe that's why the mood that night wasn't slap-on-the-back celebratory.

The staffers left knowing their managing editor thought they had performed "brilliantly."

Readers would awaken Wednesday to a front-page photo that could have passed for a bombed-out Balkan city. Instead, it was smoldering ruins in Manhattan. Reporting from New York City, Anderson and Swanson led their page one story with a grim prediction: "The hell that broke loose here on Tuesday morning is far from over."

Berens and Hilkevitch documented the easy cockpit access and lax security that aided the hijackers. Another story told of doomed passengers calling loved ones with messages that will forever be burned into the country's psyche. "Don't worry about us, it's going to be quick," a son told his horrified father moments before he died with his wife and 3-year-old daughter.

By 2 a.m., O'Shea was home, but not in bed. Instead, he was staring at a computer screen, poking around the Internet. "I was looking at other papers of our ilk, making sure we didn't miss anything--that we had it all," he said. America, it seemed, had changed forever since the early morning jog around the neighborhood.

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