When Mark Bowden first contemplated "Blackhawk Down," the Philadelphia Inquirer 's month-long chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of the battle of Mogadishu, he never expected it to require trips to Georgia without editors' knowledge and to the battle scene in Somalia. Nor did he think it would take a year to do. In fact, Bowden never thought the series would happen at all.
The G.A. reporter and master of long pieces was intrigued by the 1993 saga of 120 American soldiers on a disastrous 15-hour mission. Two U.S. Blackhawk helicopters were shot down; 500 Somalis were left dead and 1,000 wounded. Afterwards, the image of the body of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu was indelibly etched in minds around the world.
"Initially I thought, 'I probably won't succeed,' " says the 46-year-old Bowden of the moment during the summer of 1996 when he decided to do a story that explained the events of Mogadishu and what they meant for U.S. foreign policy.
With no go ahead from the Inky's editors on high, Bowden, an 18-year veteran of the paper, began to research what would become a magnum opus in print, and even more magnum in the cyberworld.
After visiting a Georgia army base on his own dime, Bowden realized his pockets wouldn't stretch as far as he needed to go: Somalia. He explained the idea to Executive Editor Robert Rosenthal . "He got really excited about it," Bowden says. With backing from his employers, his year-long marriage to the piece began.
The series' November 16 debut reminded readers there can be space for longer, explanatory journalism – the serial. "We have a minute-by-minute narrative that's a cliffhanger and gets people coming back," says Bowden's editor, David Zucchino .
Reminiscent of the Inquirer's glory days of mega series, the project, which also spawned a documentary, has catapulted the paper's Web site into the land of mega cyberseries. The series' Web site ( www.philly-news.com ) is a "multimedia monster," Bowden says, with sound bites from his interviews with U.S. soldiers and Somalis, plus maps, graphics, video and photos. And, says Zucchino, "at the heart of the Web site is still a powerfully written story."
Netheads are taking note.
With each day the series ran, the number of hits the site received rose substantially. On the first day of the series, the Web site got eight times the average number of hits, with people from as far as Spain and Africa commenting. The first week of December saw a record 36,000 hits. "In my 25 years as a reporter, this is the biggest response I've seen to a story," Bowden says.
Inky Editor Maxwell E.P. King , who will leave his post to write for the paper this spring, says from the get-go the paper decided to use the Web to complement the print version of "Blackhawk Down."
"I told David and Mark to start collaborating with the Web people right away," he says. "Because we did start early in the process it helped to produce something very unusual and very exciting."
Bowden says the size of the daily stories were the result of a hard-won compromise with King, who wanted them "digestible." The Inky would run the series over a month, and King wanted stories short enough so readers wouldn't feel like they were reading the Sunday paper every day. In the end daily stories ran at between 27 and 40 inches; Sunday pieces were sometimes up to 100 inches.