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Columbia Journalism Review - Nov/Dec, 2001


November, 2001 / December, 2001


LENGTH: 1445 words


BYLINE: BY RUSS BAKER; Russ Baker is a contributing editor to CJR.

Shortly before 8 A.M. on September 11, Jim Pensiero, an assistant managing editor for The Wall Street Journal, was crossing a pedestrian bridge to the Journal's offices in the World Financial Center, across the street from the World Trade Center. On the way, he ran into Andrea Carabillo, an Italian software developer who had been fine-tuning an upgrade version of the Journal's new Hermes pagination system. Carabillo was returning to his hotel for some rest, having been at the paper since 6:30 A.M. fixing a bug in the upgrade. The system had been installed just two days earlier, part of a broader, ongoing effort to make the Journal more technologically robust and better prepared to weather emergencies.

Talk about timing. At 9 A.M., Pensiero was engrossed in his work when a call from his wife sent him rushing to the Page One offices. There, with several colleagues, including managing editor Paul Steiger, he watched in disbelief as flames roared from the north tower. "Papers fell toward the street," he would later recall, "like some sort of bizarre ticker tape parade." As Pensiero describes it, Steiger reacted instantly, asking him about backup scenarios in the event of an evacuation. Pensiero mentioned the "campus" maintained by the Journal's parent company, Dow Jones, about an hour's drive away in South Brunswick, New Jersey. The facility, which houses back-office personnel, had been outfitted in the past eighteen months with a couple of classroom-sized spaces full of computer workstations. And in recent months Journal editors, under Pensiero's direction, had spent a couple of Saturday mornings practicing making up the paper there, in case of an emergency. Pensiero, whom Steiger labels the Journal's September 11 "General Patton," ordered up a full deployment to the location; Journal technology chieftains Bill Godfrey and Bland Smith were already in motion. They had not waited a minute too soon, for, right in the middle of Pensiero's calls, a tremendous jolt hit the offices -- the second hijacked airliner slamming into the Trade Center.

Pensiero ran back to his office, and was preparing an email message to key editors when an evacuation order came over the public address system. Steiger stopped by to say he was headed outside to find his wife, who worked nearby. He and Pensiero could rendezvous out front and head south together. Pensiero tried to finish his note, and was still typing when a security guard ordered him out on the double. He hit "send" and grabbed his coat. On the street, he couldn't find Steiger, and first one and then a second police officer asked him to move out of the area toward the Hudson River.

Then he saw a man jump from a high floor of the north tower. "I knew I had to go; I couldn't help any of these poor people," he says. "My boss had given me an assignment, and now I must flee this place of death and try to get my job done." Pensiero, who commutes from New Jersey, hopped a ferry; it was just pulling into Jersey City when the south tower collapsed, in Pensiero's words, with "a sickening roar. I couldn't believe what I was seeing." Having caught the last ferry from downtown Manhattan, he found an open station of the PATH rapid transit system and took what turned out to be the last train to Newark, where he retrieved his car and headed south. He was jolted further when he glanced east. Both towers had vanished.

The South Brunswick offices seemed from another world -- a comfortable, modern, suburban campus with expansive green lawns. The two "emergency" newsrooms were ready to go, and staff had prepared additional ones, so that fifty-five workstations were operational -- most with the Hermes pagination and editing software that Carabillo had installed. Pensiero was further relieved to see that the Journal's copy chief, Jesse Lewis, was on the premises.

Almost miraculously, Carabillo's upgrade had just been completed, two months behind schedule, and the South Brunswick servers were up and running with the enhanced version of the pagination and news editing software. When the decision was made to evacuate, technicians, relying on backup power from generators, were able to transfer editorial data out of World Financial Center servers. The Journal also had on hand a news prepress team, whose usual job was to prepare financial statistics pages, and who jumped readily into the task of pagination.

News of the first plane crash had reached Marcus Brauchli, the national editor, at home in Brooklyn Heights, across the East River from lower Manhattan. Brauchli and a colleague tried crossing the Brooklyn Bridge by foot against a swelling throng heading out of the city, but he thought better of it and returned to his apartment. His phone service was intermittent but he found he could reach people via an internal company e-mail system over his DSL line. In all, he sent more than 500 messages that day, and read more than 1,000, often responding with a simple Yes or No. He was more detailed in his frequent e-mails to Dow Jones chairman Peter Kann, who was in Hong Kong for the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Asian Wall Street Journal. At about 10:30, Brauchli notified his bureau chiefs that there would be a paper, and before long, lists of pending stories were flowing in.

Steiger, who hadn't been heard from for several nerve-wracking hours, finally e-mailed at 1 P.M. to say he'd been caught in the dust cloud when the towers collapsed. He convened a group of about ten editors at the upper west side apartment of Barney Calame, a deputy managing editor, who had two computers and a working phone. Page one came together in an online collaboration with the paper's designers. They fashioned a headline: TERRORISTS DESTROY WORLD TRADE CENTER, HIT PENTAGON IN RAID WITH HIJACKED JETS.

In South Brunswick, more staffers straggled in, including advertising and graphics personnel, and a handful of editors. "I wanted to cry on seeing them, but I wasn't quite ready to show my emotions," says Pensiero. By 5 P.M., just 45 of the usual Manhattan retinue of 140 or so editors, paginators, and graphics people who usually put out the paper were on hand. Pensiero grabbed whoever he could and pressed them into duty. Some copy editors were told that, for the day, they were Page One editors. Many reporters worked from wherever they were; in some cases, filing from cars and phone booths.

At 7 P.M., John Bussey, the foreign editor, arrived in South Brunswick and began pounding out a first-person account. His office faces the south tower, and he saw it collapse, diving under a desk when the windows blew out. Bussey stayed on for a time, filing on-air updates to Journal content partner CBNC. His gripping account made it into a replated front page.

Remarkably, given its location, Dow Jones did not lose a single person, although many traumatized staffers have availed themselves of counseling services. (A manager in the graphics department, who lived near the Trade Center, lost everything she owned; colleagues have since over-whelmed her with donated goods.) Steiger says he cannot shake the image of people jumping from the burning towers. "To realize those were not things falling, but human beings . . . ," he says. "I'm sure others have similar things branded on their conscious and subconscious that will be with them for a long, long time."

For the moment, the Journal is operating from a variety of locations -- South Brunswick for most editors, technical, and production staff, plus satellite offices in Manhattan, primarily for reporters. Damage to the World Financial Center, mostly from cascading debris, did not affect structural integrity and although some jobs (notably the copy desk) will remain in South Brunswick and others will be dispersed, the Journal will reclaim its newsroom at some point. "My guess is winter," Steiger says.

In the end, the Journal helped calm the nation's financial community by just being there on September 12. "One thing we have been astonished by was how much people around the country were comforted by the fact the Journal was in their driveway the next day," Steiger says. Indeed, all but 180,000 of the usual 1.8 million copies were distributed. To the average reader, there were few signs -- two sections instead of three, for example -- of the challenge it had been to publish.

The primary sign of a tectonic shift, of course, was Page One. This was only the second time in the 112-year history of the cool-headed daily that events seemed to justify a banner headline. The first was Pearl Harbor.


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