Sunday, September 11, 2016

On this day: the other side of the Telegraph's 9/11

Peter Foster’s piece in the Telegraph today recalls the day America came under attack on September 11, 15 years ago.

He nicely mixes fact with anecdote to bring quite a vivid inside view of what it was like to be in a daily newspaper office as the story of the decade was evolving.

But he tells only one part of the story, and an important one, given the the way we look at news today. By the time the newspaper went to press with its first, and highly memorable, edition, readers had been following every spit and cough of the story for the previous eight hours, thanks to a (then) fledgling news team online just two floors above their Canary Wharf offices.

Foster’s story begins by setting a typical newsroom scene – the senior team on the foreign desk were out at lunch. Five calls to mobiles went straight to voicemail and it took a waiter on a landline to deliver the message that they might want to get back to the office.

Upstairs, where the news team in total comprised only three, include myself as the then deputy editor, we were having lunch where we always did – at our desks.

Foster’s initial reaction – “I assumed it was a traffic spotter plane or a police chopper” – were mine exactly. Within five minutes we were leading the Home Page with a non-committal plane believed to have struck the World Trade Centre, partly because the only TV images available were taken from a nearby roof on the other side of the tower.

Unusually, and a sobering sign that this may be something bigger, editorial director Kim Fletcher appeared at my side and watched the next few moments on the TV that hung over my desk. “Probably a training flight?” I said. He was unconvinced. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. This looks bad.”

Then, two things happened.

Firstly, as I began fussing over when we were going to get an image to fit the tiny slot at the top of the page, it happened. Live on Sky TV, the second plane came into view and flew, as if in slow motion, into the second tower.

Secondly, an online newsroom schooled in uploading print copy, embellishing with links, images and meta-tags and providing snappy, running updates for office workers who didn’t want to wait for the 6pm news, suddenly became into a broadcast hub providing minute-by-minute coverage that continued throughout the day and night.

Had it happened a year earlier, I may well have been sitting downstairs on the end of the back bench with everyone else, looking forward to an afternoon of cramming the rest of the news into two pages, before planning and re-planning and trying to imagine what the first edition may look like.

As it was we planned and re-planned on the spin. We had no real video capability, limited access to pictures, no flexible CMS that allowed us to resize an reshape our Home Page, let alone a Twitter feed or even SMS alerts to alert the world of what we were doing.

In fact, in my head, I actually went backwards in time. To the days of filing from phone boxes at the scene, dictating adds and offering wraps and write-thrus as a story unfolded. To make the point, I added the words more soon (in those italics to express urgency) at the end each time we refreshed a refiled.

And, when all those old-fashioned agency things like attribution didn’t seem to cut it, we simply told the reader (users, some of my young team called them) straight: a statement is due any moment, keep refreshing, it’ll be here . . .

An IT lady called Theresa came over and gave an update on traffic. Someone said we were dealing with more than 100 request per second (huge in those days). Someone mentioned the strain on the system in being able to accommodate.

Someone else said CNN and the BBC had temporarily gone down through sheer volume and we were getting their cast-offs. Our pages were taking ages to load. Could we close some of our channels to keep news live?

I heard Editor Derek Bishton say something behind me about closing "all non-essentials" and things seemed to speed up.

On my right I had a rookie reporter called Ann Wasson, an American with family in New York, bashing out updates. I revised them by getting her to read outloud, send and go back in whioe I read over her shoulder. At one stage her voice faltered and a tear appeared as the closeness of it became clear and I told her to close the page for me to go in. She refused.

Fletcher told me “This isn’t enough. We need a new front page”. He took a designer and our best XML coder into a corner and reinvented the front end of the site. The next time we refreshed we had a headline Attack on America - one word away from the one the paper led with - the now-iconic image of the burning tower “and loads of slots for all the comment and analysis" we were amassing.

My wife rang and asked why I was in the office when TV pictures showed all the bankers in all the tower blocks pouring out on to the lawn outside. It reminded me to send the intern home and Fletcher assured me we could relocate to our City office if the building was evacuated.

IT Theresa came over with a mobile and a laptop and said, if we shared a taxi, she could keep me “live” until we got there.

In the event, we stayed. Six hours passed, the most appalling scenes were played out in front of us, the towers were reduced to rubble and she told me: “Well, so far, you’ve published 148 times.”

By the time the drama was over, we were reduced to minor updates and the odd “tweak”. But downstairs the newspaper was just getting into its stride. The batten had been passed. What we had been telling people all afternoon was now being recorded in massively more detail and backed by the sort of heavyweight analysis the Telegraph was known for.

Our night team came in and prepared to out all that online sometime after midnight. As calm returned to the room, I wandered downstairs and watched them in the full flow of organised chaos. I realised there was no baton, really. The paper would be a collector’s item and we’d merely “held the fort”.

I looked at a few proofs, went back upstairs and tinkered all night, keeping the Home Page as fresh as possible as night turned to day in foreign parts and readers, even those in tiny, unheard-of countries where we had five uniques, woke up and logged on.

Then, too late and too tired to drive home to Hertfordshire, I had a nap on the nurse’s couch in the medical room on the 11th floor. At about 4am, a cleaner’s vacuum bashed against the door and I awoke with a start. I was, after all, in a tower block in the heart of a financial centre.

It was only when I closed my eyes it fully dawned on me.

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