Howell Raines was 58 years old—“the cusp of 60,” as he put it—when he walked into his new office in the northeast corner of the newsroom. It was September 5, 2001, his first day as executive editor. Raines was impatient, and he was driven—determined to shake up the Times, just as he had told the publisher, A. O. Sulzberger Jr., he would.
He knew he did not have that much time. His three immediate predecessors, A. M. Rosenthal, Max Frankel, and Joseph Lelyveld, had stepped down before they turned 65, and Raines had learned from covering politics that at any institution, a new executive had only so long before hitting the barrier of institutional resistance. He gave himself five years.
He marked the day with an exuberant memorandum to the staff that did not really convey the aggressiveness of his ambitions. “In my first communication as executive editor, I wanted to tell you how honored I am to be working with the best news staff in the world,” he wrote. “Together we will share the adventure of sustaining the Times’s quality, affirming its tradition of journalistic excellence, and preserving this irreplaceable institution for future generations of Times readers and journalists.”
Raines was as much a stranger to many of the people in the newsroom as they were to him. He was moving fast and did not particularly care what people thought of him—he never really had—other than that they realize that he would be more than a caretaker.
Still, as he awoke and poured himself a cup of coffee on his seventh day of work, on the morning of September 11, 2001, he was certain he had some time to learn this new terrain, to determine which reporters he wanted on the front lines, to surround himself with editors who shared his view about the problems with the newsroom and the urgency for change.
On that same day, Robert McFadden was settling in on the first day of a two-week vacation at a home he was renting in East Hampton. He set out for an early walk on this bright and warm morning, and returned just after nine to find a neighbor waving for his attention, gesturing to the television inside her house. McFadden walked in to see the televised image of smoke and flames pouring out of the side of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. It had just been struck by United Airlines Flight 175. The North Tower was already in flames.
Howell Raines knew he did not have that much time. His three immediate predecessors had stepped down before they turned 65. He gave himself five years.
For 30 years, McFadden had been the person the Times turned to for big stories like this, to produce the authoritative article that captured a moment in history. They were called lede-alls and they required a combination of command, meticulous organization, precision, speed, writerly flair, and a sense of history and Times style. He called in to the metropolitan desk and spoke to a deputy editor, Susan Edgerley, who told him that if he could make it in to the office, where he would be best positioned to manage the information coming in from reporters, the latest updates on television, and the requests of the editors, he would write the lede-all.
East Hampton is 105 miles by car and three hours on the Long Island Railroad from Manhattan. The bridges into Manhattan had been shut down, so driving was not an option. McFadden called the public relations officer for the railroad, who told him that a single train was heading into Manhattan from Ronkonkoma, carrying firefighters to help battle the flames at what would become known as Ground Zero.
By the time McFadden made it to Ronkonkoma, the third of four planes hijacked that morning had crashed into the Pentagon. McFadden boarded a car loaded with firefighters, grim and silent and in full uniform: rubber coats, hatchets, and helmets. The train stopped at what felt to McFadden like every one of the 23 stations between Ronkonkoma and Pennsylvania Station, arriving in New York at six in the evening.
He emerged from Penn Station into a city gripped by chaos and fear: honking cars and knots of traffic and sidewalks teeming with anxious crowds. He was too late to write for the next day’s newspaper, and Edgerley told him to go to his home on the Upper West Side and get some rest. You’ll be doing the lede-alls from here on out, she said. It would be 10 days before he made it back to East Hampton.
The Times newsroom rose slowly to life each morning in those days. Reporters and editors would begin drifting in around 10, carrying coffee in blue-and-white paper Anthora cups bought from a street vendor on the corner of West 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue.
On the morning of September 11, Alison Smale was there in the empty newsroom at 8:30, since she was the early editor on the foreign desk, and was on the telephone with James Bennet, the new Jerusalem bureau chief, who was objecting to how his story had been edited. The lines on the telephone at her desk began lighting up, and she asked Bennet if she could put him on hold for a moment.
Smale picked up a phone to hear Judith Miller on the line. Miller, who lived near the World Trade Center, had gone to vote in that morning’s New York City mayoral primary and had looked up to see flames and smoke billowing into the sky. The World Trade Center blew up! she said.
A few minutes later, Roger Cohen, who had become acting foreign editor effective that morning, arrived at the Times—he made one of the last subways out of Brooklyn Heights—to find Gerald Boyd, the new managing editor, out front nervously smoking a cigarette. Thank God you’re here—go to your desk, Boyd said, grabbing Cohen by the shoulders and pushing him through the door.
Times reporter Robert McFadden boarded a car loaded with firefighters, grim and silent and in full uniform: rubber coats, hatchets, and helmets.
On this primary day, New Yorkers were selecting a successor to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. It was an important election, marking the final chapters of Giuliani’s rule in New York, so most metropolitan editors had been told not to show up before noon, because it would be a late night. But someone needed to cover the desk in the morning, and that assignment fell to Anne Cronin, a features editor on the metropolitan desk.
Cronin voted early that morning and took the subway to Times Square. She emerged from the subway to see crowds glancing up at the huge screen perched over the square. It showed the World Trade Center ablaze. She hurried to the office, and found Melena Ryzik, a clerk stationed at the metropolitan desk, struggling with a barrage of telephone calls—from reporters and editors, but also from readers who wanted to make sure the Times was aware of the attack on downtown Manhattan. Before long, Ryzik was answering each call with the same greeting: We know about the World Trade Center.
Cronin began calling reporters who lived or worked downtown to dispatch them to the scene. It was harrowing. For the rest of the day, whenever she heard from a reporter, she would draw a line through their name. I don’t have to worry about them anymore, she thought.
This was a catastrophic event with no shortage of eyewitnesses, in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey, and it became clear from the volume of telephone calls into the newsroom that there was an archive of first-hand accounts from New Yorkers that demanded to be collected.
Cronin looked up from her desk to see six typists from the classified department, who normally would be answering calls and transcribing used-car and employment ads for the next day’s newspaper. Cronin dispatched them to a conference room, equipped with six phones, and instructed clerks to send all calls from eyewitnesses there.
Reporters, photographers, and graphic artists headed for the World Trade Center—some on the instruction of editors, others on their own initiative—swimming upstream against crowds of people covered in dust trying to escape the destruction.
For the rest of the day, whenever Anne Cronin, a features editor on the metropolitan desk, heard from a reporter, she would draw a line through their name. I don’t have to worry about them anymore, she thought.
Katherine E. Finkelstein, a reporter, grabbed her cell phone and a charger, jumped on a bicycle, and rode downtown. She locked her bicycle a block and a half from the North Tower and ran toward the building. She froze at the sound of the low rumble just before a mountainous cloud of dust came down the block as the tower collapsed. She would spend the next 36 hours near Ground Zero.
Sarah Slobin, a graphics designer, made it as far as Cedar Street, just a few blocks from Ground Zero, where she began drawing a sketch for a map. Her notes, scribbled in the terror and chaos of the moment, captured what she saw on the sidewalk. “Glass, woman’s shoe, office paper, fiberglass.” She turned and fled for safety when the building collapsed in front of her.
For those staffers who lived outside of Manhattan, the struggle to get to work, or to the scene of the attack, would prove daunting.
Manhattan is closed, a police officer guarding the Queensboro Bridge told Lew Serviss, a metropolitan desk editor trying to walk from his home to work.
How would it look if they stopped The New York Times from publishing? he responded.
Serviss walked over to another checkpoint and held his Times identification to another officer, who waved him through.
Jose Lopez, a photographer who lived in Brooklyn, was blocked as he tried to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. He ran into another Times photographer, Ruby Washington, covered head to foot in dust, who had taken photographs of the building collapsing before she was pushed with the crowd across the Brooklyn Bridge.
There was little chance that either of them would make it to the office that day. Washington retrieved her rolls of film and gave them to Lopez, who brought them to a one-hour photo-processing store in the neighborhood, took the prints home, and transmitted them over a telephone line to the photo desk across the river in Manhattan.
Serge Schmemann, the United Nations correspondent, left his apartment on the Upper West Side and jumped a ride with a Con Edison emergency truck heading downtown.
Schmemann was a Moscow correspondent for the Associated Press when he joined the Times in 1980. From across Europe, he had written the lede-alls on the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, in November 1995.
Graphics designer Sarah Slobin’s notes, scribbled in the terror and chaos of the moment, captured what she saw on the sidewalk. “Glass, woman’s shoe, office paper, fiberglass.”
Schmemann was 56 years old, a thoughtful writer with a sense of history and grasp of current events. Anne Cronin realized McFadden could not get into the office in time, and she needed a reporter to handle the main story. If Schmemann can write about the fall of the Berlin Wall, he can write about this, she thought.
He took a desk and stayed there for the next 14 hours, sifting through the eyewitness transcriptions and debriefing those reporters who made it into the newsroom, notebooks in hand. (The cell-phone and landline networks were overloaded, so at least initially, this was the most effective way to collect information from reporters in the field.)
Schmemann was struck by the silence in the room; the “grim sense of duty,” he thought, of people working to make sense of a terrifying attack in their backyard, and who were worried that the Times building might be the next target. “While we have no reason to believe that we are in any danger, we are taking all reasonable security precautions,” the newspaper said in a note to employees that went out at 10:29 A.M. But the note cautioned the staff not to leave the building.
When the television screens around the room showed the second tower collapsing, there was just silence; no one paused, there were no gasps or cries. Cronin first thought they were just replaying the first crash from a different angle, until the telephone consoles on her desk again lit up with calls.
Fire and Raines
Raines had woken at seven o’clock in the morning and was reading the Times over coffee at a long, narrow maple table at his four-story town house on 11th Street, when Arthur Sulzberger Jr. called him.
Are you watching television?
Raines turned on the television to see one of the towers in flames. As he was getting ready to leave, Sulzberger called again to report that the second tower had been hit.
Raines walked over to Seventh Avenue, where a throng of hospital workers wearing green scrubs waited for the fleet of ambulances carrying survivors from the attack. He stopped a cab driver and offered him $50 to take him to the Times building.
From the corner where Greenwich Avenue cut on an angle into Seventh Avenue, Raines had an unencumbered view over the low-rise skyline of Greenwich Village to the towers engulfed in smoke and flame. Looking toward the southern tip of Manhattan at those early images, he thought this was a story that demanded compelling photographs.
He had told Sulzberger, as they discussed the job, that the Times needed to publish more—and better—photographs in its pages if it wished to compete in the more visual world of television and the Internet. Joseph Lelyveld was admired among his reporters but less so among his photographers. When, in a discussion of how to package the “How Race Is Lived in America” series, photo editors requested more space, even if that meant cutting back on some stories—arguing that photographs would make the powerful words assembled by the journalists more compelling—Lelyveld refused. Better luck with the next guy, he’d said.
Raines arrived in the newsroom, his shirt soaked with sweat, and stopped by the metropolitan desk to talk to Cronin, who gave him a rundown of the initial story assignments. He inspected the pictures gathered by the Times and wire-service photographers as they came in during the day, displayed on a screen in the photo department, pointing to the ones he wanted for the next day’s newspaper. His choices included an Associated Press photograph of a man who had jumped from the tower to escape the searing heat, plunging headfirst to his death.
Some of his editors were concerned that this was too gruesome for the Times—an invasion of privacy for the man’s family, should they be able to identify him from the photograph. But Raines likened the picture to the famous Robert Capa photograph that appeared to depict the death of a Spanish Civil War soldier, falling backward after being struck by a bullet. This is a historically violent, world-shaping event, Raines said. The Times would publish the picture.
That evening, as editors and photographers gathered to plan the second edition, Raines announced that he would not follow the usual practice of trimming photographs between editions to make more space for more news stories. Jim Wilson, a photo editor, was stunned; this, he would say years later, clearly marked the beginning of a new era at the top of the newspaper.
Raines’s choices for imagery included an Associated Press photograph of a man who had jumped from the tower to escape the searing heat, plunging headfirst to his death.
Al Siegal, the assistant managing editor who had worked with A. M. Rosenthal in writing the front-page headline for the explosion of the space shuttle, was, like many editors and reporters that day, stranded at home—in his case, in New Jersey, since ferry service between Hoboken and Manhattan had been suspended. He sent his proposal for the headline to capture this moment of attack: “Terror Rocks U.S.”
Paul Winfield, a news editor, who was in the newsroom, did not like Siegal’s idea. It did not capture the enormity of the day, the brutality and calculation of the attack, or the nation’s vulnerability: the Pentagon (and perhaps the White House) had been targets. Raines and other editors were huddled, sketching out the layout of the front page, when Winfield came over with his own idea for the words that should go across the top of the page: “U.S. Attacked.”
Raines liked it immediately. It was evocative of the headlines on the front pages in the days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941. Its understatement recalled the Times’s THE SHUTTLE EXPLODES headline in Rosenthal’s last year.
Serge Schmemann, the Times’s U.N. correspondent, jumped a ride with a Con Edison emergency truck heading downtown.
Under the U.S. ATTACKED headline, a huge color photograph of the towers engulfed in flames spilled down much of the front page. There was an analysis of what this moment meant for the nation by R. W. Apple, one of Raines’s friends and star writers, and a detailed story describing the scene by N. R. Kleinfield. “The horror arrived in episodic bursts of chilling disbelief, signified first by trembling floors, sharp eruptions, cracked windows,” he wrote.
Schmemann spent most of the afternoon on September 11 writing and rewriting the first four paragraphs of the main story that would appear at the top of the page; those were the paragraphs that people would remember. Hijackers rammed jetliners into each of New York’s World Trade Center towers yesterday, toppling both in a hellish storm of ash, glass, smoke and leaping victims, while a third jetliner crashed into the Pentagon in Virginia. There was no official count, but President Bush said thousands had perished, and in the immediate aftermath the calamity was already being ranked the worst and most audacious terror attack in American history.
Schmemann was sitting a few feet from James Barron, an engaging writer who had joined the Times as a copyboy in June 1977, after graduating from Princeton University. He was a reporter who editors turned to over the years to command big deadline stories such as the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, a deadly airplane crash at LaGuardia Airport when a Cleveland-bound USAir jetliner tried to take off in a snowstorm in 1992, and a fire at Happy Land, a social club in the Bronx, that killed 87 people in 1990. For the past three years, he’d written Boldface Names, a society column.
He was one of the reporters who rushed into the office after learning of the attacks but arrived to find assignments had been handed out. Barron was at his desk, a spectator to the coverage of one of the biggest stories of his career, when Michael Oreskes walked over. The Times had sent out its first news alert about the attack five minutes after the plane hit, and there was a 499-word story that had been rushed out by an early-morning writer and posted on the Web site.
We want you to write a story for the Web site, Oreskes told Barron. He would be writing for the continuous-news desk that had been created to feed the Web site with breaking news. For Barron, the assignment was a reason for both relief and despair. Yes, he would have something to do. But he was disheartened that he had been relegated to a story that would never appear in a newspaper. Who reads the Web site?
Barron and Schmemann were writing about the same events, relying on the same feed of information from reporters and eyewitnesses, keeping an eye on the live coverage on television. But Schmemann was working on a different clock; he could wait after a third building in the complex, Seven World Trade Center, collapsed at 5:20 P.M. in a pile of fire and debris; he had time to fold this latest development in a story he was hours away from filing. Barron was updating his story every hour or so, sending a new first paragraph or a few inserts to Jerry Gray, the continuous-news editor.
For reporter James Barron, covering 9/11 for the Web site was a reason for both relief and despair. Yes, he would have something to do. But he was disheartened that he had been relegated to a story that would never appear in a newspaper. Who reads the Web site?
Schmemann didn’t know anyone in the newsroom was writing a story for the Web site. Jill Abramson, the Washington bureau chief, who had jumped off an elliptical trainer at the gym to head to the office after watching the second plane hit a building, never thought about how this story would be covered on the Web site as she directed the coverage of the attack on the Pentagon and the response of President Bush. Neither did Howell Raines.
The lack of interest—or at least the lack of awareness—of what was going on a few steps from the metropolitan desk showed how much the Times was a newspaper of paper; and that the ambitions and visions of people like Martin Nisenholtz, the founder and C.E.O. of the New York Times Digital, were not shared by people in the newsroom. But if the attacks proved to be a defining moment for the new executive editor, they would turn out to be even more transformative for the Web site—a demonstration of the potential of the Internet to do what the print newspaper could not: provide information to a huge readership that was hungry for minute-to-minute coverage.
So many readers came to the Web site that it almost collapsed. Editors and engineers shrank the size of the type and the photographs and stripped away design flourishes to quicken the download speed and accommodate the surge of demand. The Web site presented stories in ways that the newsroom had resisted before, such as slideshows, narrated by the Times photographers who had taken the pictures.
“In some ways, it had the same effect on our business as the Gulf War had on cable news,” Nisenholtz told a meeting of the Times board of directors the following February. “It put us on the map in a major way.” Over the next three weeks, 17 million readers came to the site. The daily print circulation for the Times in 2001 was 1.1 million.
Barron never realized how many people were seeing his story, still convinced that he had drawn a dead-end assignment. That changed a few weeks later when, back to writing his Boldface Names column, he and his wife, Jane, attended a book party at the home of Peter Jennings, the ABC news anchor, on Central Park West.
The room was filled with television reporters, anchors, and producers—people who had been immersed in the coverage of the attacks. They did not have the time to wait for the first edition of the Times to hit the streets. They had all read the Times coverage on nytimes.com—checking in all day, right before they went on the air, and during the commercial breaks. And they had read the stories written by James Barron.
When Abramson drove home after midnight at the end of that first day, she could see the glow of the embers from the Pentagon as she crossed the 14th Street Bridge.
Cronin returned to her apartment in Greenwich Village to find barricades and military vehicles on 14th Street in Manhattan. She walked into her bedroom, where that morning she had gazed at the World Trade Center. Now all she could see was billows of dust and smoke illuminated by the glow of television lights.
Raines left the office after midnight, after the newspaper had gone to press, and checked into a hotel around the corner rather than negotiate the police barriers that had risen across downtown Manhattan. This was probably the peak of my career, he thought. He had been on the job for barely a week. The next day, he sat down to write a note of gratitude to his new staff. “Thank you one and all for a magnificent effort in putting out, in the midst of a heartbreaking day, a paper of which we can be proud for years to come,” he wrote.
There were 66 stories about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the newspaper of September 12, 2001. They filled the 28-page first section with the exception of the editorial page and the Op-Ed page, which were also devoted to the attack. Almost every paid advertisement in the first section was thrown out that morning to make way for the coverage. Raines wanted a front page that people would collect and save for years.
With his response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Raines had shown how he intended to run the newsroom; how he would “raise the competitive metabolism” of his staff—a phrase which would become an overused if accurate description of Raines’s style—and “flood the zone” to deploy all of the Times’s resources to cover big stories.
This was probably the peak of my career, Raines thought. He had been on the job for barely a week.
The Times would be awarded a record seven Pulitzer Prizes the following April—six of them for the coverage of the terrorist attacks. Almost every day for the rest of the year, Raines would go through his mail and savor the praise. “Just wanted to say how much I’ve admired the extraordinary Times coverage since Sept. 11,” Pete Hamill, a columnist at the Daily News, wrote him. “It’s been just as good as it ever can get.”
Raines forwarded a stack of the notes of praise to Sulzberger. “Howell: These are amazing & wonderful letters,” Sulzberger wrote back later that fall. “Keep them.”
Sulzberger shared one that he had received from Russell Baker, the paper’s now-retired columnist who had written for the Times Op-Ed page for 36 years. “The old guys ought to leave the publisher in peace, and I’ve done my best, but I must tell you what I think and it’s this: From the 11th of September the Times has consistently, day after day after day, done the most astonishing, amazing, extraordinary, wonderful and elegant job of covering a story that has ever been done by anyone anyplace.”
On the last day of 2001, from retirement, Lelyveld sent his own note to Raines and Boyd. “I can’t let the year end without saying what a remarkable run it has been—the greatest team effort, I should think, in the paper’s entire history,” Lelyveld wrote. “You should feel great pride.”
Adam Nagourney is a reporter for The New York Times and the author of several books, including the forthcoming The Times