The newspapers of the nation that published extra editions within hours of the terrorist attack on Sept. 11 followed a centuries-old tradition that provided readers with context and coherence as events of the times unfolded. Now some experts say that by doing what newspapers do best – capturing history and conveying its importance and impact – these extra editions validated the feelings of a nation in shock and may be harbingers of a regeneration of journalism at a crucial time in its evolution. “This has been one of American journalism’s greatest moments, I really think that,” said Tim McGuire, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “In the Internet age, newspapers sold hundreds of thousands of extra editions. That’s been a very rejuvenating thing. Certainly the number of extras we saw reinforces that TV and the Internet are very fleeting and newspapers give you a chance to retain yesterday.” Following in the tradition of “extraordinary” editions that have been traced to Colonial America’s Connecticut Courant, newspapers of the nation rolled out extras in unprecedented numbers during the afternoon of Sept. 11. “In my lifetime and career,” McGuire said, “coverage has never been as aggressive, as poignant and as complete.” The Star-Tribune produced its most recent extra in 1996 after the verdict was announced in the O.J. Simpson murder case, but other papers have produced extras less often. The Kansas City Star, for example, hadn’t produced an extra edition since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969. Some newspapers hadn’t published an extra since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and V-E Day in 1945. Historically, extras have a rich tradition of aggressively covering breaking news and delivering it to readers hungry for the latest development. “People expected extras on nights when elections were decided, heavyweight championship fights were held, or a declaration of war or an armistice was imminent,” according to a 1976 centennial-edition story written for the Flint (Mich.) Journal by Colin J. “Mac” McDonald, a reporter and editor there from 1927-66. “Other times the news might be the death of a president, a transoceanic flight, a major crime, a disaster, the capture of a murderer or arrests of officials.” Clearly, there have been big stories – the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the Gulf War and the Nixon impeachment, to name a few – but there has not been a story since Vietnam that carried as much “threat” attached to it as Sept. 11 did, said Jim Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Those were big stories, but they weren’t as important to the life of the country, to the audience of its citizens, as this story immediately and dramatically was,” Naughton said. It came, he said, at a time when newspaper journalists had convinced themselves that their role had changed, that newspapers needed to give a more “featurized” interpretation of events in order to connect with people who relied on television for news. “Out of this we may, and I stress may, discover that news really does matter and that newspapers serve a civic role that is too valuable to let go of,” Naughton said. “The extras showed the value and importance of real news, and I hope we haven’t, in the course of becoming more reader-ly, feature-y and human, lost the ability to tell the real news stories. I don’t think we have. I think we have caught ourselves in time.” Monica Moses, of Poynter’s visual journalism faculty, praises the Sept. 11 extras “for chutzpah, for hustle, for being bold and powerful.” Newspapers freeze the moment, she said, and the extras provided
corroboration of news so shocking people needed to hear it from more than one source. Given the timing of the attack, the extras published in the afternoon hours of Sept. 11 were the only tangible printed version of the story available to many people who had difficulty connecting to the Web and who were seeing repeated information and images on television. But the timing of the attack tells another story about the Sept. 11 extras and American journalism, said Eric Newton, founding managing editor and former news historian with the Freedom Forum’s Newseum in Arlington, Va., and now with the Knight Foundation in Miami, Fla. “This is as much about the vacancy in the news cycle left by the demise of the afternoon paper as it is about the desire to put out extras,” Newton said. “The trend in the last 50 years in this country has been the death of afternoon newspapers and the switch to morning publications. This story broke on an afternoon cycle. And they weren’t there.” The same phenomenon occurred, to a lesser extent, when the Challenger space shuttle exploded and when the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. It may partially explain coverage of the Persian Gulf war, when events generally broke on the morning cycle because of the differences in time zones. A related phenomenon, Newton said, is the declining number of editions that newspapers have published since multiple editions peaked in the 1940s and 1950s. “You can, in the 40s and 50s, see front pages from New York, especially, that would have the scores of baseball games through the fourth inning,” Newton said. “The next edition would be the fifth inning, then the sixth. The idea of headlines updated hourly or every two hours is not something that was invented by the personal computer. It has always gone on whenever there were enough large numbers of people massed together to make it economical.” The cause of the demise of multiple editions mirrors the cause of the demise of the afternoon newspaper: “It’s fundamentally television,” Newton said, adding that a tide of other sociological changes contributed. Still, for reasons that may not be fully understood, people have more trust and reliance on what they see in black and white, says the Poynter’s Naughton. “Now there’s an awakening of understanding of the value of print when it has real things to tell you that are relevant to your life,” he said. “Those extras were an affirmation of something of value.” In addition, experts say, the extras and the front pages documenting the Sept. 11 attack are particularly valuable because, like other momentous front pages in American history, they will be saved by people who want to document the event for future memory. They become a “keepsake – what folklorists call a ‘memory object’ – that people can use in the future to remember the events and their feelings about them, says Carolyn Kitch, a journalism professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa., who specializes in collective memory in journalism. “The fact that we have and save these objects provides evidence that ‘we were there’ when this happened, and it gives us a sense of importance as witness to the tragedy,” she said. “Most people need that sense of participation because we feel so helpless and unable to do anything to fix this.”
Bonnie Bressers teaches in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.