The annual task of reassuring my print journalism students that newspapers still matter is going to be a little easier this fall. All I have to do is show them the papers from last fall.
The first slide will be of the front page of the Sept. 11, 2001, New York Times. The above-the-fold photo shows “designer graffiti” over the entrance to New York Fashion Week tents. By the time The Times caught up with the day’s cataclysmic events, readers had been hearing about them from the networks for almost 24 hours.
What could the Sept. 12 paper tell us that we didn’t already know? What could it show us that we hadn’t already seen?
Newspapers have been haunted by these questions for years.
Headline: Peres and Netanyahu in Dead Heat
The morning after Israel’s 1996 prime ministerial election, The Times called the race between Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu a dead heat. But that’s not what Bob Edwards was saying on Morning Edition. Netanyahu had won.
Headline: Citizen Dole Bids Farewell to the Senate
A couple of weeks later, when Bob Dole announced he was quitting the Senate to devote himself to his run for the presidency, The Times reported it just the same as it would have had we not been hearing about it since the previous afternoon. The newspaper of record wasn’t being written for the next day’s readers, apparently, but for future historians.
There have been adjustments, to be sure:
Headlines: Gas Taxes Send Europe Drivers on Road Trips; Teachers Scrap Lesson Plans To Grapple With Starr Report; Hispanic Mothers Lagging As Others Escape Welfare
Now there are more feature leads on the front page.
Sig: News Analysis
Now there are more pieces labeled “News Analysis.”
Headline: U.S. Attacked
But the lead stories are written much as they have always been written. You may not have heard it here first, the leads seem to say, but now that you’ve heard it here, you know it really happened. As if we had doubted the cameras.
Photo: Plane Heads Toward South Tower
When those two jets sliced into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, New York Fashion Week was over, whatever The Times said.
Photo: A snowstorm of documents falling on a stricken city.
The day’s paper may as well have been blowing through the streets of lower Manhattan.
Header: A Nation Watches
If we wanted to know what the hell was going on, we went looking for a television.
After a couple of hours, though, when it began to look as if they could sound the all-clear, at least for the time being, television could not do much more than what it always does: fill air time by repeating, endlessly, what we already know while waiting for the next snippet of information that we do not know.
As the day wore on, the TV went from foreground to background. We kept it on in case there was anything new to report, but we didn’t really have to give it our full attention. Inevitably, we missed a morsel or two of actual news. And somehow, at the end of the day, we didn’t really know what we knew. The endless repetition of the random had the same effect as too much caffeine. After the stimulation had worn off, we felt jittery and unable to concentrate.
In the meantime, the print people were having their news meetings, organizing both the coverage and the packaging of the coverage. When we picked up the paper the next day, there it all was, fleshed out and contextualized.
Header: Rescuers Become Victims
If we wanted to know the status of the search and rescue effort, …
Header: The President Responds
… the Bush administration’s response, …
Header: Washington’s Trial by Fire
… the situation at the Pentagon …
Header: Aftershocks Far and Wide
… or in southwestern Pennsylvania, we went right to the appropriate story. To see all that chaos organized into such tight bundles of information was breathtaking. And these weren’t just synopses. They were stories – stories within stories.
Header: Witnesses Speak
More and more, when calamity strikes, print reporters are our instant oral historians, compiling a massive record of where-we-were-when. The images we saw on TV were appalling, but it was the tales of near misses and narrow escapes in the newspapers that made us cry.
This is not to say that newspapers out-performed television in covering the Sept. 11. Who could ask for more from journalism than showing us the disaster as it happens?
The point is that the two media complemented each other. The televised coverage was for the moment. The newspaper coverage was for the ages.
Front pages of newspapers from around the country.
Lights, please. Any questions?
Russell Frank is an assistant professor of journalism at Penn State University.