Thursday, September 20, 2018

Steve Otto: 9/11 and a reminder of why a newspaper matters

Driving down to mother Trib, I listened to a brief item on the radio. There was a fire in one of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City and someone said a small plane had struck the building.

A few minutes later I was inside the newsroom. Its large windows facing out across the Hillsborough River toward the city let in the only light, except for the glow from a few computer screens. A newsroom doesn't really come to life until much later, when editors gather to plan the next day's edition, and the long rows of desks were empty.

A couple of colleagues, both chewing on bagels, idly watched a TV screen where you could see the smoke billowing from one of the towers. I grabbed a cup of the free coffee and joined them, where we talked about other things.

Then came the dark shadow of another aircraft slamming into the other tower and in that instant the world changed. Sitting down in front of my computer screen, I began searching for information.

As I stared at the skimpy stories I was only dimly aware that the newsroom, empty only a few minutes earlier, was quickly filling up. Amid the growing cacophony of phones ringing and people making quick strides across the newsroom, an editor leaned over my shoulder. He said we were going to put out a special street edition and my column had to be written before 11 a.m.

At that moment the world outside was still confused and chaotic, with no understanding of the scope of the attack.

As I tried to get the gist of what was going on I was aware of the voices around me. There were the calls to politicians and public officials. There were calls to the school system and crisis centers. Reporters out on the street were calling in what was going on while others contacted the airport and the railroad. Reporters checked the grocery stores and gas stations for signs of panic. I became aware of just how connected we were to an entire community and how we were coming together almost without direction.

A couple of hours later I was in the break room and felt the presses coming to life, shaking the building as they churned out the special edition. Salesmen and others volunteered to go out into the streets to distribute the news, the front page wrapped around a huge picture of one of the jets crashing into the trade center.

It was something that only we could do, not just reporting but advising the community of what to do and expect. I think for the first time I recognized the depth and value of the institution and why I loved it.

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