Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Story on the Story: Reporting on the Reporting

The Story Behind the Story
The New York Times

How The Times scrambled to report
on Osama Bin Laden’s death.


Mitchell is the weekend editor of The Times and was the hands-on
editor closing the paper and ramping up the Web site on 5/1.

    It was just before 10 p.m. when Doug Mills, a photographer in the Washington bureau, got a call from the White House press office telling him that President Obama planned to address the nation in 45 minutes. The message was brief and urgent: “Be there.”
    In New York, it had been a more or less normal Sunday. We had picked six stories for the front page and had closed the first national edition. On a Sunday night at this late hour there are not often big changes.
    I was just putting on my coat to call it a weekend when David Geary, the late editor on the news desk, shouted that the president was making a statement in a half hour. From my years covering the White House, I knew presidents don’t often show up in the briefing room at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday night. Whatever this was, it was going to be significant. I took off my coat.
    So did people all over the newsroom whose shift had just ended. We speculated that it might be about Qaddafi. Ham Boardman, a producer whose shift had ended and who had settled in at a nearby bar, came back to the office. Without being asked, rafts of Times journalists flooded in. We counted 103 journalists
involved in the coverage that night. Usually, we’re operating with a skeletal staff this late on a Sunday.
    Back in Washington, our bureau was moving into full gear. The bureau chief, Dean Baquet, had rushed to the office, calling from a taxi to say that his reporters thought the announcement concerned Bin Laden. Captured or killed? Helene Cooper, a White House reporter, worked her sources from home. At 10:37 p.m., her first, spare, report made it to New York: “WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden has been killed, a United States official said. President Obama is expected to make an announcement on Sunday night, almost 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”
    We posted that first bulletin as a news alert on The Times home page at 10:40 p.m. — the beginning of a night of reporting that brought forth the riveting story of how a team of Navy SEALS deployed by the president had killed the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, ending history’s most expansive and exasperating manhunt. With adrenaline pumping and no time to spare, everyone swung into action.
As one editor, Vanessa Gordon, said the next day, “It was sort of fun in an agonizing way, with everyone doing exactly what they do well, very quickly.“
    A crucial step was to stop printing the early edition of the newspaper. It is rare to stop the presses and only the publisher, executive editor or managing editors can authorize it. The last time anyone remembers doing it was election night 2000 around 2:30 a.m. when the paper briefly reported that George Bush had defeated Al Gore — a notion dashed by more reporting. I reached Managing Editor Jill Abramson, and with her okay Mr. Geary told our plant in College Point, Queens, and our national satellite plant to stop the presses. The step ensured that 70 percent of Monday”s papers or roughly 833,000 copies contained the Bin Laden news. At our College Point plant, 7,700 copies of the early edition were destroyed.
    The killing of Bin Laden was historic and it required an entirely new front page. When I asked Jill which of the front page stories we had selected only hours earlier should be pushed inside the paper to make room for the Bin Laden report, we concluded all of them needed to go. That had a substantial ripple effect,
as other stories and advertisements were killed outright to make space for the Bin Laden report. It was now 11 p.m. and a wave of senior editors came into the newsroom — everyone from Susan Chira, the foreign editor, to Jim Roberts, an assistant managing editor.
    Because our print deadline was so tight, our first thought was closing the newspaper, but our planning and thought was focused equally on the Web, where many Americans would be staying awake to absorb this seismic story and want new details throughout the night. In Washington, we asked Dean Baquet to call in Peter Baker, one of our White House reporters, who was away on book leave. Peter would be the perfect person to keep fortifying the main news story on the Web. He gladly volunteered. Even after filing a story for the newspaper, Mark Mazzetti, The Times’s intelligence reporter, had enough reporting filling his notebook to write a reconstruct of the mission. He wrote through the night and filed a graceful and highly detailed story for the Web. He also managed to record a video report, which was produced
overnight by Ben Werschkul and others on our video team and published on the Web shortly after 4 a.m.
    Elsewhere in the newsroom, several producers put together an elaborate, interactive timeline of Bin Laden’s life, while Robert Mackey, who runs the news blog, The Lede, was running a live account of developments and reaction from our reporters and other publications on the Web. Michael Shear, the lead writer for the Caucus blog, contributed audio for the home page, while Sasha Koren and Bassey Etim prepared a scrolling collection of reader comments for the home page.
    Even with the presses stopped, we had little time to put out the newspaper. Minutes counted. So it became unnerving as the president failed to appear at 10:30 or 10:45 or 11 p.m., finally speaking closer to 11:30 p.m. With only a half hour to write, Ms. Cooper teamed up with Mr. Baker on the main news story. Jeff Zeleny, one of our lead political reporters, wrote an assessment of what the news meant for the president, presaging the bounce he received
in national polls. Liz Harris, the night rewrite person, ran to Times Square for 20 minutes and anchored a story about the spontaneous and raucous midnight celebrations that included reporting from colleagues at the White House and Ground Zero.
    An obituary of Bin Laden had been in hand for years and required just a little updating. One last-minute change was made when Ms. Abramson and Bill Keller decided that he should not be referred to as Mr. Bin Laden, the usual Times style, but simply Bin Laden, treated as The Times treats figures like Hitler and Stalin.
    Usually the front page is designed after the pictures and stories arrive. Because of the time pressures, we reversed order. Kyle Massey, a master headline writer, composed the six-column two-deck headline carrying the president’s declaration that justice had been done. Jim Quinlan, the front page designer, sketched out a new front page with four stories and room for a large photo of Bin Laden, another of the president and an iconic photo of the Twin Towers burning,
which we had published in the newspaper on Sept. 12, 2001. There was some poetic symmetry in that choice. The crowds at the White House became the last picture.
    At 12:45 a.m., amidst screaming that we were not making the deadline, the paper went to bed, about 15 minutes after the time we had hoped for. While all that was going on with the printed newspaper, another small squad led by Web News Editor Jonathan Ellis was hard at work producing an unusual presentation for the home page of In many ways breaking out of normal design templates is more difficult on the Web than in print, which made the HTML and CSS skills of Ham Boardman and Seth Carlson so valuable in creating this striking piece of history:

    Then it was time for the editors to plan our stories for the Web, for overnight and early morning. As morning broke overseas, new stories were commissioned from Jane Perlez, our Pakistan correspondent, who was out of the country but raring to report and Alissa Rubin, the Afghanistan bureau chief. Mark’s reconstruct
was done by 3 a.m. Given the fact that our Web traffic was more than double the usual numbers for a weekend night, the work was well worth it. We were determined that Times readers would have every important element of one of the biggest stories in recent history.
    In New York, reinforcements — a whole new graphics team — arrived at 5 a.m. As for Doug Mills, he went to bed after 4 a.m. But not for long. He was heading back to the White House two and a half hours later.

—Alison Mitchell
For complete coverage of the death
of Osama bin Laden, click here.

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