In stark contrast to the rest of the western world, 11 September
was a great day for national newspaper journalists. As the true horror
of terrorist actions in the US unfurled, the news came to the papers,
not the other way around.
But the papers and their editors nevertheless had numerous important
decisions to take as they concocted the news blend that would make up
Wednesday's pages: where to draw the line between just informing and
sensationalising; what editorial stance to take on such a fragile
diplomatic situation; what to do with advertising that, compared with
the news content, appeared trivial.
With graphic images and details flooding in, sensitivity became a
paramount issue. Editors made difficult judgment calls throughout the
first day of coverage.
Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, felt it would have been
difficult to sensationalise such a sensational story. "There was nothing
you could do that would go over the top," as he puts it. The Mirror's
editor, Piers Morgan, on the other hand, was more cautious. "We've got
to remember we're a family newspaper," he says. "There are several
million body parts stuck in the area, but we don't need to labour the
Will Lewis, the news editor of the Financial Times, admits there was a
lot of discussion over whether or not to include an image of people
throwing themselves from the towers in the moments before they
"That was a debate we rolled over for the first edition and continued to
debate through the night," he explains. "We didn't run it big in the
end. Our reason for including it was that it was an important way of
describing the true horror of the situation."
By Wednesday morning it was apparent that all of the newspapers had
ripped up their style sheets. Several, including The Independent, the
Daily Express and The Daily Telegraph, ran full-page pictures of the
towers burning on their front pages. The Financial Times stood out with
a half-page picture and the headline "Assault on America"
white-on-black. Lewis explains how he wanted the Financial Times' front
page to differ from the other nationals: "We ran a 1,400-word splash
story from our New York and DC correspondents. The others used similar
images and a few words."
The paper also used a different picture: the Statue of Liberty in the
foreground with smoke where the towers used to be. Lewis wanted to
advance the story from the towers falling, something he realised all of
his readers would know by Wednesday morning - instead he wanted to show
that it was an attack on the US.
This was a dynamic news story, and the editors had to change their ideas
to fit its magnitude throughout the first 24 hours (the Financial Times
did not close until 4am on Wednesday). Talking with their US
correspondents was difficult as phone lines were down. At The Mirror's
Canary Wharf offices a fire alarm went off in the middle of the disaster
and staff were evacuated - many were unwilling to re-enter the building
even after it was discovered to be a false alarm.
In the days after the disaster, editorial direction has increasingly
differentiated the papers' coverage. The ideological differences between
The Sun and The Mirror have been reflected in their judgments on
President Bush's performance, while The Guardian has come under
criticism for including anti-American comment.
Rusbridger is angered by accusations of editorialising. "We have been
very clear about keeping editorial and comment apart," he says. "Nobody
has criticised a word of our reporting. As far as comment goes, I'm very
happy that we have carried a broad range, which is what Guardian readers
Morgan takes a similar line: "We have more than 35 columnists - all
sorts of people who are experts in their fields. I'm keen to have as
many different views as possible in the paper. There's no right or wrong
answer. Nobody has faced this situation before. It's the right and duty
of the papers to have as many views as possible each day."
However, it's apparent that his opinion sets the paper's tone: "I didn't
like it when the President was coming out like Wyatt Earp. I thought it
was the language of someone slightly out of control."
But he's not afraid to revise his opinion: "Last night (20 September) he
made a quite magnificent speech. I was very impressed."
Advertising was either cancelled or shifted to the latter half of most
of the nationals. But loss in revenue has been compensated by soaring
readerships. In London it was difficult to buy a copy of one of the
broadsheets by lunchtime on Wednesday. Sources suggest that The
Observer's circulation rose by more than 17 per cent to 559,000; The
Sunday Times sold more than 1.5 million copies, up by 10.13 per
The Sunday papers faced different challenges. Peter Wright, the editor
of The Mail on Sunday, which attracted an estimated 67,000 extra
readers, had to look for new angles on the story. "We discovered there
was a lot of material in America that the daily papers didn't pick up
because the hijackers operated in different parts of America like
Florida and Massachusetts," he says. Wright's paper was the first to
quote the owner of the Florida flying school saying that all the
hijackers were interested in was practicing their turns.
Looking back to the morning after the attacks, Lewis remains extremely
impressed with the coverage in the UK. "Every newspaper had a fantastic
night," he says. "Put against what the US and the continental papers
showed, you can see in no uncertain terms why the newspaper industry in
this country is the best in the world."