It is interesting, and instructive, to see newspapers as a “first draft” of our history books. The stories editors and publishers decide to pursue often give some indication of what our communities consider important. I started writing for newspapers just about nine months before the attacks of September 11, 2001, and my early career witnessed a drastic change in coverage, underscored better nowhere than on the front pages of the New York Times.
In the weeks and months preceding the attacks, the big news was, as I remember it, an increase in shark attacks off the coast of Florida. The Times ran a refer (pronounced “reefer”) on the bottom of the front page to send readers to page F1 of the Science Times that day. Apparently there was some dispute between commercial fishermen and scientists over the proper way to deal with the shark attacks (story).
After the attacks, those stories started getting less coverage. Maybe the sharks decided they weren’t getting the media attention they deserved.
There was also a big call-out box on the front page but below the fold about school dress codes—how spaghetti straps narrower than an inch and a half were forbidden at a New Jersey high school (story). The article opens, “In the tumult of bare skin that is the hallway of Millburn High School…” Tumult?
And although news sites like this one still write occasionally about school dress codes, coverage in the national press has dwindled.
One ominous story on the front page of the Times on the morning of the attacks said President George W Bush was “under pressure” about a plan to boost the economy. Little did editors realize how much pressure he would be under just a few hours after the paper rolled off the presses. Another story described the Mideast peace talks.
Interestingly, there was also a story that opened on the front page about a plane hijacking that occurred in 1971. The suspect, a teacher, was discovered on the internet by an industrious Canadian investigator and got himself arrested for the hijacking. Today, a front-page story about a 30-year-old crime would be rare.
After the attacks, many papers still ran stories that were created several days, or even weeks, before the attacks. Papers still typeset content long in advance today.
Sometimes on the same day shortly after the attacks, the papers printed a preemptive apology for running content that was developed and typeset before the attacks but printed after them. Editors explained that press deadlines did not give the papers enough time to pull certain stories that, after the attacks, seemed rather inappropriate and insensitive.