How The New York Times invented disaster coverage with Titanic sinking

Does it feel as if we’ve had more than our share of disasters in the last five years? Make a list: earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes galore. Tractor trailers flipped into the air like Styrofoam.

Don’t forget the man-made varieties: oil spill in the Gulf, nuclear meltdown in Japan, even a cruise ship on its side off the coast of Italy.

Oh, there’s an asteroid heading this way.

Whatever disaster looms, the journalists who cover it will be walking in footsteps of a giant.

A strong case could be made that the inventor of full-speed-ahead, story-of-the decade coverage was a cigar-smoking, hand-wringing legend named Carr Vattel Van Anda, known in the New York Times newsroom as V.A. or Boss.

Born in Ohio in 1864, Van Anda worked for the New York Sun for 16 years, but was persuaded to switch to the Times by its publisher, Adolph Ochs. Together, Ochs and Van Anda created the sober and comprehensive approach to news that turned the paper into a beacon.

All of this is recorded in a wonderful book, “The Story of The New York Times,” by one of its greatest writers, the late Meyer Berger, who chronicles the paper’s first century, 1851-1951. Van Anda emerges as one of the book’s odd heroes, nowhere more powerfully than in the story of his spearheading the Titanic coverage.

The date was Sunday, April 14, 1912 — almost 100 years ago to the day — and V.A. was working his usual shift, past midnight and into the early morning hours. A sleepy news cycle turned electric when an alarm was sounded out of the copy room. The A.P. bulletin read: “At 10:25 o’clock tonight the White Star Line steamship Titanic called ‘CQD’ to the Marconi station here, and reported having struck an iceberg. The steamer said that immediate assistance was required.”

Evaluating the early evidence, Van Anda smelled a disaster and geared up his troops for coverage. While editors at other papers prepared cautious announcements reminding readers of the ship’s unsinkable reputation, Van Anda prepared for the worst. A first-edition package of stories was prepared, contained images of the ship and its captain, a list of notable people on board, stories of recent near-misses of ships with icebergs, a history of ships that had been lost as a result of such encounters. The news staff cranked out as many “short takes” as possible with details of the disaster, copy boys running around the newsroom snatching them out of typewriters.

The following headline ran across the front page:

NEW LINER TITANIC HITS AN ICEBERG;

SINKING BY THE BOW AT MIDNIGHT;

WOMEN PUT OFF IN LIFEBOATS;

LAST WIRELESS AT 12:27 A.M. BLURRED

The achievement of that first day would be impressive enough, but Berger’s history highlights what happened next. Berger calls it “the ultimate in disaster news coverage.”

Under Van Anda’s direction, city editor Arthur Greaves mobilized every available reporter. The Carpathia was due into port carrying more than 700 survivors of the disaster. Only four reporters from each paper would be allowed on board, and then only after all the survivors had disembarked.

“Van Anda was in quite a frenzy. The whole story would have to be gathered, assembled and in type within the three hours between the Carpathia arrival at 9:30 p.m. and first-edition time at 12:30 a.m., and he was ready to devote almost the entire Friday Times to it.”

Here were the elements of Van Anda’s plan:

  • Pay for a whole floor in a hotel near where the ship would come into port.
  • Install four telephones at the hotel connected to Times rewrite desk.
  • Send 16 reporters to the pier with only four passes.  Reporters without passes would work the docks, getting as close to survivors as possible.
  • Assign the main stories to the four reporters with passes.
  • Instruct reporters to rush to the hotel for debriefing by rewrite men, and re-assignment.

The city editor assigned a list of specific stories:

“A man to write a general piece on the Carpathia’s arrival. A man to write arrangements for survivor relief. Three men to make rounds of midtown hotels to reach survivors not available at the pier. A man to cover the tugboats sent to escort the Carpathia up the river. A reporter to cover crowds. Another to cover police arrangements.”

There was one key source, and the Times had to get to him. His name was Harold Bride, and he was the wireless operator on the Titanic. It was Bride who sent the messages from the sinking vessel. It was he who would have the full inside story. But the authorities on the ship and dock were keeping reporters at bay. Who could break the logjam? Van Anda wondered.

V.A. sent a reporter to find Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless and one of the worlds’ great communications entrepreneurs. The reporter would eventually be mistaken for Marconi’s manager, and the two were escorted aboard the Carpathia, where they milked the exhausted and awe-struck Mr. Bride for the greatest story of its day.

Friday morning’s edition contained 15 pages of coverage out of 24.  The headline read:

745 SAW TITANIC SINK WITH 1,595, HER BAND PLAYING;

HIT ICEBERG AT 21 KNOTS AND TORE HER BOTTOM OUT;

‘I’LL FOLLOW THE SHIP,’ LAST WORDS OF CAPTAIN SMITH;

MANY WOMEN STAYED TO PERISH WITH THEIR HUSBANDS

Berger expresses affection for this “quiet lead” by Endicott Rich:

“In a clear starlit night that showed a clear deep blue sea for miles and miles, the Titanic, an hour after she had struck a submerged iceberg at full speed, head-on, sank slowly to her ocean grave.

“Her band, lined on deck, was playing pleasant music as she sank in full view of the boatloads of her wretched survivors, and those left of her passengers and crew – fully two-thirds—stood quietly resigned on deck awaiting the final plunge.”

Berger offers an enduring writing lesson: “These subdued lines had incredible emotional impact, and most of the other stories were pitched in the same low key. Stark fact, simply told, was more powerful than any purple writing.”

There is nothing new under the sun, or in The Sun, or in the Times, for that matter. As we perfect our craft, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, including many, like Carr Van Anda, who have been lost to the passing of years, but whose legacy of innovation and excellence created a standard and a set of routines that make the achievements of our time imaginable.

Correction: Harold Bride was the wireless operator on the Titanic, not on the rescue ship Carpathia as this post originally stated.

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  • http://twitter.com/RhetoricAnt Antoni Lee

    Thanks for digging out the original headlines and ledes together with their context. This poignant (and can I say beautiful?) reporting reminds me of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which you have also commented on usefully on other occasions. I’d be interested in your thoughts on Herbert Morrison’s contrasting, in-situ and impassioned Hindenburg reporting.