‘Portraits of Grief’ 10 years later: Lessons from the original New York Times 9/11 coverage

The New York Times retrospective on the decade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — an enterprise that includes the currently online “Portraits Redrawn,” and a special Sunday, Sept. 11, print section under the heading “The Reckoning” – is designed to help readers focus on the future, rather than the past.

Wendell Jamieson, the deputy Metro editor charged with managing these new “Portraits” — as he did with the originals in 2001 — describes how relatives of 9/11 victims seem to be “turning the corner” in their lives now.

“More people have remarried, and more seem forward-looking and well-adjusted,” he told me in a telephone interview. That’s in contrast to the five-year retrospective the Times ran, featuring mini-profiles that “were very dark,” he recalls. “People were suffering, and only one or two had reached some sense of resolution with it all.”

Times Editor at Large Laura Chang, who was asked in March by Executive Editor Bill Keller and Managing Editor Jill Abramson to begin coordinating the anniversary section and related interactive stories, adds in a phone interview that this year’s approach is “focusing on the consequences of the attacks, 10 years later – on the present. We will not be focusing on 10 years ago.”

Yet for many readers who experienced the original 2001 New York Times coverage, the stories are bound to resurrect memories of the truly remarkable journalism that came together in the paper in the weeks and months after the disaster – journalism that still carries lessons for today’s reporters and editors.

The original “Portraits of Grief,” and what became their home section, “A Nation Challenged,” were responsible for the Times winning the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, to be sure. The section that ran through Dec. 31, 2001, “coherently and comprehensively covered the tragic events, profiled the victims, and tracked the development of the story, locally and globally,” the Pulitzer Board said.

But behind all the praise was an astounding combination of newsroom discipline and managerial talent under extreme pressure, along with inspiration from rank-and-file staffers. And how the editors packaged it all – that often underrated element of journalism – helped fill a gaping hole in the psyche of New Yorkers, and all Americans, both with critical information and interpretation, and with a compassionate style.

Unlike the long-planned efforts behind “Portraits Redrawn” and the forthcoming special section, with their August deadlines, the 2001 coverage plans had scant days to take shape, of course. And time was only one of the pressures in describing disaster on an unprecedented scale in the city, and trying to make some broader sense of it all.

The late Times managing editor Gerald Boyd praised his newspaper’s culture for underpinning the decisions that were made back then. But Boyd, a veteran St. Louis Post-Dispatch and New York Times reporter and editor who was on only his fifth day as Times M.E. the day of the attacks, spread credit around the newsroom in an interview that I had with him a few months before his November 2006 death, at 56, of complications from lung cancer.

“I was always amazed how on a given day, someone I never would have thought of would have a brilliant idea,” he said. One lesson he said he had learned from the post-9/11 coverage: that when such extreme heat is on, “inspiration comes from a lot of different places, and you’ve got to have a mechanism that encourages people.”

Times editors still recall that among the greatest newsroom inspirations was that of Christine Kay, then deputy Metro editor for enterprise. Among her first assignments for Metro editor Jonathan Landman was to come up with a way for the paper to treat the dead and missing around Ground Zero.

Think a moment about her challenge. “We had no idea what we were facing,” she recalled in a 2005 interview with me, noting that her closest previous experience dealing with survivors had involved the 1996 TWA Flight 800 airline crash that killed 230 off the coast of Long Island. (She was then with Newsday.) With a passenger list, at least, editors can make a start at compiling information about where the victims were going, and what their lives had been like. But for days after 9/11 the numbers of the dead defied calculation, and even the names of the missing only slowly accumulated — all while the paper’s cry for some kind of accounting grew stronger.

Working with reporter Janny Scott, Kay began to build an approach around the desperate “missing” flyers that seemed to be floating everywhere on the Lower Manhattan breeze – containing snippets of information about a loved one, while seeking information.

“I know people want to hear that we had this thoughtful conversation and sat in a room for three hours, and came up with this magical approach,” Kay said. “But that is not what happened.” Under pressure to come up with something that could be published, in the absence of actual lists of the missing, they proposed having reporters immediately begin preparing short 200-word vignettes, each with a photo, that would capture some facet of the life of a person being sought by loved ones.

As lists of first responders, World Trade Center corporate tenants, and others finally began to appear, the approach would continue – creating intimate mini-profiles, scores at a time on the page. Each day’s pages would renew a sense of the tragedy’s scope, while the individual portraits made each person intimately real. The normal trappings of an obituary generally were absent; few credentials or other signs of status were included, beyond the jobs they held, and family descriptions. The portraits identified one aspect of life – a woman gardening, a man taking his daughter to ice-skating lessons, or perhaps indulging in a fondness for cigars.

Landman and others together refined the approach, and on Saturday, Sept. 15, the first mini-profiles ran, under the heading “After the Attacks: Among the Missing.” They were further described as “snapshots of their lives with family and at work.”

Given a choice of shorter rubrics for Sunday – most editors liked the idea of “portraits,” but were stuck between candidates like portraits of despair or sorrow or loss or grief – assistant Metro editor Patrick LaForge flipped “a mental coin” and used Portraits of Grief. It stuck.

Getting reporters to contribute the short pieces came easier. Though there were no bylines, and staffers received only tagline-box mention, they rushed to help with interviews and writing, some even coming from the Washington bureau to help. “It became this huge machine,” according to Kay. “We had 10 to 13 reporters working on it nonstop.” By year-end they had turned out 1,910 of the mini-profiles. (The death toll from the Twin Towers disaster eventually rose to more than 2,750.)

A 555-page book compiling them, “Portraits: 9/11/01,” eventually was published by the Times. Then-executive editor Howell Raines wrote in his introduction that a “democracy of craftsmanship” guided their preparation. “I have seen reporters crying at their telephones, even as they summoned the professional discipline to keep reporting, keep writing until the task was done,” he wrote.

Affection for “Portraits” wasn’t unanimous. Some Times editors, as well as relatives of the dead, thought they should have a more traditional approach, mentioning victims’ typically newsworthy attributes. Kay, for one, heard from family members who complained that the Times should have concentrated more on real accomplishments, rather than ”things that they perceived to be trivial or prosaic.”

But those who love them – and who continue to read the collection of old ones with updates through the years, and the several video versions that have now been produced – have made a stronger argument. As they continued their original 2001 run, San Francisco attorney James Schurz wrote the Times of his family’s ritual of reviewing the entries every day. “In an important sense,” he wrote, “the Times has been part of the healing process in our family. For that, you have my deepest gratitude and respect.”

Back in the depths of the post-9/11 coverage, Christine Kay, now editing investigative projects, never considered the possibility that a new generation of portraits might be prepared 10 years on. “Then, we were just thinking about how we hoped that nothing like this would ever have to be wrttien again,” she said in a telephone interview.

“And yet,” she adds, “I guess we’ve seen that there’s still value today in having what’s become sort of a national monument of grieving.”

Roy Harris is the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism,” which featured a chapter on the Times 9/11 coverage titled “A Newsroom Challenged.” A former Wall Street Journal reporter, he currently is editorial director of CFOworld.com.

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