Newspaper man who rose from the ashes

The
Wall Street Journal’s managing editor Paul Steiger talks to Dominic
Ponsford about getting the paper out on 9/11, and why journalists will
still have a role after the ink and pulp era

CAKED FROM head to foot in
ash and debris, a dazed Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul
Steiger arrived outside his Manhattan home by bus after escaping the
disaster zone on the morning of 9/11. With his staff evacuated all over
the city, Steiger had two priorities: to find out if his wife was okay
and put out a newspaper.

Fortunately Mrs Steiger, who worked next door to the Journal offices
opposite the World Trade Center, had made it to safety. The Journal’s
remarkable 12 September special edition would later win a Pulitzer
prize. For this, and other achievements during 14 years in charge of
the Wall Street Journal, Steiger was given a special award for a Decade
of Excellence at the Business Journalist of the Year awards in London.
He told Press Gazette more about his staff’s remarkable 9/11 efforts
and why “ink sprayed on wood pulp” may not have a future – but
journalists certainly do.

Steiger recalls getting a call from his
wife shortly before 9am on the day of the 9/11 attacks because she had
heard an explosion. He says: “I looked out the window and saw flames
spewing out of the first tower, it was a bright sunshiny day and not a
cloud in the sky. You had to be sure that this was not an accident.

“At
that point there was no sign of a plane – it had crashed all the way
into the building. I couldn’t tell whether it was a bomb that had blown
the windows out or something that had hit it.

“Then I saw specks
falling down and I realised that these were human beings and that is
something I will never forget. Then the second plane hit, and it was
very clear we were under very serious attack.”

The Journal’s
offices had to be evacuated and Steiger sent his deputy production
editor to get a ferry across the Hudson to start putting together an
edition at the paper’s New Jersey office. Then, as evacuated staff
milled about on the plaza, Steiger began looking around for more
editors to send ver the river. He says: “I was working my way through
this crowd of people looking for editors that I could send across the
river when I heard this noise. I looked up and the first tower was
collapsing on to itself. It felt like Pompei and Vesuvius had gone up.
We were suddenly enveloped in this cloud of ash and debris and the only
thing to do was to try to walk through.

“I remember saying to myself ‘people don’t die of smoke inhalation in the open air’.”

Steiger
recalls a couple of thousand people walking calmly as far north along
the river as they could and then waiting for the dust to settle. He
managed to get an evacuation bus with a colleague that dropped him
outside his Manhattan home “looking like I had just stepped off a
horror movie set”.

With the Hudson ferry crossing now closed, he
co-ordinated the Journal’s coverage by gathering six senior editors at
the home of a colleague with good computer facilities. He says: “In the
meantime we found that our reporters just knew what to do; they
reported the story and they were filing from their laptops at home or
filing by phone,” he says.

“We began seeing the stories that came
through and they were astonishingly good. At one point I said to the
folks in New Jersey that I wanted a six-column banner head across the
top of the page – if you don’t use a six-column head for this what are
you saving it for?”

Previous journal six-column headlines
included the attack on Pearl Harbour and the scoop that Eisenhower was
to run for president. A 32-page special edition came out the following
day and made it to 85 per cent of the paper’s subscribers.

Steiger
says: “Afterwards we got calls and letters and emails from people
around the country who said they were extremely comforted that the Wall
Street Journal landed on their driveway that morning.”

Under
Steiger’s 14-year editorship, Wall Street Journal writers have picked
up 15 Pulitzer prizes. He has also managed to maintain the title’s
dominant circulation position, at 2.3 million a day (87,000 in Europe),
and built up the most popular paid-for news site on the internet with
305,962 subsribers.

Like Britain, US newspaper circulation is
under extreme pressure says Steiger. “The electron is a marvellous way
of delivering information,” he says.

“Whether it’s on radio,
television, cable or over the web – it’s much faster than ink sprayed
on ground-up wood pulp delivered in trucks.”

But perhaps
reassuringly for journalists, he believes that scoops have a vital role
to play in keeping those print figures up. “When you’re first with a
story, maybe we put it on the web first or our affiliated wire service
Dow Jones newswires, everyone else can copy it,” he says.

“But
when you’re first to a story it means that in the morning you have a
better chance of a better rendition of that story than your
competitors. It also means if you’re first with a story other people
sometimes have to give you credit for a story. It causes people to
associate your name with being ahead on important news. All of that
helps sustain the value of the daily paper.”

When asked if he
thinks newspapers will still be around in 20 years time, he admits “20
years is a long time”, he says. But even if the medium changes there
will be just as much need for journalists in the future, he adds.

As
to whether newspapers have a long-term future, he says: “Newspapers
will have to adapt because electrons are really powerful – the need for
journalism will be greater than ever. With the bloggers we are now
going through a period where everybody is his own journalist. That’s
absolutely fine that people can get a hearing much easier than they
could in the past simply by going on the web.

“But I think we’ve
entered a period in which people can find news coverage that fits
whatever prejudice matrix they have. More people are getting large
portions of their news and information filtered though folks who share
their own biases, so they are less likely to have their view of the
world challenged by uncomfortable facts. I think that’s very dangerous
if it lasts for a long time – but I don’t think it will.

“I think
people will respond to carefully edited, fact-checked fair down the
middle of the coverage of the kind that we try to provide. Ultimately
that’s the winning philosophy and it will carry the day.”

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