For The American Editor, September 2001 - Does it take terrorist attacks and thousands of casualties to get people reading newspapers again? To displace Chandra and sharks in the headlines?
Or are there some other things - perhaps unconventional things - readers are detecting in the coverage of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks that are helping to sustain the public's appetite for what the news media have the extraordinary capacity to do?
As in other critical moments in our nation's history, the news media became the touchstone that bound us together as a national community, uniting us in pain and sorrow, reinforcing our shared values, and fortifying an immutable resolve to face daunting challenges.
Let's parse how this has been happening. Therein lie some useful touchstones - and future challenges - for the journalism community. Consider that readers read:
Television certainly provided immediacy and impact as developments unfolded. Indeed, 81 percent of those surveyed by the Pew Project on Internet and American Life said they got news about the events on TV.
- Coverage in which they could see themselves and their families - ordinary people, as victims or survivors, vulnerable in life and death. People rising above the worst. People reaching out to connect in the last seconds of life.
- Coverage that did more than entice readers to rubberneck. Rather, the coverage focused on the enormous capacity of citizens to make a difference, be they rescue workers or investigators, volunteers or tipsters, public officials or family members.
- Coverage that, again and again, gave ordinary people the opportunity to tell their own stories not just journalists the opportunity to tell stories. And we heard of stunning instances of triumph and despair, of good luck and bad, of tenacity and tears.
- Coverage that built in places for the community to connect - to locate loves one, to grieve a lost one, to release some rage.
- Coverage that rose above petty competition to share footage and photos.
- Coverage that positioned newspapers as citizens of their communities - giving free copies to subscribers, donating newspapers to schools, matching employee contributions to victim relief funds.
- Coverage that allowed journalists be human, too, breaking long-standing taboos and admitting publicly to their emotions.
- Coverage that built hope- not just of rescuing survivors - but also hope that there are still things sacred in America. We told readers about photos that were too graphic to run, movies that were retooled or shelved, sports events deemed inappropriate to proceed.
- Coverage that used modern technology to connect - e-mail invitations for local impact of the national tragedy, Web links for more help and information.
"But the printed page touches and connects us in ways that endure," wrote Seattle Times editor Mike Fancher in a column to readers.
Newspapers should be applauded for doing a breathtaking job of rising above physical and emotional challenges not only to create a masterful chronicle of history but also to deliver a purposeful sense of identity to citizens of a country in crisis.
Some might ask: Does it take a terrorist attack to improve readership?
I would ask: Does it take a terrorist attack to improve journalism?