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MCCULLOUGH: A newsroom's shock and awe

Ten years ago today, I was awakened by a phone call. It was my mother.

"You need to get up, son. We're at war."

I was still shaking the cobwebs out of my head and was sure I hadn't heard her right.

"Huh?"

"Someone has crashed planes into the World Trade Center and bombed the Pentagon."

Normally I wouldn't put quotation marks around a 10-year-old sentence I was quoting from memory, but you don't forget something like that.

A couple of more words and she had to go. I hung up and turned on the television. It was difficult to believe.

My phone rang again. It was our then-editor (now publisher) J.K. Murphy.

I'll never forget his first words either, mainly for their innocuousness.

"Nate? J.K. What are you doing?"

Just matter-of-fact like that. He could've been calling to shoot the breeze.

"Trying to comprehend what I'm seeing," I said.

He was calling me to help rally the troops, of course, but keeping calm.

Most everyone was on the move already. Good journalists know when a big story breaks it means dropping whatever you're doing and going to work, so the newsroom was already humming by the time I got there.

We had a meeting sometime that afternoon. J.K. started it off by giving us perspective. He said less than 3,000 people died at Pearl Harbor. At the time, they were estimating up to 50,000 in the attacks.

"This will be the most important paper you'll ever put out," he said. I've never forgotten that either.

I asked him about it this week, to find out what he was thinking as the leader of the newsroom on a day like that.

"As the story unfolded it became clear that this likely would be the biggest news story -- and the most important edition of the newspaper -- that the journalists at the Post would produce in their careers.

"That message was stressed to the staff. Our readers were counting on us for a comprehensive, accurate report of our nation being under attack. We needed to separate ourselves from the heartache and tragedy and emotions. We needed to do our job."

But separating from the tragedy that day was hard to do.

Corinne Nicholson has been on the copy desk as long as I have. At some point that evening, I heard her crying. Seeing pictures of people jumping from the World Trade Center had been too much. She said she couldn't imagine having to choose between fire or jumping to your death.

"It is hard to shock a journalist," she said. "We've seen or read some crazy stuff, but Sept. 11 is the only time I have seen an entire newsroom shocked. There was a sense of duty to report on the biggest story of our lives but also a profound sense of loss."

I think that sentiment came together in the Daily Post's headline that day. I can tell you we spent a lot of time debating what the biggest headline of our careers would be. We finally settled on "One nation, under attack." If ever there was a time to let a little American pride bleed through in 100-point type, that was the day.

Our newsroom pride came through, too. That is maybe the most focused I've ever seen us. Cooperation and extra effort were in abundant supply.

At some point, someone bought some candles, and the newsroom went outside for a moment of silence. Then-sports editor (now editor) Todd Cline reminded me this week that we sang, too. Honesty compels me to admit that I'd forgotten that. I just remember that was one of the times when I cried that week.

There was a lot of crying that day and that week. A lot of anger. Fear.

But we did our jobs, and did them well, I'm proud to say. If you'll allow me to brag a bit, our Sept. 11 coverage is one of many jewels in this newspaper's crown, and the Daily Post has done some great stuff in adverse conditions over the years. We've been through floods, snowstorms, power failures and elections that seemed like they would never end. And the Daily Post has done yeoman's work despite all that.

But Sept. 11, 2001, was by far the worst day. Fittingly, I think it's when we did our best.

Email Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His regular column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.

Comments

R 3 years, 1 month ago

Was this the best work you and your team will do in your careers? That remains to be seen. Was it an edition put together under great duress and high quality work? Absolutely, it’s been filed away along with 2 tickets to the 9/12/2001 Braves game that never was as a reminder to what happened.

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