Refreshing the Paper of Record

Fiona Spruill was on the subway headed to work from her apartment on the Upper West Side when the first plane went in. Web production for The New York Times was her first job after graduating from Duke and she, then 24, had recently been promoted to digital news editor.

By the time she got to the web newsroom, then housed a few blocks from the paper’s historic home on West 43rd Street, it was evident that news was breaking. But the overnight editor and the business editor, the only others in the office, were in a state of confusion. They were seeing things on television, but the reports were unconfirmed, and they conflicted.

“At one point, we thought two planes had collided with each other,” she remembered.

As more editors and producers trickled into the newsroom, Ms. Spruill exchanged calls with the continuous news editor, Terence Neilan, who rushed to confirm the reports and get a story back to her.

The rest of the world wondered what was happening too. The morning papers said nothing of the World Trade Center, so from their cubicles people checked nytimes.com, causing an unprecedented surge in traffic—190 percent more visitors than the average Tuesday in 2001—that the site could not support.

Once Ms. Spruill received the story from the 43rd Street newsroom, she hit publish, but it took excruciating minutes for the clogged site to update. By the time the story went live, the story had changed. A career’s worth of news happened between 8:46 and 10:28.

On a day of uncertainty, 1.9 million people looked to paper of record for answers. The digital staff performed technological triage, stripping any content unrelated to the attacks of its multimedia components to lighten the site’s load and keep it nimble enough to accommodate the breaking news and incoming images. Though many news websites crashed, nytimes.com stayed “live” all day.

“It made it abundantly clear that people don’t think of us as a newspaper that publishes once a day,” Ms. Spruill said. “September 11 was just the start. It became a new kind of normal.”

The Times created an emergency plan for simple web publishing during catastrophic events, and put plans in motion to eliminate the physical and psychological gap between the traditional newsroom and the digital one.

“It quashed any thought that the Internet was a threat to The New York Times,” said CNN.com managing editor Meredith Artley, who was associate editor of nytimes.com at the time. “It was a tool they could use to get the story out. Sept. 11 brought the organization together.”

After her performance on Sept. 11, Ms. Spruill helped lead the digital newsroom to the integration while quickly ascending its ranks. By 2006, she was its top web editor and is now the editor for emerging platforms.

“It was another three-plus years before we committed to fully integrating the print and digital newsrooms, but I expect Fiona got there ahead of us,” former executive editor Bill Keller said.

Sept.11 also made it clear that breaking news events had enormous business potential for the Times’s digital operations. If the paper could capture the attention of casual online news readers on important news days, it had an opportunity to make regular readers out of them. The Sept. 11 traffic quickly dropped, but it never went below pre-9/11 levels. Anxiety was heightened, two wars were on the horizon, and the global appetite for constant news did not recede. Monthly traffic to The New York Times increased 60 percent nationally. The pattern recurred on subsequent major news events, most recently the death of Osama bin Laden.

kstoeffel@observer.com