Unthinkable. It was the single word that captured a stunned reaction to the sight of the New York World Trade Center Twin Towers collapsing into a plume of dust on 11 September 2001. It was the word chosen for NCE’s cover as we raced to capture that dark moment in history when global terrorism struck at multiple sites across the United States.
9/11 was a story with clear geopolitical ramifications, a story of human interest and a story with technical engineering intrigue and implications. From the moment television pictures began to feed into the NCE newsroom early that Tuesday afternoon, it was a story we knew NCE had to cover. And cover big.
Bear in mind that 2001 was a very different world from today as far as the media is concerned. While the era of 24 hour rolling news was well and truly with us, the internet was in its infancy. Websites existed but, like most other newspapers and magazines, NCE had certainly not yet embraced the now universal “digital-first” publishing strategy. Our stories were read on printed paper.
The fact that this global event was unfolding in real time on a Tuesday afternoon was particularly significant in that it was press day in our weekly print cycle. In those days it was the moment each week when chosen stories were committed to print, locking in the events of the week, ready to land on doormats each Thursday.
By this stage on a Tuesday afternoon, the cover and virtually the entire magazine were on page and at the printers being turned into the physical plates from which, in a few hours’ time, 50,000 copies would be printed, assembled and posted.
So naturally we took the unprecedented decision to scrap the cover and first eight pages of the magazine, plead with the printers for a later print slot and effectively start again.
Decision made, the highly tuned NCE editorial team really swung into action to refill those pages, not just the story of 9/11 but with NCE’s unique angle on the events unfolding before our eyes.
A telephone, a book of contacts and a nose for a story
Again, bear in mind that, while Google existed in 2001 and plenty of information was accessible via the internet, the key tools for journalists were still a telephone, a book of contacts and a nose for a story – what you might today describe as old school journalism. The phones were hit to find the expert inside knowledge that would create NCE’s angle on this global event.
NCE’s angle always responds to the needs and questions of the reader; in this case what was the design of the Twin Towers? How could such immense structures collapse? Could catastrophic collapse have been prevented? How many other buildings were affected? Did emergency evacuation plans work? What were the implications for other global infrastructure operators?
The NCE team knew what it had to do. Working into the night as the global story unfolded minute by minute, the office was a hive of energy. Pictures were sourced and chosen, diagrams were drawn, interviewees found and copy was written, edited and laid out on the page.
Thirty-six hours later when the printed magazine landed on doormats around the UK, the global magnitude and implications of 9/11 were clear.
And it was without question a moment of pride for the entire NCE editorial team, to have produced that award-winning issue. Everyone involved will remember it as a moment of pure journalism – of simply thinking beyond the unthinkable.
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