Ahearn Essay: Print’s Long 9/11 Afternoon

Last call for the newspaper “EXTRA!” edition

Lorraine Ahearn

At newspapers across the country, the decision to print 9/11 extra editions was as sudden as the moment bulletins switched from apparent air disaster to deliberate attack. At 8:48 a.m., when CNN broke into a commercial, the lower third read, “WORLD TRADE CENTER DISASTER.” At 9:08, the update: “SECOND PLANE CRASHES.”

This was the moment, commentators often observe, when Americans knew that the world had changed. It was also a moment when U.S. newspapers reverted to a role that few had rehearsed: delivering breaking news in print. Within hours, as if conjured from thin air, or from bound copies in the recesses of newspaper morgues, a mostly bygone newsprint convention rolled off presses coast to coast: the “extra,” shorthand for “extraordinary” news. For most daily newspapers, the extra was a scratchy relic of print’s all-day dominance, the era of the Hindenburg, by mid-century reserved for the rarest stories–V-E Day, the JFK assassination, the moon landing. And so it was that on 9/11, copy desks mobilized, press operators shut down preprint jobs and went on standby, and newspaper employees from the mailroom to classified to circulation fanned out to hawk single copies on the street.

Juxtaposed with the stress that a spike in web traffic created for newspapers’ home pages on 9/11, the extras signify the profession’s past occupying the same space as its unsettled future. Embedded in the extras is a recognition that 9/11 would hold a place not only in history but journalism history as well. Although there has been much documentation of the remarkable efforts of journalists covering the scene at Ground Zero and the Pentagon on 9/11 and the days that followed, the extras provide a different sort of cultural record. That is, how newspapers in markets on the periphery were also swept up in the events, with little to guide them in the moment but institutional muscle memory.

The Professional Mirror

A persistent through line between coverage of 9/11 and World War II, as Barbie Zelizer’s analysis of photography and trauma demonstrated, was the spectator bearing witness to atrocity–a visual foregrounding of the shocked reactions of eyewitnesses at Ground Zero and viewers watching on TV.[i] In a similar vein, extra editions foregrounded journalism as spectator. Editors manifested a conspicuous awareness of journalistic performance through boxed explainers about the editions, detailing what time they had been published and under what conditions, directing readers to websites for updates, assuring the community that the newspaper was more than a vehicle for advertising, but a public service. Some observed that newspapers help contextualize events and unite communities; others acknowledged the human need to capture history in a tactile medium. As editor Carroll Wilson wrote in a front-page explainer, the Wichita Falls, Texas, Times Record News was following the “custom” of printing the extra “so you can hold it in your hands and put it away to show the grandkids.”[ii]

As muted and careful a tone as editors’ notes tried to strike, they often collided with packaging that barked the word “EXTRA!” in heavy, condensed type, some in spot color, atop or beside one broadsheet flag after another. These examples, too, were a curious throwback, evoking 1930s newsboys in knickerbockers announcing the Lindbergh kidnapping. Banner headlines were mostly in all caps and point sizes most often seen in tabloids. At least eighteen extras used the same one-word headline–“TERROR”–and almost universally, fireball photos of the towers dominated the front pages.[iii] It was a dissonant, improvised effort to process the world-changing present by accessing the visual vocabulary of the past, the only available lexicon of sufficient scale. The Associated Press, which provided the photos and stories for many of the extras, moved a sidebar on the nonstop television coverage and a second sidebar about the decision to print extra editions, a story which ran inside dozens of the extras themselves. The writer quoted Florida Times-Union Editor Pat Yack, who compared the enormity of the day’s events to Pearl Harbor.[iv] The newsgathering processes and their generational antecedents became part of the report, as if journalists were working the story and simultaneously catching a glimpse in the professional mirror.

What they hoped to see in that mirror reflected both aspiration and anxiety over the changing face of newspapers. The industry had defied prophecies of doom since the early days of radio and then TV, but by the 1980s, analysts confirmed the trend. Waves of mergers and closings of PM newspapers threatened print’s competitive edge, with three of the most important stories of the 1980s breaking on the day cycle for AP members: the release of the Iran hostages, the attempted assassination of President Reagan, and the Challenger explosion. By the late 1990s, print competed not only with 24-hour cable news and local TV news, but the all-day online news cycle. [v] The standard defense–that the daily newspaper compensated with quality and depth–began to fray. A prevailing critique was that journalism fed a public appetite for celebrity news, preoccupied with Michael Jackson, OJ Simpson, Princess Diana, and JFK Jr. Compounding that phenomenon were corporate redesigns to make newspapers more feature-like and fun.[vi] A broad consensus within the ranks was that serious journalism was expensive and imperiled. By early 2001, major newspaper companies reacted to advertising losses by laying off roughly ten percent of their employees.[vii]

A Last “Extraordinary” Job

Against that gloomy backdrop, the morning of 9/11 allowed newspapers, however far from New York or Washington, to prove their worth. As the wires pumped out updates, editors dumped ads and designers went into overdrive. Many of the extras at small and mid-sized newspapers led with the same reports, but some newspapers outside New York and Washington assigned their own write-throughs, from the Los Angeles Times to the Austin American-Statesman. The Chicago Tribune printed two afternoon extras, as did the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which along with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had an unforeseen advantage: They had sent fashion writers and photographers to cover New York Fashion Week, and immediately redeployed them to Lower Manhattan.[viii] Smaller staffs scrambled to fill the extras, averaging eight to sixteen pages, chasing every local angle they could find–airport closures, blood drives, prayer services, anyone with a connection to the casualties. Despite their spontaneous appearance on street corners, the extras worked. Newspapers around the country between them sold millions, and it was typical to sell out by mid-afternoon and order another run.[ix] In retrospect, the massive shift in production routines that morning was extraordinary, particularly because in the years leading up to 9/11, the practice was not an industry-wide standard. A few papers, including the Post-Dispatch, had clung to the extra as an ongoing tradition, whether to break news of the governor’s death in a plane crash or a record-breaking home run. But for the vast majority of newspapers before 9/11, the extra was scarce as a wartime penny.

And the practice is likely to remain that way, rendering the 9/11 extra like a bug trapped in amber, a near-extinct species preserved mid-flight. Twenty years later, such a concerted, widespread effort to deliver breaking news in print would, ironically, defy logistics. Due to consolidation and plant closings that continue to accelerate, many newspapers have outsourced printing to neighboring cities, some across state lines.[x] Functioning pressrooms in 2021 typically print multiple newspapers, so that publishing an extra under several flags would exceed press time and capacity. Although one never says, “never,” the afternoon of 9/11 may have been print journalism’s last call for a nationwide “EXTRA!”

About the author: Lorraine Ahearn is an assistant professor of multimedia journalism at the University of South Alabama, where she teaches media history, ethics, and news literacy. Her research focuses on mediated memory and subaltern representation.


[i] Barbie Zelizer, “Photography, Journalism, and Trauma,” in Journalism After September 11, ed., Barbie Zelizer and Stuart Allan (London: Routledge, 2002), 47-48.

[ii] “From the Editor,” Wichita Falls (Texas) Times Record News, September 11, 2001, 1. Extra.

[iii] For an internet archive of front-page layouts, see “Covering the Attack: Tuesday Extra and PM Editions,” Poynter Institute, http://www.poynterextra.org/extra/gallery/Extra1.htm

[iv] Douglas Rowe, “Newspaper Headlines Scream Outrage Across the World,” Montana Standard, September 11, 2001, 5, Special Evening Edition.

[v] Bonnie Bressers, “Newspaper Extras: A Piece of History,” Quill 89, no. 9 (November 2001): 18.

[vi] Leonard Downie and Robert G. Kaiser, The News about the News: American Journalism in Peril, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 223-225.

[vii] Mark Fitzgerald, “2001 For the Books,” Editor & Publisher, December 17, 2001, 13.

[viii] See, Lisa Jones Townsel, “A City Stunned,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 11, 2001, 2, Extra; Martin Kaiser, “Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,” Newspaper Research Journal 24, no. 1 (January 1, 2003): 107–10.

[ix] Author interview with David Reno, circulation manager on 9/11 for the Greensboro (NC) News & Record; see also, Joel Davis, “Newspaper Editors Put Forth ‘Extra’ Effort,” Editor & Publisher, September 24, 2001, 3. According to News Media Alliance, there is no known aggregate data for 9/11 single-copy sales, only individual published reports.

[x] See, “2021 Plant Closings,” News & Tech, February 13, 2021, https://newsandtech.com/plant_closings/;  Rick Edmonds, “Production of Print Newspapers Is Migrating — up the Interstate — with Ever Earlier Deadlines as a Result,” Poynter, March 24, 2021, https://www.poynter.org/locally/2021/.

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