‘Where were you?’ News outlets crowdsource their 9/11 coverage

Joe Pompeo

Media outlets have been pouring resources into their 9/11 coverage as the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaches. Among the most valuable resources, it turns out, are readers.

From the Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C. to the Bulletin of South Washington County, Minn., news organizations nationwide are asking readers to share their memories of that day, when thousands of Americans died after al Qaeda operatives crashed passenger planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a barren field in Pennsylvania.

"It's the question that comes up over and over again every year--where were you?," said Amy Westfeldt, the 9/11 anniversary editor of the AP, which put out a call for "most vivid" 9/11 memories on its Facebook page earlier this month and has since been compiling the responses into a weekly feature.

"I was 9 years old on 9/11," Jeffersonton, Va. resident Coy Ferrell recalls in the latest installment, "and at least here they had a constant patrol of fighters all throughout the region from soon after the attacks to weeks after the attacks. Whenever I hear a jet fighter I still cringe."

These exercises in crowd-sourcing reflect the increased interactivity that is becoming more a part of the fabric of news reporting. (Yahoo! News, for its part, is gathering submissions on the 9/11 blog it has set up to mark the anniversary.)

"The days of a website just being a website are over," said Jimmy Orr, the managing editor of latimes.com. "Reader engagement is so very important, social media is so important. People expect to be able to interact."

That was the thinking behind the Los Angeles Times' "Where were you?" on 9/11 project. The paper posed this question on its homepage and has likewise been encouraging readers to submit their recollections--including photos and video--on Tumblr.

"Many hundreds" of submissions have poured in, said Orr. The result is an interactive 9/11 landing page on latimes.com that collects some of the most poignant of these alongside relevant reportage from the paper's journalists. The newspaper also has been sharing select vignettes on Tumblr.

"I called my ex-wife, who worked about 15 miles closer to Manhattan, and frantically told her to pick up the baby and return to the house, that we should all be together in case a nuclear bomb went off," writes Tony Dela Cruz of of Marlborough, Mass., who at the time was a magazine editor living on Long Island. "I found myself wanting to skip over 'well-planned terrorist attack' and go directly to Armageddon, as if increasing the gravity of the situation would make what had happened easier to accept. ... This loss still feels fresh as the day it happened."

The Daily, News Corp.'s 6-month-old iPad newspaper, also used Tumblr to spread the word. The digital tabloid comes equipped with a feature that enables readers to leave audio comments using the iPad's built-in microphone. The editors decided to ask readers to "help create an oral history of the day" by leaving 60-second sound bytes of their 9/11 stories that will be adapted into a multimedia feature as part of The Daily's forthcoming anniversary coverage. Dozens have come in so far.

"One of the great things about this is that it's an experiment," said Mike Nizza, The Daily's managing editor. "It's a human exercise for these people--taking the time to remember and tell their stories."

The New York Times is using the lobby of its Midtown Manhattan headquarters to host an art exhibit of 9/11 reflections. The show, open to the public from Sept. 8 to Sept. 12, will include photos of 9/11 relics that readers submitted to Times reporter Dan Barry after he put out a request on nytimes.com. Some of the photos will be published in print and online on Sept. 11.

"Dan keeps some objects from his months covering 9/11 on his desk--relics, he calls them--and we simply wondered what objects other people might have kept," said Laura Chang, the editor overseeing the Times' 9/11 coverage. "Hundreds of readers have sent us images of objects, some obviously related to 9/11 and some that reveal the connection only in the telling."

As for Barry, "I have the construction helmet that I wore when I camped out near the site with the National Guard, several days after the collapse," he writes. "I have a flier from the Dakota Roadhouse bar in Lower Manhattan, saying in colorful language that since Osama bin Laden has us working overtime, it's time to drink."

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