The Titanic Story Unfolding at a Newspaper - 1912

Anxious Relatives and Friends Seeking News at the White Star Line Offices

Anxious Relatives and Friends Seeking News at the White Star Line Offices. New York American (17 April 1912) p. 6-7. GGA Image ID # 10399d555c

The scene in a metropolitan newspaper office following the receipt of the first news of the "Titanic" disaster, as graphically portrayed by an editor of a New York morning paper, illustrates the conditions under which important news, received late, is hurried into print.[1] The account in part is as follows:

At 1:20 a.m. Monday, April 15, [1912], the cable editor opened an envelope of the Associated Press that had stamped on its face "Bulletin." This is what he read:

Cape Race, N. F., Sunday night, April 14. — At 10:25 o'clock tonight the White Star Line steamship "Titanic "called " C. Q. D." to the Marconi station here and reported having struck an iceberg. The steamer said that immediate assistance was required.

The cable editor looked at his watch. It was 1:20 and lacked just five minutes of the hour when the mail edition goes to press.

"Boy!" he called sharply.

An office boy was at his side in a moment.

"Send this upstairs; tell them the head is to come; double column and tell the night editor to rip open two columns on the first page for a one-stick dispatch of the 'Titanic' striking an iceberg and sinking."

Everyone in the office was astir in a moment and came over to see the cable editor write on a sheet of copy paper the following head [which he indicated was to be set up in this form]:


"Boy I" he called again, but it was not necessary — a boy in a newspaper office knows what's news the first time he sees it. "Tell them that's the head for the 'Titanic'"

Then he wrote this telegraphic dispatch briefly, and as he did so he said to another office boy at his side: "Tell the operator to

shut off that story be is taking and get me a clear wire to Montreal."

This is what he wrote to the Montreal correspondent, probably at work at his desk in a Montreal newspaper office at that hour:

Cape Race says White Star Liner "Titanic" struck iceberg, is sinking and wants immediate assistance. Rush every line you can get. We will hold open for you until 3:30.

"Give that to the operator and find out if we caught the mail on that' Titanic' dispatch," he said quickly to the boy. In a moment the boy returned. "O. K. on both," he said.

The city editor, who had just put on his coat previous to going away for the night, took it off. The night city editor, at the head of the copy desk, where all the local copy (as a reporter's story is called) is read, and the telegraph editor stood together, joined later by the night editor, for the mail edition had left the composing room for the stereotypers and then to the pressroom and from thence to be scattered wherever on the globe newspapers find readers.

The " Titanic " staff was immediately organized, for at that hour most of the staff were still at work. The city editor took the helm.

"Get the papers for April 11 — all of them," he said to the head office boy, "and then send word to the art department to

Suit everything to make three cuts, which I shall send right own."

Then to the night city editor: "Get up a story of the vessel itself; some of the stuff they sent us the other day that we did not use, and I ordered it put in the envelope. Flay up the mishap at the start. Get up a passenger list story and an obituary of Smith, her commander."

There was no mention of Smith in the dispatch, but city editors retain such things in their heads for immediate use, and this probably explains in a measure why they hold down their job; also having, it might be added, executive judgment, which is sometimes right.

"Assign somebody to the White Star Line and see what they've got"

The night city editor went back to the circular table where the seven or eight men who read reporters' copy were gathered.

"Get up as much as you can of the passenger list of the 'Titanic' She is sinking off Newfoundland," he said briefly to one.

And to another: "Write me a story of the 'Titanic,' the new White Star liner, on her maiden trip, telling of her mishap with the 'New York' at the start."

And to another: "Write me a story of Captain E. J. Smith."

Then to a reporter sitting idly about: "Get your hat and coat quick; go down to the White Star Line office and telephone all you can about the ' Titanic' sinking off Newfoundland."

Then to another reporter: "Get the White Star Line on the 'phone and find out what they've got of the sinking of the 'Titanic' Find out who is the executive head in New York; his address and telephone number."

And in another part of the room, the city editor was saying to the office boy: "Get me all the 'Titanic' pictures you have and a photo or cut of Captain E. J. Smith."

Two boys instantly went to work, for the photos of men are kept separate from the photographs of inanimate things. The city editor selected three:

"Tell the art department to make a three-column cut of the 'Titanic,' a two-column of the interior, and a two-column of Smith."

In the meantime, the Associated Press bulletins came in briefly.

Paragraph by paragraph the cable editor was sending the story to the composing room. What was going on upstairs everyone knew. They were sidetracking everything else, and the copy cutter in the composing room was sending out the story in " takes," as they are called, of a single paragraph to each compositor. His blue pencil marked each individual piece of copy with a letter and number so that when the dozen or so men setting up the story had their work finished, the story might be put together consecutively.

"Tell the operator," repeated the cable editor to the office boy, "to duplicate that dispatch I gave him to our Halifax man. Get his name out of the correspondents' book."

"Who wrote that story of the ' "Carmania " in the Icefield'?" said the night city editor to the copy-reader who " handled " the homecoming of the " Carmania," which arrived Sunday night and the story of which was already in the mail edition of the paper before him. The copy-reader told him. He called the reporter to his desk.

"Take that story," said the night city editor, "and give us a column on it. Don't rewrite the story; add paragraphs here and there to show the vast extent of the icefield. Make it straight copy, so that nothing in that story will have to be reset. You have just thirty minutes to catch the edition. Write it in twenty."

"Get the passenger lists of the ' Olympic' and the • Baltic,'" was the assignment given to another reporter, all alert waiting for their names to be called, every man awake at the switch.

In the meantime, the story from the Montreal man was being ticked off; on another wire, Halifax was coming to life.

"Men," said the city editor, "we have just five minutes left to make the city [edition]. Jam it down tight."

Already the three cuts had been made, the telegraph editor was handling the Montreal story, his assistant the Halifax end, and the cable editor was still editing the Associated Press bulletins and writing a new head to tell the rest of the story that the additional details brought. The White Star Line man had a list of names of passengers of the " Titanic " and found that they numbered 1300 and that she carried a crew of 860.

In the meantime proofs of all the " Titanic " matter that had been set were coming to the desk of the managing editor, in charge overall, but giving special attention to the editorial matter. All his suggestions went through the city editor, and on down the line, but he went from desk to desk overlooking the work.

"Time's up," said the city editor; but before he finished, the cable editor cried to the boy: "Let the two-column head stand and tell them to add this head:"

At 12:27 this Morning Blurred Signals by Wireless Told of Women Being Put off in Lifeboats — Three Lines Rushing to Aid of 1300 Imperiled Passengers and Crew of 860 Men.

"Did we catch it?" asked the cable editor of the boy standing at the composing-room tube.

"We did," he said triumphantly.

"One big pull for the last [edition], men," said the city editor. "We are going in at 3:20. Let's beat the town with a complete paper."

The enthusiasm was catching fire. Throughout the office it was a bedlam of noise — clicking typewriters, clicking telegraph instruments, and telephone bells ringing added to the whistle of the tubes that lead from the city room to the composing room, the press room, the stereotype room, and the business office, the latter, happily, not in use, but throughout the office men worked; nobody shouted, no one lost his head; men were flushed, but the cool, calm, deliberate way in which the managing editor smoked his cigar helped much to relieve the tension.

"Three-fifteen, men," said the city editor, admonishingly; "every line must be up by 3:20. Five minutes more."

The city editor walked rapidly from desk to desk.

"All up," said the night city editor, "and three minutes to the good."

At the big table stood the city editor, cable editor, night city editor, and managing editor. They were looking over the completed headline that should tell the story to the world.

"That will hold 'em, I guess," said the city editor, and the head went upstairs.

The men waited about and talked and smoked. Bulletins came in, but with no essential details. Going to press at 3:20 meant a wide circulation. At 4:30 the Associated Press sent "Good-night," but at that hour the presses had been running uninterruptedly for almost an hour.

[1] "Telling the Tale of the 'Titanic,'" by Alex. McD. Stoddart; The Independent, May 2, 1912.

Willard Grosvenor Bleyer, Ph.D., Newspaper Writing and Editing: Handling a Big Story, Boston-New York-Chicago: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913, p. 12-15.

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