What the Paris attacks tell us about how foreign news gets made

Photo: One of the crew members aboard the International Space Station photographed this night image of the bright city of Paris Editor’s Note: This post was produced as part of a graduate course on media writing and storytelling taught by the editors of Columbia Journalism Review.

In 1969, Gay Talese described breaking big stories as an act of exhilaration and majesty. A reporter “sensed the vast machinery of [his newspaper] moving and reaching across the world grasping for the truth,” Talese writes. “[H]e was constantly impressed at how smoothly the enormous organization seemed to be closing in on a single story.”

In an era of social media and global correspondence, the effort to write a breaking story has changed in some ways, but not in others. Take, for instance, The New York Times’ coverage of the November terrorist attacks in Paris, a major international story that’s been back in the headlines since Belgian police arrested a key suspect in those attacks in March.

Rick Gladstone, an editor and reporter on the Times’ international desk, was working in the paper’s Midtown office on the afternoon of November 13 when he first saw mentions on Twitter and the wire about several attacks in Paris. He had a feeling, he says, that they were not isolated incidents. He reached for his phone.

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“Breaking international news is an exercise in building,” says Gladstone, who spent 17 years at the Associated Press before coming to the Times. “At first, you get conflicting reports, and there’s lots of noise. Slowly you filter that noise and make educated guesses on where you need to send people to confirm what you hear. The cardinal rule is you need to send someone. Get someone there.”

The violence occurred in Paris, but over the next 48 hours, the Times coverage would involve significant reporting from places as disparate as Poland, Latvia, Iraq, Belgium, California, and Florida. As details amassed, short briefs would develop into full-fledged analyses. Conflicting facts would be reconciled. Death-count ranges would widen before narrowing again.

A story would emerge that many of us saw in our newspapers and on our phones the next day: clean, concise, and tidy. It would speak in an even voice, telling us the facts as they stood, and how they fit into a broader political context. The chaos of the event, and the effort undertaken to see and understand it, were largely hidden.

This map captures that process. During the first two days after the attacks, 39 contributors sent files from 12 different countries and six US states to 21 bylined reporters and their editors. Of the 21 stories published in that time, 18 carried datelines from the main news hubs of Paris, New York, and Washington.

 

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Beyond showing the scale of the resources required, the timeline highlights both how questions permeated from the epicenter of the attacks to more distant locales, and in parallel, how the resources of regional bureaus, like the one in London, were brought to bear.           

Shortly after learning of the attacks, Gladstone called Aurélien Breeden, a Paris-based reporter. Breeden recalls Gladstone asking if they had seen the news. They had. It was after 9pm in Paris, and Breeden was already sending reporters out to gather details.

Breeden first called Adam Nossiter, another Paris-based reporter, who was eating dinner with his family in his apartment in the First Arrondissement, an area close to two restaurants where shooting occurred. Nossiter heard police sirens outside his window. He rushed upstairs, opened his computer, and started typing an initial report, which was published exactly 90 minutes after the attacks.

By then, Gladstone had called Washington reporters Eric Schmitt and Matt Apuzzo. “The attacks reeked of terrorism,” says Gladstone. “We instinctively reached out to Washington, because Matt and Eric have deep contacts in the State Department.”

At the same time, managing editor Michael Slackman and foreign editor Joseph Kahn called Jim Yardley, the Times’ Rome Bureau chief, who happened to be working on a magazine piece about the state of the European Union after the Charlie Hebdo killings. Yardley had just spent three days reporting in Paris, but was flying back to Rome that night. When he landed and switched on his phone, he had a message asking him to call Kahn.

“An attack’s unfolding in Paris,” Yardley recalls Kahn saying. Yardleys recent work made him ideally prepared him to take a broader look at the situation. During the 30 minute cab ride back to his apartment, he started sketching a framework for an overview story that would trace the arc of events and add context. By the time he arrived home, he was receiving feeds directly from Liz Alderman, a Paris-based business reporter, who was reporting from the Stade de France, where one of the attacks occurred. An email listserve was soon set up by an assistant editor in New York for reporters to share briefs, local news, rumors, press releases, and quotes in real time.

To cover international events, the Times relies on over 20 foreign bureaus around the world (the exact number is kept secret following the Charlie Hebdo attacks targeting journalists). Reporter Rukmini Callimachi, who covers the Islamic State (ISIS), contributed reporting from Northern Iraq. One of the Times’ most mobile foreign correspondents—she’s based in New York but traveled outside the US for 130 days last year—she was in the Northern Iraqi town of Sinone reporting on a US-backed offensive against ISIS on the night of the Paris attacks. “My initial contribution when I was still in Sinone was to confirm that ISIS had taken responsibility for the attack,” she wrote in an email to CJR. She would fly to Paris the same night to continue reporting.

The newspaper also employs a small army of contract freelancers, or “stringers”—trusted journalists, often working for local organizations, who confirm and contribute information from far-flung locales and surface stories of interest. Stringers are often used in places without heavy news volume, or where visas are difficult to procure; the Times keeps an internal database of stringers across every country in the world.

Richard Martyn-Hemphill is editor in chief of The Baltic Times, an independent monthly print newspaper based in Riga, Latvia, that covers Central European politics and events. He has been stringing for The New York Times since November 2014. “At first I had no idea the Times would want instant responses from this northeastern fringe of Europe,” he wrote in an email. But the afternoon of November 14, a day after the attacks, Times Warsaw bureau chief Rick Lyman asked Martyn-Hemphill to report on whether the attacks would force governments in the region to change their stance on refugees. Within an hour and a half, Martyn-Hemphill had sent responses from politicians of the Baltic States—Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—to Alison Smale, the Berlin Bureau chief.

“Luckily, we had people in place,” says Gladstone, “but we needed a lot more people in place.” Brussels bureau chief Andrew Higgins happened to be traveling through Paris from Norway after reporting on that country’s efforts to help foreign migrants adjust. He had just opened the door to his Paris apartment in the Montmartre district—close enough to the Stade de France to see the lights on game nights—when Paris-based editor Richard Stevenson called and asked if he could get to Paris quickly. “I was already there,” Higgins said. “I could go wherever I was needed.”

He was sent to the Bataclan concert hall, where gunmen killed at least 89 people and injured nearly 100 more, and where he would hear muffled gunfire, stand behind police lines, and interview traumatized, weeping survivors as they streamed out of the theater. When the paper learned that one of the Paris attackers had grown up in Brussels, Higgins rushed there, joining London-based reporter Kimiko De Freytas-Tamura and Paris-based intern Milan Schreuer, who had arrived hours before.

It was “journalism by committee,” says Nossiter. It was also chaotic, confusing, frantic. Within hours, much of the Times’ European operation was involved. Over the next several days, it seemed as if the entirety of the New York newsroom had been drawn in. As executive editor Dean Baquet wrote in an internal memo: “Our colleagues in Paris led the way, with courageous and tireless work on the ground … but everyone played—the Washington bureau, the news desk, video, the copy desk, multi-media, the audience and social teams, photography. Journalists from every desk turned up in the office over the weekend.”

Wherever we were, we picked up our papers or checked our phones, sipping coffee and shaking our heads in disbelief as we digested the news—our ritual daily update from far and near, evidence of vast machinery grasping for truth and bringing it smoothly home.

 

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Alexander Spangher is a data scientist at The New York Times who works on personalization, focusing primarily on article recommendations. He is also a part-time student at Columbia Journalism School, where he focuses on data visualization. Follow him @AlexanderSpangh.