The White House’s bedtime bombshell

As Helene Cooper, a White House correspondent for The New York Times, recalled it:

“I was in pajamas on my couch watching a DVR recording of the royal wedding a little before 10 p.m. when the Washington weekend editor, David Joachim, called me to ask if I’d seen the White House bulletin that President Obama was going to make a statement at 10:30. I hadn’t — too busy looking at Prince William and Kate.”

In the ensuing hours, the full apparatus of The Times would snap into form, under conditions testing the limits of a news organization that reaches the world in digital bits and yet still relies on big iron to print.

Like Ms. Cooper, the photographer Doug Mills was at home when he got a call, this one from the White House press office telling him about the president’s speech. As he approached the White House in his car, he noticed a large presence of Secret Service vehicles. Once inside the gate, he said, he heard from a source. Mr. Mills said: “Man, this must be big. They must have gotten Qaddafi.”

“No,” came the reply. “It’s Bin Laden.”

Ms. Cooper had made a similar assumption, so when Mr. Mills called her at 10:07, she asked whether this was about Libya. “No,” he remembered telling her, “I think they have Bin Laden.”

Ms. Cooper quickly e-mailed Mark Mazzetti, who covers the C.I.A. for The Times, and Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief, telling them what she was hearing. By now, e-mails were flying across the network of Times people, who were sharing information and beginning to map out plans.

Ms. Cooper, trying to confirm the information, e-mailed nine administration and White House sources with the same question to each: “Is it Bin Laden?” One senior White House person replied: “Can’t say, HC. But, for guidance, you should tell folks they may want to mobilize nat-sec reporters,” using a short form for national security.

Ms. Cooper then composed a two-paragraph news story saying Bin Laden had been “apprehended,” but she didn’t hit the send button. She thought of someone else who might confirm the report, called him at 10:34 and said, “I hear they caught Bin Laden.”

“Killed,” he responded. “Not caught.”

She changed “apprehended” to “killed” and sent the story to the desk, writing in the subject line, “URGENT POST ASAP.”

By this time, Mr. Baquet was back in the Washington bureau office and in contact with Alison Mitchell, the associate managing editor in charge of news coverage on weekends, in New York, and with Managing Editor Jill Abramson, at her weekend place in Madison, Conn. After Mr. Baquet satisfied himself that Ms. Cooper’s sourcing was sufficient, Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Abramson decided the news was fit to post on the Web. A single-line news alert went up at 10:40, reporting Bin Laden’s death.

While the frenetic push to publish online was going on, Ms. Abramson was working with Ms. Mitchell to map out coverage in print, telling her to discard the early-edition front page and approving her request to stop the presses. Four Bin Laden articles, including a two-page obituary, would eventually shoulder other stories and ads aside.

In an e-mail exchange with Bill Keller, the executive editor, who was at home, Ms. Abramson said she didn’t think The Times should use the honorific “Mr. Bin Laden.” Mr. Keller agreed, noting, “We don’t for Stalin.”

It fell to David Geary, the late editor on the news desk, to call the press guys — Robert Barnes, in charge of the National Edition network of 26 print sites, and Scott Morrison, assistant plant manager at the print facility in College Point, Queens — telling each of them: “Osama Bin Laden is dead. We need to stop the presses.”

Many of the National Edition sites had already completed their press runs. But according to the Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy, six remote sites were able to print copies with the Bin Laden news: Boston; Springfield, Va.; Chicago; Concord, Calif. (in the Bay Area); Los Angeles; and Seattle. Some 7,000 early-run copies printed in Queens were destroyed to make way for the updated edition, and 165,000 extra copies were printed to meet the heightened demand.

If the big-iron complex was groaning under the pressure, so was The Times’s digital system.

One minute after Ms. Cooper’s news alert was posted on the Web, Jeff Zeleny, The Times’s national political correspondent, posted on Twitter: “NYT’s Helene Cooper confirming that Osama Bin Laden has been killed. President to announce shortly from the White House.”

At virtually the same time, Jim Roberts, an assistant managing editor, sent a similar Twitter message. Next to come was an automated Twitter post generated by, regurgitating the original news alert. And finally, several minutes later, after being processed through the online system, Ms. Cooper’s two-paragraph article hit the Web.

But not in the usual way. With the world now alert that something momentous was under way, user traffic to was mounting and the servers that handle news articles were “gasping for air,” Mr. Roberts said. Ms. Cooper’s short story first was posted as an article but, with the servers under duress, it had to be shifted over to a different set of computers that serve up Times blogs. Now it appeared not as an article but as a post on the blog The Lede.

Much unfolded from there. With staff members staying late, coming back in or working from home, The Times assembled an impressive, tour de force report in print and, through early Monday, online as a deep mix of articles flowed onto the Web from around the world. They included the first stab at a reconstruction of the Navy Seals’ mission, written by Mr. Mazzetti and Ms. Cooper.

The next 24 hours would see the Times news engine in high gear, producing a 10-page special section titled “The Death of Bin Laden” and a second, far more detailed mission reconstruction by Mr. Mazzetti, Ms. Cooper and Peter Baker, a White House correspondent who was on book leave but rushed in to help. For the Web, Jon Huang, a multimedia producer, programmed an engrossing interactive graphic that solicited reader views and arrayed them in pixelated cells.

For David Rohde, though, gathering public reaction was far more personal. Mr. Rohde, a much-admired reporter who was held by the Taliban for seven months before escaping in 2009, watched the celebrants outside the White House on TV late Sunday and then headed to ground zero, a few blocks from his home, to see if people were gathering there too.

Finding a quickly swelling crowd, he said, he interviewed “a construction worker who collected body parts from the rubble in 2001, an American soldier set to depart for Afghanistan in a few weeks and a Pakistani college student.”

Mr. Rohde had been at ground zero on 9/11 nearly 10 years before, running for his life when the towers fell. He had gone on to report from Afghanistan and Pakistan and now — like so many other Times staffers in a wide variety of roles across the organization — he seized another chance to report the news.

For additional reporting on The Times’s coverage of the announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden, please check out “A Visual Look at The Times in Overdrive” on the Public Editor’s Journal.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on May 7, 2011.

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