NEW YORK — A listless late shift dragged on that night in the newsroom of The Associated Press and, across town, at The New York Times.
Feet up on the AP city desk, an editor named Charles Crane read an H.G. Wells novel to while away the news-free night. "Telegraph instruments clicked desultorily," he said later, "and occasionally one could hear the heartbeat of the clocks."
At the Times, the managing editor, Carr Van Anda, had returned from his usual late supper to an office where a forgettable story about a political feud was being readied for the front page. A copy boy dozed.
In the midst of this somnolence at a little after midnight on April 15, 1912, no one knew that, 1,000 miles away, the "story of the century" was breaking — news that would change so many things, including news coverage itself.
At that moment, off the coast of Newfoundland, the Titanic was two hours from sinking.
For more than an hour, the great ocean liner had been sending out distress signals. "CQD, CQD," the coded Morse message repeated, then the now more familiar "SOS."
The urgent calls were picked up by other ships — some of which turned toward the Titanic's reported location for rescue — and the signals reached onshore receiving stations of the relatively new Marconi wireless radio system.
There, each scrap of detail was eagerly snatched up, passed on, then passed on again.
In no time, the electrifying words reached New York. In the AP newsroom, Crane's yawn became a gasp when a colleague burst in from an outer office waving a wire message from Canada: "Reported Titanic struck iceberg."
Instantly, editors started contacting coastal receiving stations to glean whatever they knew, phoned the Titanic's owners, cabled London for a list of passengers — who might now be doomed.
"We put out a 'flash' and the bare report of the crash," Crane recalled years later in a recollection now kept in the AP Corporate Archive. That news story, stitching together the unthinkable bits of detail from wireless messages, went everywhere in seconds.
At the Times, the now wide-awake copy boy stood by as Van Anda absorbed the one-paragraph wire dispatch:
"CAPE RACE, Newfoundland, Sunday Night, April 14 (AP) — At 10:25 o'clock tonight the White Star Line steamship Titanic called 'CQD' to the Marconi station here, and reported having struck an iceberg. The steamer said that immediate assistance was required."
The Times presses were already running for an early edition. The managing editor fired off assignments and began composing a new front page, trying to make sense of the silence that, according to wire updates, had followed the repeated distress calls.
Editors of many other papers would respond by "playing the story safe by printing the bulletins and writing stories that indicated that no great harm could come to the 'unsinkable' Titanic. Not Van Anda," wrote Meyer Berger in a history of the Times. "Cold reasoning told him she was gone. Paralyzing as the thought was, he acted on it."
The great ship's fate wouldn't be confirmed for many hours. White Star Line officials cast doubt on the seriousness of the accident when reporters from the AP, the Times and others called. But the Times city edition headlines anticipated the worst:
"New Liner Titanic Hits an Iceberg;
Sinking by the Bow at Midnight;
Women Put Off in Lifeboats;
Last Wireless at 12:27 a.m. Blurred"
"In terms of news dissemination, the Titanic disaster can be seen as the beginning of what media guru Marshall McLuhan called the 'global village,' though he coined that term with 1960s satellite communication in mind," said communications professor Paul Heyer, author of "Titanic Century: Media, Myth and the Making of a Cultural Icon."
Stories poured forth — careful and factual or speculative and wrong.
"NO LIVES LOST," a London headline reassured in the confusing early coverage. In Paris, Le Figaro lamented "La Catastrophe du Titanic." Front pages in Australia echoed the tragedy for days. Reporters everywhere sought to localize the story — one paper even measuring the ship's immensity by imagining it berthed on the town's street grid. A Kentucky headline solemnly summed up: "Millionaire and Peasant, Shoulder to Shoulder, Go to Their Death..."
Errol Somay who oversaw a Library of Virginia exhibit of the universal coverage, said, "The thing that struck me was the news cycle — like 9/11: the coverage of the chaos of the event, then the human interest stories, then the fingerpointing... We have to figure out whom to blame."
The Titanic story established "a full-speed-ahead, all-hands-on-deck kind of coverage," as journalism educator Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute put it, that has been repeated in countless disasters since. "There's evidence that that goes back to this event."
The coverage showcased the benefits — and dangers — of seizing a new, instant-communication technology. It established standards and new standard-bearers.
The story became a turning point for The New York Times. Its coverage would distinguish it among the city's 20 or so dailies, setting it on course to "secure claim to a position of preeminence ... among American newspapers that it would never relinquish," wrote Daniel Allen Butler in his history, "Unsinkable: The Full Story of RMS Titanic."
Broadcast news, too, got a strong push with this story. David Sarnoff, a young Marconi operator, made a name for himself with days of nonstop updates from a storefront window in New York, drawing crowds so large the police had to keep order. It was the start of a pioneering radio career that saw Sarnoff become the long-serving head of NBC.