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One year later, terrorist attacks didn't leave many permanent marks on the
By David Bauder, Associated Press
NEW YORK — For many journalists, Sept. 11 brought the immediate sense that they were covering the most important story of their lives and that the media landscape had changed forever.
Well, maybe everything HASN'T changed.
There are differences, to be sure: Cable news has a larger audience and Americans are more interested in international news. But for the most part, experts say, the habits of news consumers and providers aren't markedly different a year later.
"We imbued this whole story with perhaps more meaning than it ultimately had," said Michael Wolff, media columnist for New York magazine. "That's not to say it wasn't an event of overwhelming devastation. It just might not mean all that we thought it would mean."
Wolff remembers talking with a charged-up newsmagazine editor shortly after Sept. 11 who predicted it would be a long time before the magazines had cover stories on health or lifestyle issues.
It happened sooner than expected. Life moved on. Time magazine cover subjects the past month included Bruce Springsteen and the environment.
Newspaper circulation soared in the weeks after the attacks, but by January the wave had receded and readership was generally back to what it was before, said John Murray, a vice president at the Newspaper Association of America.
"There's always the hope after a big news story that there will be new readers, or occasional readers will read more frequently," he said. "That's not the way it works. A single story doesn't work that way."
It was the same at newsmagazines. Newsstand sales at Time and Newsweek were both up 80 percent during the last six months of 2001 compared to the year before. During the first half of this year, Time was up 7 percent and Newsweek 3 percent over the same period a year earlier, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
On television, a decades-long decline in network evening news viewership has stopped, and ratings have stayed up at cable news networks Fox News Channel and CNN.
A study of public news habits released in June by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found few differences pre- and post-attack.
Fewer people report reading a newspaper the previous day: 41 percent this spring compared to 47 percent two years earlier, the study found. Adults under age 35 continue to consume less news than previous generations at the same stage of life.
And the surge in public respect for the news media that was evident in the weeks after Sept. 11? A thing of the past, another Pew study released this month found.
"We're back to covering kidnappings more than they deserve and the hyping of news," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew center. "So the public has gone back to their regular habits, with the serious news audience and the tabloid audience doing their things. If we have another attack, we'll have huge audiences again."
The biggest change is the appetite for international news, with the war on terrorism and the Middle East unrest. The Pew center found the number of people who say they closely follow international stories increased from 14 percent in 2000 to 21 percent this year.
That forced a major change in priorities for many news organizations, particularly in television, that had deemphasized international news throughout the 1990s.
"It has renewed our commitment to covering news around the world because people understand better how much events overseas really matter," said Walter Isaacson, chairman of CNN, which has built the most extensive international news operation among U.S. television networks.
Many international correspondents at The New York Times became immersed in terrorism issues, said Andrew Rosenthal, assistant managing editor.
"There isn't a reporter on our foreign staff that hasn't been drawn into this coverage at one time or another," he said.
The Times' "Portraits of Grief" profiles of Sept. 11 victims were perhaps the most indelible newspaper industry response to the attacks. Yet that doesn't make for a permanent change.
In the past, big stories helped create news outlets or cement reputations. ABC's "Nightline" was born as a nightly special report during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, and the Persian Gulf War arguably ushered CNN into television's major leagues.
While Sept. 11 turned Geraldo Rivera from a talk-show host into a war reporter and helped bring Phil Donahue out of retirement, it hasn't been the same career maker.
Perhaps the most visible legacy is the crawl of news headlines on the bottom of cable news network screens. Those began on Sept. 11 to help keep viewers up to date on a confusing, fast-moving story, and they've never left.
CNN's viewership this year is up 65 percent over the same period in 2001. The network might be celebrating more loudly if Fox News Channel hadn't gone up 128 percent during the same time to overtake them.
At the same time, viewership has dropped markedly at CNBC, suggesting some people have grown weary watching their investments lose money and turned to news instead.
Sept. 11 was hardly a career maker for TV warhorses such as Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, but their role in soothing and informing the nation that week did bring a renewed appreciation for anchors who had been taken for granted.
A year later, evening news viewership is up for all three of their broadcasts -- most markedly at Jennings' ABC, an impressive achievement considering the networks' complete collapse in prime-time.
The attacks may have kept Brokaw in his job longer. He took most of the summer of 2001 off and was contemplating retirement; now he's decided to stay on as anchor through the end of 2004.
Many journalists say the story reminded them why they got into the business in the first place.
"Clearly, I think that people's view of the importance of news and respect for news increased," said Mark Lukasiewicz, executive producer for special projects at NBC News.
"We were coming out of a summer of Gary Condit and a period of not always feeling great about the stories we had to tell," he said. "Not that you felt great about 9/11, but you knew it was important and your audience knew it was important."
At ABC News, "I think it has renewed our confidence in both the importance of our mission and the ability to execute it," said news president David Westin.
Both Westin and The New York Times' Rosenthal said the attacks paved the way for their organizations to cooperate more. Barriers in newsgathering broke down in ways that viewers or readers might not necessarily see, but which may ultimately produce better news coverage.
Ultimately, it may have been too much to expect that Sept. 11 would bring about massive changes in the media.
"The problem with the `everything has changed' notion is that we literally thought that this was something of an ongoing event," Wolff said. "That was the fear -- that we were living in a world of terrorist attacks.
"It took awhile for people to come to the conclusion, sort of sheepishly, that it's not what happened."