Probably the most powerful picture that emerged after a plane crashed into the Hudson River last week was a photo taken by a regular citizen. It was captured at a moment immediately after the crash occurred by a passenger aboard one of the rescuing ferries. At that time, chances were that none of the mainstream media outlets were present at the scene and, if they were, they may not have had such close proximity to get such an impressive shot.
To put that in perspective, this photo was actually forwarded to me before the media got wind of the photo's existence. It was sent to me in an e-mail inside the first hour after the flight's landing as a picture that a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend took. Then I started to see it all over the Internet in subsequent hours, as it quickly became the eminent display of the "controlled chaos" that took place in the moments after the crash.
This episode may be the best proof yet that citizen journalism is not only here to stay and can also be essential. I have no doubt that camera people from the Associated Press would have captured equally compelling pictures that told similar tales. But in this case, they were overshadowed by a man, his digital camera and a free Twitter account.
When I decided to head on over to the crash site, I didn't go intending to be another citizen journalist. I went because I was curious to see how the site was being run in the aftermath. I wanted to watch the way officials coordinated all the different people - passengers, rescue teams, witnesses, reporters, medics and passers by.
I arrived there at around 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, roughly an hour after the plane had unexpectedly and miraculously landed in the Hudson. By then, all of the passengers had been rescued, the plane had reportedly drifted a mile away, and police were beginning to section off areas on the pier in order to create efficiency and order.
I decided to huddle in with the press. I tried to blend in as best as I could, even pulling out a pen and paper from my pocket and pretending to jot down notes. For about an hour, I stood in the cold with reporters outside the New York Waterway Ferry Terminal waiting for more information. During that hour, I learned a lot about how news reporters put together a breaking news story.
Several years ago, I spent a morning in the White House press room where I got to hear the morning briefing delivered by then White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. As soon as the briefing wrapped up, reporters raced back to their tiny offices inside the back of the press room and began to type out their stories. The goal was to beat the other guys by a matter of seconds, to be the first to get the story out there.
On Thursday evening, though, the feel was extremely different. Interest was at its peak. Of all the places one could have been during that hour, standing outside the Ferry Terminal was probably among the least productive and least informative. You see, officials were busy with two concerns then: First, emergency medical teams and police were trying to organize the area to allow ambulances through. And second, the rest of the workers were setting up for a 5:30 press conference to be delivered by Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg.
Nobody was talking to the press before the inevitable press conference. There was no useful information emanating from sources of any kind. I watched as stressed reporters collaborated with each other to learn the latest news, relying on one another to help them stay up to date on what was happening.
An ABC reporter told a team of other reporters when the Terminal we stood outside was officially announced as the central headquarters. I eavesdropped on a conversation between two others about where the plane was at that time and what was being done about it. And I listened in on a NYT reporter as he called his news desk every couple of minutes asking them for any news. These reporters were just standing in the cold, as their camera persons looked for decent angles, and waiting to be called inside for the press conference that couldn't come fast enough.
I was struck by how well the reporters performed their jobs during that high-pressured afternoon and night. When there wasn't much to go on, they turned to each other to fill in the blanks. They credited other sources when needed. If one of them posted something, everyone had it within minutes. It was very much a communal project to ensure that all the information was immediate and accurate.
Even inside the crowd of reporters on Thursday, there was a sense of the same "controlled chaos" that defined the successful rescue. While citizen journalists may have gotten to the story first, mainstream journalists pulled off some tricks of their own. At a tense moment when I can assure you nothing was being reported, these journalists made something out of nothing.