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RIPPING IT UP: When late on Sunday night The New York Times tore up one front page and crashed an entirely new one about Osama Bin Laden’s death, it was only the third time in the last 43 years the paper literally stopped the presses.
The Times printed 350,000 copies of a non-Bin Laden paper — which included a story with the headline, “Another Side of Tilapia, the Ideal Farm Fish” — before it dumped that edition and got the news of President Barack Obama’s late night announcement in a new edition, according to an internal memo. Seventy percent of the newspapers the Times wound up printing for Monday had the bin Laden news. The Times printed an additional 165,000 copies of the paper on Monday, as well.
To the best of anyone’s institutional memory, the only other instances when the Times is believed to have stopped the presses in the last few decades: Lyndon Johnson’s abrupt announcement that he would not run for reelection in 1968, and the night of the 2000 cliffhanger election.
“On the night of Sunday, March 31, 1968, the first edition had begun to roll with the prepared text of Lyndon Johnson’s speech about the Tet offensive and the Vietnam War,” said retired Times editor Al Siegal in the memo. “When he went on the air, we followed along in the text. At the end of the speech, he announced that he was withdrawing as a candidate for president. [Times editor] Larry Hauck phoned the pressroom and used exactly those words.”
After 2 a.m. on Election Night in 2000, when the networks had called the election for George W. Bush, the paper sent out an edition with a headline reporting that he had won.
“That was quickly dashed by additional reporting, and [Times managing editor] John Geddes picked up the phone to avoid yet another ‘Dewey Beats Truman’ moment,’” wrote Peter Putrimas, the Times’ assistant to the managing editor, in the memo.
No one seems to be able to identify another time when the Times definitely shut the presses down to order up a new front page.
According to the memo, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. seems to remember another time when it happened—but he can’t provide any details that would help nail it down.
“[Sulzberger] recalls that when he was serving as the night production manager, he was asked by someone on the news desk to stop the presses because a major Soviet figure had died,” wrote Putrimas. “He said he did, but he cannot remember the specifics. So that one remains something of an urban legend, but with a large executive asterisk.”
And though stopping the presses is a rarity, Times editors have employed other tricks to try to sneak late breaking news in.
“There have been many times when the production department has accommodated news on requests to run the presses a bit slower to maximize the number of late papers that included a late breaking story,” wrote Putrimas. “But saying ‘slow the presses’ does not have near the same cachet.”