By: Karim Mostafa
When Hurricane Andrew ripped through Dade County in Florida nine years ago, it was Bill Grueskin’s first day on the job as The Miami Herald‘s city editor. “I tend to have big disasters when I’m starting something,” said Grueskin, tentatively grasping for a little humor as he acknowledged he’d only been on the job as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Online (WSJ.com) for three months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on its neighboring World Trade Center in New York.
Grueskin, who continues to manage the displaced newsroom of the only profitable paid-subscription news site while trying to find a new home for his wife and three daughters, has earned this laugh. Grueskin, who spent 10 years covering Miami’s colorful news for the Herald, said the events of Sept. 11 were different from any other news story he’s covered, elaborating with a continued comparison of Hurricane Andrew and the terrorist attacks.
“If you get hit once by a hurricane, you pretty much know you don’t have to worry about another one for quite a while,” he said. “Where, obviously, here you have no idea what’s going to happen next, and we have to be prepared for everything.” He admitted that, while evacuating WSJ.com’s offices in the World Financial Center (WFC) on Sept. 11, he didn’t know what to expect.
Minutes after the second plane hit and his staff had posted a preliminary story on the site, Grueskin gave control of WSJ.com to its bureau in Brussels, Belgium.
Staff began heading to parent Dow Jones & Co. Inc.’s campus in South Brunswick, N.J. But Grueskin stayed behind. Foremost in his mind were his wife and 11/2-year-old baby, located a few blocks away in their Battery Park City apartment. He also had to account for his two other daughters in city schools. It took all of that morning just to get his family and staffers out of downtown Manhattan, as they escaped on boats headed for New Jersey.
“If we hadn’t had Brussels or Hong Kong, we would have been out of luck,” Grueskin said. Those bureaus were still publishing through the generator-powered editorial server in the WFC. A priority in South Brunswick was to set up a new server — no easy task since the server there only had site templates with a larger ad format that was scheduled to go live Sept. 12.
Despite the fear of losing the WFC server at any moment, WSJ.com Publisher Neil Budde said, “We decided it was not an appropriate time to introduce the new templates.” (The new ad format, 300 by 250 pixels, was rolled out 10 days later.) By that evening, Budde said, the old templates had been reproduced, and the South Brunswick crew took over from Brussels.
During the relocation process, Richard J. Tofel, assistant to the publisher of the Journal, asked WSJ.com’s managers to make the site accessible for free. The problem, according to Budde, was “we wanted to ensure that we could continue to serve our paying subscribers with easy access to their personalized features and handle any extra load we might get.” That extra load, while the site was freely accessible until midday on Sept. 13, was 30% to 50% above normal, Grueskin said.
The WSJ.com staff has yet to head back into Manhattan. And when they do, in a few months, they won’t be in their old digs at One World Financial Center, moving instead into new offices at Grand Street and Avenue of the Americas. But, for now, Grueskin and his staff will continue to commute to South Brunswick. For many employees, residents of New York and its suburbs, the displacement means spending several nights a week in hotels around South Brunswick.
“It’s been a very, very hard thing for our staff. The Journal was harder hit than any other news operation in the country,” said Grueskin. “They’ve just done incredibly well, and the quality of the site is as high as ever. And our traffic is higher than it’s ever been.”
Since the disaster, Grueskin said, WSJ.com has gained between 20,000 and 30,000 subscribers, some of whom were included in September’s traffic report of 609,000 subscribers. He takes pride in how WSJ.com has supplemented the Journal‘s coverage with interactive features. “It’s been a tough time in the online news business, but we feel that we’ve proven our worth many times over in this crisis,” he said.
Of those first few days following the attacks — when the print Journal was unable to guarantee delivery in a locked-down Manhattan — Grueskin said, “Basically, we were the voice of The Wall Street Journal at a time when people really needed to know what was going on.”