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April 15, 2012

Titanic was turning point in global news coverage

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.

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