The story behind the historic headline ‘It’s Atlanta!’ announcing the city won the 1996 Olympics
By Guest Columnist TOM ODER, a longtime news editor for ‘The Atlanta Journal’ and briefly news editor for ‘The Atlanta Constitution.’
Editor’s note: Tom Oder retired from the newspapers’ parent company, Cox Enterprises, as managing editor of Cox News Service in 2009. He wrote the historic headline ’It’s Atlanta!’ in The Atlanta Journal and produced the paper on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 1990 when Atlanta won the 1996 Olympics.
Here’s the story about how that headline was created and how the story was reported that day. It is a story of Atlanta lore that has never been told before. Its telling here for the first time in SaportaReport is prompted by a new book about the Centennial Olympic Park bombing and begins by correcting and clarifying some things the authors wrote about ‘It’s Atlanta!’
The Suspect, An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle, is a recently published and meticulously researched book about one of the darker moments in Atlanta’s history.
Reading like a suspense thriller, the authors, Kent Alexander, the U.S. attorney for Northern Georgia during the 1996 Olympics, and Kevin Salwen, who managed reporting in the Southeast for The Wall Street Journal during the Games, tell the back story about how the Olympic Park bombing marred Atlanta’s time to shine on the world stage and how law enforcement agencies and the media all focused on the wrong person.
The book is important for more than providing insight into an important historical event in one of the world’s leading cities. It is especially relevant in today’s 24-hour news cycle, which was in its infancy in 1996, because it shows how lives can be ruined if those responsible for enforcing the laws and reporting the news get the story wrong in an effort to get it first.
As much time and effort as Alexander and Salwan put into their research for the book, there are some things they wrote on Pages 17 and 18 in the first chapter about the famous It’s Atlanta! headline in The Atlanta Journal announcing Atlanta won the games that need correcting or clarifying:
- Underground Atlanta, where about 2,000 people watched a live feed of the announcement from Tokyo and where the It’s Atlanta! paper was first delivered, is described on Page 17 as “a rundown shopping and entertainment district.” Underground opened in 1969 as an eclectic entertainment district and enjoyed a brief heyday before going dormant. In fact … it had re-opened to great fanfare on June 15, 1989, more than a year before the host city announcement, as a sparkling new retail and shopping district along the lines of a suburban mall. It was redeveloped by the Rouse company, which also revived shopping projects such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Baltimore’s Harbor Place and Miami’s Bayside Marketplace.
- At the end of that paragraph are these three sentences: Down the street, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) had put together several banner headlines for its front page. One version lamented the city’s loss to Athens or Toronto; the other celebrated Atlanta’s victory. An editor stood poised to call the production room with instructions of which to run. In fact … The AJC building at the time was at 72 Marietta St., not down the street from Underground but several blocks away; the AJC in 1990 was not a single morning newspaper as we know it today, but was two separate newspapers, the morning Constitution and the afternoon Journal, with competing staffs; the story announcing Atlanta won the games appeared in The Journal; The Journal had prepared three pages of news coverage for each of the six finalist cities for the games; the editor responsible for The Journal that historic and memorable day was deep in the bowels of the production building (under the presses in a room called the reel room) with a production manager and another newsroom employee) listening to the announcement from Tokyo on a transistor radio, ready to immediately put the correct version on the presses.
- The next to last paragraph on Page 18 begins with this sentence: WITHIN AN HOUR, THE AJC Extra edition was rolling off the press in Atlanta, snapped up by joyous sports fans eager for more news and a keepsake. In fact … The Atlanta Journal began turning on three presses less than five minutes after the announcement; the edition was not an Extra but the regular first edition (the metro edition) of the paper we labeled “special edition” that day in a small blue banner to denote the significance of the news; the papers were delivered first to Underground where a large crowd of proud citizens, no doubt including sports fans, had gathered in an outdoor plaza entrance to Underground to watch the announcement on a live TV feed from Tokyo.
- The last paragraph on Page 18 reads like this: The AJC’s first-run banner headline would be reprinted on T-shirts and posters for years: It’s Atlanta! Just below, in a smaller font, the paper ran a less heralded and unintentionally foreboding subhead: CITY EXPLODES IN THRILL OF VICTORY. In fact … The AJC only printed and sold It’s Atlanta! souvenirs for a short time. Others piggybacked onto the headline and at one time there was even a store in a local mall called It’s Atlanta!; the subhead CITY EXPLODES … (deck head in newspaper jargon) never appeared on the first run or the afternoon street sales editions; that headline only appeared in the home delivery editions.
The story behind It’s Atlanta!
Sometimes, if you are lucky, you find yourself in a moment that defines your career. My moment arrived on Sept. 18, 1990 with the announcement that Atlanta would host the 1996 Olympics, the centennial Olympics of the modern era. Atlanta, improbably, was one of six finalists. No one gave us much of a chance, though, especially since we were competing against the sentimental favorite, Athens. Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee made the announcement very late in the day in Tokyo, 9 a.m. in Atlanta, exactly when The Atlanta Journal was scheduled to turn three presses for its first edition, the metro, a street sales only edition sold in racks along sidewalks and in grocery, convenience and drug stores.
While there was a good chance we would never use it, I knew I had to come up with a special headline treatment just in case Billy Payne and Andy Young and others on their team pulled off a miracle. I started thinking about what that headline might be about a month before the announcement.
Certainly, it needed to be something more imaginative than a headline in big type that merely stated the obvious, such as:
IOC selects Atlanta
to host ’96 Olympics
To come up with something memorable, something that would be a keepsake, I started thinking about how the business day would just be starting in our great city when the announcement was being made half-a-world away. For people still in their cars or just arriving at their offices, what would they be asking? Who won? Was it us? Did we do it? How could I capture that sense of pride, of accomplishment in just a few words?
We did it! and We won! quickly came to mind and were just as quickly discarded. Atlanta needed to be in the headline. But how?
Then, about 3:30 one morning, a week to 10 days before the announcement as I was driving to work and navigating the Brookwood Curve heading south on I-85, it hit me. It’s Atlanta! It was like the car illuminated, and I saw the page in front of me. I quickly accelerated, thinking, you’ve got to get to the office before you forget this! How I could forget those two words, I’m not sure, but it was an all-consuming fear. Most importantly, as a longtime headline writer, I know when a headline captures a moment, and It’s Atlanta! captured this one perfectly – if only we could really win!
Once at the office, I scribbled the words down to ensure I wouldn’t forget them and set them aside to give to an artist, Dale Dodson, who worked The Journal’s early morning cycle. I wanted Dale to build the top of the page in the Art Department because I didn’t want to go through the hassles of dealing with the union composing room on a headline that I knew would be an odd size. I also didn’t want to take a chance on an editor from The Constitution seeing it and maybe somehow stealing it. As odd as it seems in today’s media climate, The Constitution and The Journal were separate and competing staffs in 1990.
I don’t recall exactly when I planned to show the headline to Journal Managing Editor John Walter for his approval, but I waited too long. On the Friday before the Tuesday announcement, I saw Walter and Art Department Director Mike Gordon leaning over a desk in the sixth-floor Journal newsroom. Gordon appeared to be sketching something out. It could only be one thing. Walter must have asked him to come up with an idea for the Tuesday front page of the Journal. Damn.
I raced to the Art Department at the back of the newsroom, got the mock-up page Dale had put together and ran back into the newsroom. Luckily, Walter and Gordon were still there. They didn’t hear me come up behind them, and I reached around Gordon and slid the It’s Atlanta! mock-up over what Gordon had been drawing. Both men stood up. Gordon looked at Walter, looked at me and then turned to Walter and said, “I can’t beat it.” With that he walked back to the Art Department.
Walter, sounding less-than enthusiastic, said “OK, but ask the copy desk to think about this over the weekend. Ask them to see if they can think of anything better.” When I showed the page to the Copy Desk and relayed Walter’s request, the copy editors were incredulous. “How do we beat that?” they asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think you can. But, I need to tell John on Monday that you tried.”
Monday arrived, and I told John the copy desk had thought about the headline all weekend (I think I actually said they had agonized over it) and couldn’t come up with a better idea. OK, he said, still sounding like he wasn’t impressed with the headline.
Meanwhile, we had to come up with alternatives headlines if one of the other cities won. We certainly didn’t want to say It’s Toronto or It’s Athens, so we divided the depth of It’s Atlanta into a two line, eight column headline. Bert Roughton wrote a lead story for each possible winning city – two paragraphs of news announcing the winning city and the rest background.
To coordinate the newsroom’s plans with the Circulation Department, Walter called AJC Vice President of Circulation Dick Huguley and described the It’s Atlanta! headline to him and said that The Journal would publish if Atlanta were the winning city. Walter then took a proof of the page mock-up to Huguley, who thought it was perfect for street sales. Huguley and his team prepared a brilliant game plan to maximize street sales if indeed Atlanta won the Games. That game plan began with arranging for a delivery truck to deliver hot-off-the-press papers to Underground where hawkers would be waiting.
Huguley also arranged for Circulation Department employees to be on standby and to rush on foot to the Underground area with first-off-the-press copies of It’s Atlanta! to hawk the first edition. I don’t know who else Walter showed the It’s Atlanta! mock-up to, but he gave the go-ahead on Monday, Sept. 17, 1990 to run with the headline if Atlanta won. Tuesday morning, we closed the first Journal edition on time in the Composing Room, the production room where printers put the pages together before they were sent to the press room.
Once the last page was off the composing room floor, Frank White, the Journal’s editor who kept pages moving from the composing room to the press room, and I went to the reel room. This is a room under the presses where massive spools of paper are fed up to the presses. There we met Clyde Spears, a production fepartment manager. Clyde was standing at a table where spread out before him were six sets of page negatives, one for each of the bid cities. Each set contained a front page, a jump page (the continuation of the Page 1 story) and a third page of Olympic news. Clyde had placed a transistor radio on the table tuned in to the announcement in Tokyo. We were set to put the winning city on the presses the minute Samaranch made the announcement.
Except for one thing. I had forgotten there is a reason Clyde had the nickname, “Can’t Do Clyde.” No matter what an editor asked Clyde to do, there always seemed to be a reason he couldn’t. His typical response to seemingly any request never varied. “Can’t do it,” he would say.
As the station switched to Tokyo, the reception was so bad Samaranch sounded like the scratchy recordings of Edward R. Murrow calling in from London during World War II. In an effort to hear him, the three of us leaned so closely over the radio our heads were touching. Finally, when Samaranch said … “the city of … Atlanta” I started screaming, “Clyde, go with It’s Atlanta! Put it on the presses now!
“Can’t do it,” Clyde replied calmly. “WHY NOT?” I shouted, not calmly. “I’ve got an agreement with Bobby not to put anything on the presses until he calls me.” Bobby was Bobby Swain, Clyde’s boss. “Why in the world did you have to wait for Bobby to call you to tell you what you just heard?” I shouted, still not calmly. “Can’t do it,” Clyde said again, unfazed by the urgency of getting the pages in front of us onto the idling presses above us or by the historical significance of the events unfolding in Tokyo and a few blocks away at Underground Atlanta, where the crowd that had begun gathering before sunrise was now cheering wildly. Poor Frank looked like he was going to faint, and I was contemplating what alternatives I had to get the pages on the press myself when the phone rang. “OK,” I heard Clyde tell Bobby. Turning to me, he said matter of factly, “We can go with It’s Atlanta! now.” Five minutes later, three presses began turning out the first edition of The Atlanta Journal with the biggest story in Atlanta’s modern history.
As Huguley had planned, Circulation Department employees began racing down Marietta Street with It’s Atlanta! blaring from the front page. Several of them sold all the papers they had before they reached Underground. The rest quickly sold out once there, just before the truck pulled up and the waiting hawkers began grabbing the It’s Atlanta! papers from the truck and selling those.
According to one report, excitement was so high that some people bought uncut bundles of 40 papers.
The reaction was the same around the metro area. Vendors, who were selling papers as fast as they put them out, began calling the Circulation Department asking for more papers. Huguley, who was assigned the responsibility of increasing the press run as needed to maximize sales, called the press room six or seven times as reports came in from the field. Each time, he said recently, he asked the press room to add 10,000 additional papers to the run. Finally, he said, he told the Production Department to just keep printing until further notice, keeping the executive suite on the Ninth Floor aware of what was happening the entire time. It’s Atlanta! was on its way to becoming what has been anecdotally called the best-selling headline in the history of either The Journal or The Constitution.
Back in the newsroom, we began working on the home delivery editions. On the front page we added the deck head, City explodes in thrill of victory; updated the story from Tokyo; made a photo from Underground the lead photo; put Furman Bisher’s column above the fold and added stories saying that a city known for its losing sports teams finally won something and another one about the city scheduling fireworks and a parade. Lastly, we added a photo from Tokyo, significant in that it was the first photo to move on the Cox Wide Area Network. The WAN would later be used to share a daily Olympic section during the Games with any of the other Cox-owned dailies (at the time, Cox owned 44 daily and non-daily papers in six states). This was not only a great journalistic and technological achievement for the times, but a strategic business move. The Cox paper in Waco, Texas, The Waco Tribune-Herald, for example, provided its readers a better Olympics section than the Dallas papers, which had planned to come into the Waco market during the Games.
The home delivery front page is the one that has become the iconic edition from that memorable day. It is the one that has been re-purposed on T shirts, coffee mugs and other items. The first edition didn’t meet that standard because it was the early break on a press deadline without the full run of sidebars and photos. The Blue Streak, the Journal’s afternoon street sales editions also didn’t qualify because Walter finally succeeded in using a headline other than It’s Atlanta! when he insisted on changing the headline that was selling so well to World-class! The City Explodes …. the deck became Proud city brings home the gold.
As John and I and another editor were walking back to the newsroom after closing out the afternoon street sales edition in the composing room, John was talking feverishly about the exciting times ahead. My spirits weren’t so high as I started thinking about something else. I had the sinking feeling we had made a terrible mistake by dropping It’s Atlanta!. Those fears were confirmed when the vendors started calling again. Sales dropped off sharply with the change, Huguley said. Customers didn’t want the World-class! headline as a keepsake. They still wanted It’s Atlanta!. In fact, Huguley added, many people continued to ask for the It’s Atlanta! edition for weeks afterward. We satisfied as many of those requests as possible, he said.
The mystique behind those two simple words wasn’t hard to figure out. Editor Ron Martin summed it up best when he said, “It was one helluva marketable headline.”