It Wasn’t ‘The Big One’; But Web Sites Are Ready

By: Steve Outing

If you are a media outlet in the earthquake-prone regions of California, you better be prepared for the inevitable — a large and devastating earthquake that’s certain to wreak havoc someday. Last Wednesday’s 5.4 magnitude temblor in the Bay Area served as the most recent wake-up call.

The much more severe Loma Prieta earthquake in the Bay Area in 1989 woke up most news organizations to preparedness issues. (At that time, I was working at the San Francisco Chronicle, which lost power to its building. In a classic example of not being prepared, there was no backup power and the night city editor went out and bought a generator, which powered enough Macintoshes to put together brief quake editions for the next two days till power to downtown San Francisco was restored.) But since then, the major newspapers in the Bay Area have developed significant Web sites. Are they ready for the next “big one”? Will publishers commit to keeping their Web services operational under the worst of conditions, when even producing the print edition will be an incredible ordeal?

The San Jose Mercury News, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its quake coverage in 1989, put out a press release after Wednesday’s shaker, bragging that the quake didn’t slow down Mercury Center. It got the first coverage of the event online within 20 minutes, and an hour later had discussion areas set up so that area residents could trade information and talk about the quake.

Mercury Center managing editor Bruce Koon says that Wednesday’s tremor reminded the staff about being ready to keep publishing online no matter what. The newspaper itself has an earthquake publishing and coverage plan in place, and the online division is still in the process of digitizing some of the at-the-ready content that will be brought out next time a quake hits. That means that maps, lists of emergency services, etc. will be ready to go at a moment’s notice. (After all, a Web staff will not have the luxury — as I and my Chronicle colleagues had in 1989 — of several hours to put something publishable together. The Web-using public will expect quake coverage to be online instantly.)

If the Mercury’s servers (which are in-house) and Internet connection go down because of the quake, Mercury Center staff will have some options. Most likely, the Web staff would use the servers of InfiNet, the national ISP that is partly owned by Knight Ridder and which hosts all of Knight Ridder’s Web sites except for the Mercury and the Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News. This thought is reminiscent of what the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota (also a Knight Ridder paper) went through when catastrophic floods inundated the city and destroyed the newspaper’s physical plant. The paper’s Web site continued to publish with the help of Knight Ridder’s other digital resources, and an online editor working out of a home.

Koon says that last week’s medium-sized quake demonstrated how important is the need for people to communicate during a disaster. Mercury Center’s online discussion areas were very busy with quake talk. News Web sites must recognize that need and be ready to facilitate and host these community conversations when a special need arises, he says.

Keep publishing, no matter what

Further north along the San Andreas Fault, the San Francisco Chronicle Web site, The Gate, also sits at least somewhat prepared for the next big event. Gate manager John Coate says that the building that houses the Web operation has its own back-up generator. The site is hosted by Exodus Communications in Santa Clara, which has backup equipment and power supplies at the ready in the event of a disaster. The site also could be served out of The Gate’s offices in San Francisco, in a pinch.

Coate says that company executives are committed to the concept of keeping the site going even in a disaster, though they may not have walked through all the detailed steps it would take to keep the site going in a disaster.

In that respect, newspaper Web operations are beginning to be viewed as an important a communication vehicle as the newspaper itself. As long as there are phone lines in operation, tomorrow’s quake victims will turn immediately to the Web for news and communication rather than wait for the newspaper to be printed. (Of course, a big quake is likely to make it difficult to distribute papers, and bring down the area’s digital communications systems. In that worst-case scenario, a newspaper’s Web site may be the only way a publisher reaches anyone at all — initially providing news to those outside the immediate afflicted area.)

In Los Angeles, another metropolis that’s primed for a major earthquake one of these days, Los Angeles Times editorial director for new media Leah Gentry says newspaper executives are committed to being an ongoing source of news and information — and a Web site that will be kept publishing no matter how dire the circumstances is now a critical piece of that mission.

The Times is well prepared for the next big earthquake, with pre-done quake-related content ready to go. “We’re as ready for the big one as we are for Bob Hope’s death,” she says.

The Times’ Web site works closely with the print newsroom, which regularly provides news coverage well in advance of print publication. But Gentry is realistic enough to realize that in the event of a major catastrophe like a big earthquake, her staffers are going to have to do more legwork on their own. Online editors/reporters probably will be dispatched to nearby Cal Tech to get interviews with seismologists and collect maps or other data, for instance. Inevitably, the print news staff will be too busy with the newspaper to focus as they usually do on providing timely content to the Web operation.

Gentry also would put someone on duty to manage live discussion forums. Possibilities might include creating a relatives’ forum, where people could ask the assembled participants if anyone has news about a missing relative or friend. The forum manager also might collect reports from people in various neighborhoods or cities who could report on the situation in their location.

The Times is part of the Times-Mirror chain, and thus could rely on its sister newspapers for Web publishing backup resources. What really worries Gentry about the prospect of a big Southern California earthquake is what would happen to the Internet itself. Should MCI (a major Internet backbone) and MAE-WEST (a major West Coast Internet peer interconnect point) be brought down, no one is going to be viewing the Times Web site anyway.

E-mail wisdom

Responding to my last column about trends that news publishers should be attuned to, consultant Vin Crosbie wrote in with a comment about my item on the importance of e-mail services to news publishers. While Crosbie, who runs a consultancy that specializes in e-mail solutions for publishers, obviously has a vested interest in publishers taking e-mail seriously, I nevertheless think he makes some points that are worth hearing — and I heartily agree with his sentiments. He writes:

“Most online newspaper publishers profess that they want to use e-mail delivery and say they will do so once work on their Web sites is finished. Of course, they don’t realize that work on their Web sites will never be finished. Moore’s Law means that no Webs ite will ever be finished: Web sites will always require yet another redesign to take advantage of another new browser plug-in’s capabilities, another improved ad server, new city guide strategy, new online classified system, ad infinitum. The competitive pressures inside the online newspaper industry exacerbate this, as does the Web products industry’s competitive need to sell new things. And an ever increasing internal need to justify previous Web expenditures also keeps online publishers driving down this same path. This single-minded race to run the best Web site causes most online publishers to ignore and never start more effective and cost-efficient online delivery vehicles.

“The real oddity here is that online publishers are perhaps inadvertently relying on the opposite business model that demonstrably made their print editions succeed — rather than providing consumers with daily automatic delivery of content, they are relying solely upon consumers remembering to retrieve that content daily. Is it really any wonder that the percentage of online consumers who visit a newspaper’s Web site daily is roughly the same percentage as those who visit a print newsstand or paper box daily?”

Contact: Vin Crosbie, crosbie@well.com

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at:steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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