Publishers Should Have Disaster Plans

By: Eric Wolferman

In the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy in New York, “disaster recovery” and “business continuity planning” have become standard phrases in our vocabulary. Still stinging from massive claims filed after the World Trade Center collapse, many insurance companies are now insisting businesses have emergency plans before they will even offer coverage. The major consulting firms, as well as some of the bigger tech companies, instantly began offering help with wide-ranging contingency plans. It has become big business.

The task of planning for complete annihilation can be overwhelming. Trying to envision recuperation from total ruin is a bit like imagining survival as a castaway: Where do you start?

As a business thoroughly dependent on the constant flow of data and communication, newspapers face some unique challenges in the midst of catastrophe, particularly in the realm of technology.

Disaster recovery is an enterprisewide undertaking that must include everything from managing people in a crisis to ensuring uninterrupted supply chains. There are many resources to help with overall planning, but here are some guidelines for getting started in the area of information technology.

Assess the risks. Analyze your key business components and determine the impact of a disaster on each. For newspapers, these include news gathering and product preparation, advertising sales and production, printing, distribution, and billing and financial functions. Assume that you will have no access whatsoever to your facility.

Assign priorities to operations. Decide the time frames in which various business components must be operational. Some financial functions might be able to wait, while newsroom operations must be back in action immediately.

Collect information. For each business component, make sure you know what equipment you will need to become at least minimally functional. Also be sure you have a full list of vendor contacts available off-site.

Formulate continuity strategies. For each business component, decide what data are critical for functionality. Make provisions for these data to be backed up and stored off-site regularly. Decide where you will set up shop temporarily for the various business components if your facility becomes inaccessible. For example, many newsrooms have agreements with nearby newspapers to share facilities in the event of an emergency. Another alternative is an arrangement with a local university or computer-training center that might have space and equipment to accommodate a makeshift newsroom. For circulation and classified phone rooms, consider arrangements with third-party call centers for temporary help.

Decide how you will deal with your major systems. In the short run, a Macintosh network running word-processing and desktop-publishing software may well serve your needs to get a product out. A circulation system or classified system may present more of a challenge. Discuss with your vendors how long it will take to acquire replacement technology.

Don’t forget the many smaller systems that support specific tasks, such as ad-layout systems or image-scanning systems. You may have to plan manual alternatives for tasks that would normally be automated.

Make sure you have addressed telecommunications needs. Discuss options with your telephone vendors to set up critical internal and external communications provisions for each of the major business components.

Document the plan. Create a record that explains the full plan for each business component and distribute it to all key employees. You should also keep copies of the plan off-site.

Test the plan. This is easier said than done. It is nearly impossible to simulate a complete disaster and put all your technology alternatives into action at the same time. However, you can test and validate individual pieces of your plan. For instance, validate your backup data regularly to be sure they can be recovered if necessary. Plan a drill to test the ability to produce a scaled-down product from your designated alternative site.

Disaster-recovery planning can become an obsession. The possible scenarios are endless, and you can spend a lifetime trying to provide for every contingency. The best plans are the ones that are kept simple and focus on clear goals should tragedy strike.

For instance, if you establish the goal of publishing a limited product with specific distribution objectives on Day One, you will find it easier to decide the minimum requirements. Likewise, setting operational goals for subsequent days will help you decide in what order you must get things up and running.

Trying to meet unrealistic expectations in the face of crisis will lead to frustration and failure. Be clear and honest about what can reasonably be achieved.

Building a business-continuity plan can be tedious work, but it is a great exercise to evaluate your operations. As you walk through your critical processes to develop recovery plans, you may well discover some valuable things about how you operate each and every day.

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