Where Was AAN When the Lights Went Out?

"The best day this could happen," one editor says

Several AAN papers scrambled to cope with the massive power failure two weeks ago that plunged nearly 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada into the dark.

“This was a disastrous scenario,” says Grant Crosbie, ad director for NOW Magazine in Toronto. “Not on the level of 9/11, but this is something you don’t normally plan for.”

Fortunately for NOW, the lights went out at 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, several hours after that week’s paper had already hit the streets. And despite some downtime the following day, NOW persevered and ultimately put out an average-size 112-page paper the following week, Crosbie says .

Long Island Press Managing Editor Bill Jensen was also relieved at the seemingly fortuitous timing of the outage. The Garden City, N.Y., alternative prints Wednesday night and the last copies were being distributed when the power went down.

“The thing I kept thinking was ‘This is the best day this could happen,'” he says.

The week after the outage “was a little bit of a tight week” but “we had a great sales week,” Jensen says. “I don’t know what to attribute that to, except that (the salespeople) really hustled,” selling right up to the deadline and running “blackout specials” on ad pricing.

New York Press Editor Jeff Koyen says three years ago the boiler in the office building exploded on a Monday, the day before the paper was scheduled to hit the streets. Back then, employees headed across the street to a bar to take advantage of electricity there to finish their work, he says. This time employees worked over the weekend to catch up and were able to gain Internet access through friends, family and local businesses.

Though advertising for last week’s issue “took a bit of a hit” during the blackout, Koyen says the salespeople recovered fairly well in the days that followed. They were able to stay in communication with clients and vendors via cell phone at least until their batteries began running low Friday and couldn’t be recharged.

“It’s a mobile-phone culture, now,” Koyen says.

Also, the printer agreed to push the deadline back, which gave sales reps two more hours to sell.

Great communication with your printer is a must, says David Jost, publisher of Metro Times in Detroit, who convinced his printer to go to press later than usual following the blackout to give employees time to catch up for lost work on Friday. State officials urged people not work downtown that day in order to avoid a massive drain once power was restored.

Metro Times’ employees worked over the weekend and came in early Monday, using their cell phones to communicate. However, overloaded towers were a problem in all affected cities, and cell service was disrupted. Jost says that because some businesses that regularly advertise with the paper were closed for several days, advertising was down last week.

Editor in Chief Donald Forst says The Village Voice, which lands in news racks on Tuesdays, “had a scramble” getting the paper out as usual. According to Vice President of Sales and Marketing George Troyano, the Voice’s sales staff lost a work day on Friday and, with the Internet down, the paper didn’t receive some of the advertising it normally gets via e-mail. Troyano says management had alternative plans in case of emergency, which allowed the paper to pick up local ads by courier and some others off an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) site. As a result, only a few pages of advertising were lost, and editorial made those up with increased coverage of the blackout.

“After 9/11, we really worked as a team to put things in place in case of contingency,” Troyano says.

The fact that the Voice’s printer agreed to push back the paper’s usual deadline on Monday also helped.

“We could have had all the contingency plans in place, but it wouldn’t do any good if our printing partner doesn’t work with us,” Troyano says.

New York Press doesn’t have an emergency plan, says Koyen, who adds, “I’m pretty confident we could scrape (one) together” should the power go off again. Every editorial staffer has a laptop, and the production manager knows how to quickly break down the server and take it offsite to find electricity. Mobility is key, Koyen says, as is having an organized workflow within departments so everyone knows their responsibility.

Had the blackout lasted longer, “Then, we would have been in trouble. … I would say keep your laptops charged.”

Jost says Metro Times’ printer is equipped with phones and backup work stations that reporters and salespeople can use in case of emergency.

“We didn’t use it (this time), because we didn’t need to,” he says.

Crosbie says NOW already had emergency plans to deal with fire or weather damage, but not for a power failure.

“Certainly, I think everywhere this has prompted discussion (of being prepared),” he says.

He noted the value of staying calm and exercising patience. “Americans like to tease us about being polite, but I think in this instance, it paid off for us,” he says.

Ann Hinch is a freelance writer based in Knoxville, Tenn.