Editing by flashlight: How one AR daily put out a newspaper in the dark

February 12, 2018

By Brandon Riddle
Little Rock (AR) Democrat-Gazette
LITTLE ROCK, AR—When a sudden power outage darkened downtown Little Rock’s skyline Tuesday, Jan. 2, it also knocked out electricity at the offices of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
That posed an immediate problem for the staffers working on Wednesday’s print edition. Deadline was approaching, the newspaper wasn’t done, and the newsroom was dark.
In the minutes and hours after the power failure—which also took out the electricity at ABC affiliate KATV-TV’s headquarters and high-rise structures east of Broadway and west of Scott Street—uncertainty abounded as to when service would be restored. So, a newspaper crew of copy editors and page designers not accustomed to working by flashlight scrambled to adapt and finish Wednesday’s edition.
“In the back of my mind, I kept thinking, ‘Well, the power is going to come back on pretty soon,’ ’’ said Stacy Hawkins, deputy managing editor for production.
“When you get over the initial shock, it’s the enthusiasm [that keeps production moving],” he said.
Hawkins said the newspaper was “in a pretty good place” because a lot of the copy had gone through edits. Only a few section-front stories remained.
Information technology manager Clay Carson arrived shortly after the Democrat-Gazette went dark and remained at work through Wednesday afternoon. Power provider, Entergy, said the outage began about 8:40 p.m.
“I’ve been here 38 years, and this one was wild,” Carson said of the outage—one of four he’s witnessed in his tenure. “Usually we’re closer to being out, just a few pages. Or it was during the day.”
By the end of the night, several iMacs were hauled over to the Democrat-Gazette’s press building on Byrd Street, which did not lose power. Laptops were also provided to the newsroom to keep the production process going.
“The press room was so convenient. That’s where everyone needed to be,” Carson said. “Last night, spur of the moment, we thought it was a good idea.”
The glow of flashlights and MacBook screens dotted the darkened newsroom as remaining edits were made on stories and printed sections.
One reporter passed on a laptop with a quick front-page story about the unfolding blackout to an editor. Another editor ventured out in search of a time frame for power restoration.
Battery-powered WiFi hubs allowed newspaper staffers to regain access to the Internet—a crucial component of its largely Cloud-based production setup. Still, other critical elements like high-quality photos and advertisements were inaccessible.
At the Garland Street substation around 11:30 p.m., Barry Arthur, assistant managing editor for photography and electronic media, came across a crew of eight or nine Entergy employees working in the subfreezing temperatures.
There, he was able to get a clearer understanding of the downtown blackout, which was deemed by the utility to be the result of malfunctioning equipment.
“It gave us at least an idea. We had to take other options at that point,” Arthur said.
Outside the Democrat-Gazette building, police officers patrolled the dimly lit downtown streets, with high-rise emergency lights providing only limited illumination.
“As the blackout progressed, we were getting different reports. Oh, it was going to be one hour, two hours,” Hawkins said.
Eventually, editors determined that one edition could be printed for Wednesday. Typically, city and state editions are sent out to the appropriate subscribers, but deadline constraints made that effort impossible.
After everything was “put to bed” by around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, another crew ensured that printing the edition went off with as few hitches as possible. Printing started at 1:45 a.m.
It took until around 3 a.m. for power to be restored.
Tuesday night’s power failure presented other obstacles with technology, including a website outage that lingered through Wednesday afternoon.
“The biggest nightmare was the fear,” Carson said of seeing what effect the power failure had on technology components. “When things take a power hit like that, you don’t know what state they are going to come back in.”
The Democrat-Gazette’s website remained inaccessible hours after power was restored. Stories, as they unfolded Wednesday, were instead posted to the newspaper’s social media accounts.
Despite the challenges, Carson said he was proud of the way the newspaper staff, and particularly the younger members of the crew, handled the blackout.
“I have never been so proud to be part of a team that worked that well together and was that creative at problems,” he said. “Everybody had input; everybody had good ideas.”
“When I was 30 years old, it was exciting. Now that I’m 58, it’s a little harder, I will admit. I have a feeling I won’t be here very early tomorrow.” © Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 2018

This article originally appeared on the Arkansas Online website. Reprinted with permission.

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