Are you ready for disaster?

In the aftermath of yesterday's snowstorm here on Cape Cod, I could not get outside via the normal side-door egress our family uses. The snow had drifted to about the height of my thighs, blocking the screen door from budging even an inch.

Luckily, the northeast winds had swept enough snow away from our more formal front entrance so I could escape through it to dig out the primary doorway. I whispered a little prayer of thanks to Mother Nature, and wondered what I would have done had the snow drifted in such a way to render both doors inoperable.

The other happy accident of the morning was that my wife, Brandy, ever the planner, had stowed our snow shovel in the basement after another recent storm, saving me from clearing the outdoor shed's doorway by hand to retrieve the shovel from where I ordinarily store it. I whispered another little prayer to her.

The universe's message was clear: Disaster planning should not be left to whispered prayers ex post facto.

I was reminded of that lesson this morning as I was reading Rob Curley's recent post, "Anatomy of a local breaking news story:"

If you are a newspaper publisher, right now — and I mean right this very second — go ask the people who are in charge of your website if they are ready for 100 times the normal traffic that your website would typically get.

When our team was in Naples and Lawrence, we had alternate templates that we could deploy on our sites for just this very reason.

Yep, you read that correctly. We didn’t buy tons and tons of back-up hardware and servers for emergencies — though that’s not a terrible gameplan. We simply had another version of our site ready to go on a moment’s notice that was built to be very low in graphics.
I have much deeper thoughts regarding the value of strategic and long-range tactical planning. Such forethought is unheard of in most newsrooms, where long-range amounts to a couple of Sunday papers from today. But let's tackle this small step for planning kind, first. When's the last time you openly discussed and plotted your online disaster plan?

When I say disaster, I don't necessarily mean circumstances under which you lose a server for more than a few hours, though planning for that with your IT folks is a must. I mean the exact situation Rob Curley describes: An event you must and will own, and therefore will attract national attention.

In his post, Rob described his 2005 Naples experience with Hurricane Wilma. I, too, had a similar circumstances -- five years ago next month -- when our coverage of the Station nightclub fire on projo.com was referenced by the network morning news programs and others, causing a huge spike in what was already a high traffic morning for us.

We were ready, because of experience we had gained during our Web coverage of 9/11. On that day, we had to create a text-only front page on the fly because of a spike we received after police reportedly had cornered a terror suspect at the Providence train station. In the end, that wasn't the case, but the lesson endured. We needed a text-only template at the ready, and should not be trying to invent such things on the spot.

So in 2003, when we needed the text-only front for a short period of time, we simply saved our at-the-ready index-breaking.html as index.html, uploaded, and skipped nary a content beat. Everyone knew the drill, so no one panicked.

(We also had enough foresight to have created an omnipresent backup version of the normal home page -- to also save us from ourselves in case we ever forgot to close a div or a table on any ordinary day. So we were also ready to restore the more richly designed home page when the traffic subsided to the point that our systems could handle it.)

Planning is not rocket science. It's just thought, and prep work.

John Wall and Christopher Penn, in their Jan. 2 Marketing Over Coffee podcast, suggested some New Year's resolutions that included annual tasks such as updating your resume and backing up your data. Belatedly, I add: Prepare for disaster. And next January, revisit the plan, if you haven't done so quarterly already. Planning done in such specifically timed chunks can go a long way toward readying you for the unexpected.


The M Show said...

A low bandwidth template is a great idea. Simple enough to do with CSS and if you wanted to get really crazy you could have it roll over automatically when you get into your red zone.

I've never purchased it myself but I know Amazon deals in excess bandwidth, something else to check out.

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