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Blackout News: Don't Stop The Presses!

August 15, 2003
washington post

The power drained from the center of the media universe yesterday, making New York's newspapers and broadcast outlets part of the story they were trying to cover from increasingly steamy and dimly lit newsrooms.

Having learned something about crisis management in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the broadcast media were able to stay on the air with back-up generators and by sharing TV footage. Newspapers throughout the Northeast, meanwhile, scrambled to find presses capable of printing the next edition as deadlines loomed.

The situation ranged from inconvenient to serious. The New York Times's printing plant in Queens was without power, so the paper planned to reduce the number of pages printed and consolidate its entire regional press run at its plant in suburban New Jersey. To the west, the Cleveland Plain Dealer had no such luxury. It planned to move its entire 385,000-copy run 30 miles south to a rival newspaper.

"As it gets darker, we've got some interesting challenges," said Doug Clifton, editor of the Plain Dealer, which was planning a truncated edition of today's paper to be printed at the Akron Beacon Journal and a commercial plant. "We're going in search of torches right now."

Despite the outage, news networks hardly lost a beat. The electrical failure at 4 p.m. EDT caused only a momentary disruption of broadcasts, though some glitches occurred. As MSNBC anchor Brian Williams told viewers, "This is a natural occurrence, as natural as anything like this can be." MSNBC temporarily lost most of its audio, reducing Williams's report to a whisper.

Williams also was pressed into service on NBC because "Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw, whom Williams will succeed next year, is vacationing in Montana. In place of the usual high-tech electronic graphics, Williams at one point had to resort to an atlas to show where the power went out.

All broadcast and cable networks ran on diesel-powered generators during the blackout. Their time on the air was limited only by how much fuel was left in the generators; for instance, NBC News had more than 90 hours of generator capacity, while Fox News Channel said it could stay on until 6 a.m. today without another fuel delivery.

Helicopter scenes of gridlocked New York streets were distributed by National News Service, a consortium run by CBS, Fox and ABC. Although NNS footage is usually reserved for its members, yesterday the footage was made available to all.

"It's hot and it's dark," said Kevin Magee, vice president of programming for Fox News Channel in Manhattan. "It's not chaos, and it's not normal."

Soon after the outage, Magee walked down to his building's lobby because the elevators weren't working, and bought out a vendor's supply of cold bottled water to hand out to his staff and anchors.

Elsewhere in Manhattan, Newsday reporter James Madore wasn't deterred by a mere blackout. He was on the phone to a crucial source for a weekend story. First, the lights flickered, then they went off in Newsday's office at Park Avenue and 33rd Street. No matter. The building's personal-address system crackled with updates. Madore kept interviewing, "in semi-darkness," for 20 more minutes, even shooing away another reporter who tried to interrupt to talk about, um, the blackout!

"I wasn't going to get off the phone," he said yesterday afternoon, an hour after the lights went out.

In Newsday's main office and print site in Long Island, Robert Keane, managing editor for production, was formulating his battle plan. Typically, Newsday's 650,000 papers are printed on 10 presses. Last night, he was aiming to use the limited power to run four presses. "The paper will be a little smaller, but it should be the entire press run," Keane said yesterday evening. "We'll just go like hell."

Things were going smoother at the Wall Street Journal, which published the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks despite being located adjacent to the World Trade Center. Yesterday, backup power was on in the newsroom. All 17 of the paper's printing plants across the country were operating, spokeswoman Brigitte Trafford said. The only evidence of a blackout, she said, was the click of the backup generators turning on.

Though all-sports radio WFAN-AM, the city's highest rated station, was knocked off the air, sister station WCBS-AM news radio stayed on, thanks to a separate transmitter. That enabled it to cover the exodus on the streets below its 57th Street studios.