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updated: 10/11/2012 12:59 PM

Disruption and the pain of unmet expectations

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If you're in the newspaper publishing business and you ever feel yourself being lured toward the thinking that no one wants your product anymore, try delivering it several hours late sometime. You'll find out, as we did Wednesday, that plenty of people, many thousands in fact, want and expect their daily newspaper, and miss it when it doesn't appear at the usual time.

Of course, you won't have those thousands of devoted customers long if they can't rely on you, so you'd also best be prepared to move heaven and Earth to address whatever problem disrupted your service. Since early morning Wednesday, we've been doing that -- finding along the way that however accommodating Earth may be, heaven has its own timetable to take into consideration.

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So, while our delivery and service did not live up to our standards Wednesday, we've worked hard to address the immediate crisis, and we're confident that as of Wednesday night for today's publication, we are back to normal -- where we expect to stay. It is a curious, sometimes pernicious, irony of our age that technology can do so much to make our lives easier and our work more efficient but conversely can also disrupt us with its own peculiar standards of operation, defying even the backup strategies we have in place for nearly every emergency we can imagine. But it's the ones we can't imagine that hurt most.

That essentially is where we found ourselves Wednesday morning when a power outage (we found out later that ComEd workers accidentally severed our line) knocked out the computer servers that manage the transition of our pages from electronic documents to the physical metal plates that are put on the rollers of our presses. Unfortunately, even after power was restored, bringing those servers back up to speed involved a specific range of procedures that ultimately took hours to complete -- leaving us in the frustrating position of having completed electronic pages and a press and personnel anxiously waiting to receive them, but no actual pages to work with and the demands of our technology standing in between.

We would eventually wrestle those demands to the ground, of course, but by then we had new delivery problems, with a smaller delivery force as hundreds of part-time and independent-contractor carriers had to move onto other jobs and a customer service system which, although designed to manage a heavy emergency call volume, became burdened by an onslaught of understandable complaints and questions. Jim Galetano, senior vice president of circulation, estimates that we eventually had delivered papers to 60 percent of our subscribers by noon and 90 percent by late afternoon, and in the interim, we removed the pay restrictions on our website, giving everyone unfettered access to our content. He also reports that we had a 340 percent increase in call volume to customer service.

As in all such crises, we learned new things about our technology and our processes that only unpredictable events can teach, and we believe that this particular crisis not only is behind us but also will not be repeated. We're deeply and sincerely sorry for the inconveniences and disruptions this event caused our customers.

We're proud to provide information and entertainment that is an important part of the day for hundreds of thousands of suburban individuals and families, and we take very seriously the responsibility such a role imposes. Heaven and Earth may have seemed stubbornly unyielding Wednesday morning, but be assured we also learned valuable lessons about what it takes and how important it is to move them.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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