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Wednesday’s Post missed Michelle Obama, Nats game

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My favorite caller of the week was an erudite, sharp-witted woman who said she had been a Post subscriber since 1962. After going through her entire paper on Wednesday morning, she said, “I couldn’t believe there wasn’t any mention of Michelle Obama’s speech. I wasn’t quite sure if I remembered it right. I had to check my memory: Didn’t I watch her on television last night?”

Her memory was fine. Coverage of Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was indeed missing from 60 percent of Post printed copies that day — no speech story, no photo, no Style commentary on her dress, nothing.

Also bad, and the source of more complaints, was the absence of a game story in Wednesday’s paper on the Nationals’ 11-5 victory Tuesday night over the Chicago Cubs. The Nats are finally, amazingly, near a playoff berth, and to not have this game covered, when it ended at around 10:30 p.m., sent people over the edge.

Post reporters said they were buttonholed in front of their homes Wednesday morning by neighbors complaining about the missing game report and speech coverage.

So what happened on Tuesday night? I’m trying very hard to resist this bag of clichés: It was the mother of all . . . the perfect storm of . . . computer meltdowns.

At 10:17 p.m., as the frenzy toward the 11:30 press deadline was building on a full night of big news, The Post was preparing to rearrange both the front page, to include Michelle Obama’s speech, and the Sports front, to add the Nationals’ victory. Then The Post’s publishing software crashed — big-time. This is not so unusual, but it soon became apparent that this crash was different.

It was a problem not with the software but with the communications system that links The Post’s downtown headquarters with its data servers in Tysons Corner; in a sense, The Post’s brain. This data center is what manages the software that allows The Post to publish on the Web and to print the paper.

Editors and reporters downtown could do nothing on the main computer system, leaving them unable to either receive or work on stories.

So at 11 p.m. a band of copy editors, designers and information-technology workers gathered up laptops loaded with late-breaking stories and photos and drove the 25 minutes to Tysons. Upon arrival, the only way they could communicate with The Post’s brain was to plug their laptops directly into the servers.

Precious minutes were ticking by, and the newspaper press operators were getting more and more anxious: They were facing a hard deadline to get something on the presses if the editions that go to local subscribers were to include the evening’s late news.

The makeshift laptop system at the data center was balky, and eventually Managing Editor John Temple made the decision to update only the front page and a couple of inside A-section pages with convention stories. The photos of Obama, however, were taking too long to load and manipulate; they were dropped. Sports staffers arrived at the data center with the Nats game story, but they were too late. There wasn’t enough time to update the Sports section and still get the papers printed and delivered. The presses rolled. During the communications outage, which lasted until 1:25 a.m., most of the Web site also could not be updated.

The missing stories appropriately were printed in Thursday’s editions, with a front-page note and an apology. This computer failure was no one’s fault. Heroic efforts were made to get the paper out despite it.

What I’m worried about is how this incident added to the disgruntlement of subscribers. Most readers understood when I explained what happened. But there was also a strong undertone of exasperation: There always seems to be something with The Post, they said, and they’re close to a “last-straw” moment when they won’t renew their subscriptions. This is dangerous.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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