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Published: Sunday, 1/22/2006

Computer bug failed to stop 'Daily Miracle'

Newspaper editors for a century have called each day's paper "The Daily Miracle," in tribute to all the things that have to happen before it ends up on your doorstep.

But nine days ago, high-tech disaster struck the newspaper. For a moment, it looked like there was a real possibility that The Blade would not be able to publish a paper for - what other day could be more appropriate - Friday, Jan. 13.

Yet they did.

"It truly was a miracle that we published The Blade that morning, and we did it all working together," said Kurt Franck, Blade managing editor.

What happened was that the newspaper was ambushed by a high-tech varmint.

Despite firewalls and other protective systems, a deadly computer virus broke through and hit the newspaper's network shortly before 10 a.m. on Jan. 12.

Within a short period of time, almost nothing was working. The Blade was cut off from the Internet, from e-mail, and from much of its own material.

"I've been though many computer problems at newspapers in Florida," Mr. Franck said. "I've been through hurricanes. But I've never seen anything like this."

Yet everybody pulled together.

Mr. Franck figured out reporters could write stories on their individual machines, and then transfer them to a tiny portable "flash drive." Then the stories were transferred to another terminal, where the pages were laid out.

"Using flash drives to help us put out the paper was either a stroke of genius or the luckiest shot I've ever seen," said Frank Corsoe, The Blade's sports editor.

A Blade picture editor took a laptop to a nearby coffee shop where he could get an Internet connection, downloaded news photos, and brought them back to The Blade.

"I was determined we were going to get a paper out," said Mr. Franck, who didn't leave the building for 20 hours. Everyone else was equally determined.

Ron Royhab, The Blade's vice president and executive editor, said, "This event was a wake-up call that shows how vulnerable a computer system can be."

"Our entire staff did an outstanding job working around the problem under some very difficult circumstances."

Staffers from different departments worked together side by side. People kept their tempers and worked far into the night. Most of The Blade's computers wouldn't talk to each other, but the newspaper's MacIntoshes were immune to the virus.

In the end, the Macs and the flash drives saved the day. The paper got off the presses three hours late, but it was printed - and delivered. The product was far from perfect.

Typefaces were messed up; some features and sports scores had to be left out entirely.

Though computer experts were called in to start working on fixing the sabotage, problems persisted for several days, and the expensive and tedious task of cleaning and disinfecting each individual computer terminal is still under way.

Joseph H. Zerbey IV, The Blade's vice president and general manager, said, "it was remarkable to see the ingenuity and cooperation on the part of everyone who worked to get the paper out."

Nobody knows who created the virus, which apparently was attached to an e-mail sent to the paper's circulation department. But while those who create computer viruses normally think they have pulled off the perfect crime, in this case they may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

"We have isolated the worm in a particular computer terminal," Mr. Zerbey said. "We have contacted federal authorities, and they will be working with us to try and trace it."

If the culprit can be found, he said The Blade intends to prosecute the perpetrator to the fullest extent of the law. On Friday the 13th, The Blade was flooded with angry calls from readers who noticed the imperfections in their paper, or complained because it was delivered late.

"I stopped counting after 66 calls that morning," said Mr. Corsoe, the sports editor. "But it was funny - as soon as I explained about the computer virus, they understood. Almost all of them instantly became sympathetic."

Those phone calls came after Luann Sharp, an assistant managing editor, appeared on radio to explain what happened, and Toledo's TV stations also reported the story. In a way, the editors said the complaints were gratifying: "It shows how important The Blade is to our readers and how much attention they pay to it."

The virus took a heavy financial toll on The Blade, Mr. Zerbey said; the paper lost many thousands of dollars in advertising alone that it was unable to publish.

But it will lead to better security systems. "We're setting up a disaster recovery room that will be manned at all times with computers that are immune to viruses," Mr. Zerbey said. The Blade's internal network will also be cleaned and strengthened.

The Blade's first edition was published on Dec. 19, 1835. One hundred and seventy years later, a high-tech criminal tried to do something that civil wars and epidemics have failed to do - prevent The Blade from putting out a paper. But thanks to the even more resourceful people who put together the Daily Miracle, they failed. Somehow, I think Petroleum V. Nasby would be downright proud.

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Anyone with a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade, 541 Superior St. Toledo, Ohio, 43660, or at my Detroit office: 189 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit MI 48202; call me, at 1-888-746-8610, or e-mail me at OMBLADE@aol.com.

I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply.



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