How to publish news and reach your audience when your website goes down

When the PBS website came under attack by hackers this weekend, the Newshour staff took to publishing its news transcripts and videos to Tumblr instead. A month earlier, a TV station in Tallahassee, Fla., posted videos and news on Facebook when technical difficulties disrupted its 11 p.m. newscast.

PBS Newshour is posting its stories on a Tumblr site.

With so many publishing platforms and social networks available, there’s no reason for a news organization to go dark when its website is down. But it must have a good plan in advance.

Here are the steps to take now to get ready.

10 steps to take before an outage

Decide what services you will use. What platforms will do the best job of carrying your news content? What services do you already use to reach people? What tools are your staff already skilled at using?

Your main options are:

  • A hosted blogging platform (, Tumblr, Posterous), where you can post articles and embed content
  • Social networks (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), which are less flexible and comprehensive than blogs but make it easier to push information directly to your followers and help it spread to the largest audience.

If you are a TV station or otherwise stream video, perhaps you can use a service like Ustream.

You’ll likely want a combination of these options -- a fully capable blog site combined with strong social media outreach.

Assign individual responsibility and authority. Who decides whether to switch to the backup publishing methods — the managing editor, the Web editor? Who’s responsible for activating them? What is the new workflow for reporters and editors? As you nail down the overall plan, each person needs to know his role in executing it.

Set up the sites and accounts in advance, if they’re not already ones you use every day. By the time an outage strikes, it’s too late; your tech staff will be putting its full energy into trying to resolve the current outage and won’t be able to help much. And the goal is to eliminate any downtime, which means your backups have to be ready to launch instantly.

You can protect a blog in the privacy settings.

Consider keeping your backup sites or accounts private or password-protected to avoid confusing users who may stumble across them. Most platforms give you an option in the privacy settings to do this. You can make them publicly accessible when you go live.

Customize the temporary site as desired with your logo and design style. Readers will be confused by changes, but you can minimize this by editing your blog template to use your normal site logo, colors and fonts. Help them navigate the new site.

Add social sharing buttons, if needed. Some blog themes come with these installed, but it’s possible you’ll want to add buttons for Facebook, Twitter or email sharing, or a single sharing button such as AddThis.

Add an analytics tracking code. Decide whether to use the same code as on your normal site or to track the temporary site separately. Either way, you’ll want to look back later at how much traffic you received and how the temporary site functioned.

Include a prominent notice to readers informing them of what happened to your normal site and why they have been directed to the temporary one. Don’t leave readers wondering if this is a permanent redesign. Give an estimated duration of the site outage, if you can.

Link to the last available cached version of your normal site via Google search, or, if you know about the outage in advance, capture a version using before the site goes down. This is not essential, but a nice way to let your audience see the preserved headlines and information that were posted to your normal site before it went down.

Train the staff. Once you’ve planned and prepared your strategy, provide training for the people who are likely to implement it. Share the basics of the plan with the entire staff as well; you never know who will be on duty when an outage strikes.

4 keys during the outage

Forward your traffic. If you can, have your Web servers automatically forward visitors to the temporary site or at least provide a link from your main site to the temporary one. Depending on the extent of your technical problems, you may not be able to do this.

Notify people through whatever channels you can -- Facebook, Twitter, email alerts, even asking other news outlets to publicize your outage and your temporary site. You should appoint someone to respond to users asking questions and perhaps even search Twitter for mentions of your site outage. Respond even if the tweet wasn’t directed at your news organization.

Repost recent news. Significant stories that were on your main site when it went down should be republished on the temporary site. If possible, you may want to develop an automated way to feed your recent news into the backup site.

Remember to cover your own outage. In addition to posting your typical content, keep a live blog of what’s happening with your site and when you expect it to be back.

If you follow these steps to make a plan now, your news organization should be able to keep functioning when the unexpected happens.

What else should be in a good contingency plan? Leave your comments below.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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