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Bikes, websites, podcasts and faucets – technology breakdowns stop them all: Letter from the Editor

I delivered newspapers when I was a kid, back when the biggest technological glitch that might delay delivery of news was a flat tire on my 10-speed.

I’ve been thinking about those days this week as we’ve battled through a battery of technological glitches that impeded our delivery of content to you. While technology has made us more efficient and delivery of content more convenient, we are beholden to it and have to jump when it fails.

Here’s how this week broke down.

I’m an early riser, usually before 5 a.m., and when I got going Monday I saw that the team that produces the Plain Dealer print edition and its digital replica were still working. Not a good sign. They should have been in bed. The design team leader, Skip Hall, sent me an email about the time I got up to say serious system failures had his team scrambling.

When I opened the digital edition of The Plain Dealer on my tablet, I could see the pages, but clicking on the stories to pop them out did nothing. As I paged through, I saw we had no Sports front. Not good on the day after a big Browns win and record-breaking sack performance by Myles Garrett.

Meanwhile, no papers were printed.

The breakdown was with the Amazon web servers. Our Plain Dealer production software relies heavily on those servers, so when they crash, we get delayed. Skip’s team ended up working until after sunrise.

By 6 or so, the digital edition was reloading and working properly. Most of our readers never knew there was a problem. The print run of papers concluded at 8.

About the time those newspapers were hitting stores, the gremlins struck again. This time, it was the front page of our website, It froze.

Colin Toke is the member of our team who prides himself on keeping our website fresh. Millions of people visit it each month, with many returning often each day to catch up, and Colin’s goal is to ensure they usually find new content to interest them.

For a good bit of Monday, he couldn’t change it. That big Browns win was front and center deep into the afternoon, long after we normally would have put breaking news or the last home game of the Cleveland Indians out there.

It was another software glitch, and it was fixed by 5 p.m., but in a single day, we had to work around issues with the digital and print editions of The Plain Dealer and our our website.

We also produce content in an audio format – podcasts. We use one platform to record our episodes and another platform to publish them. In a week when our text platforms glitched out, you had to think our audio platforms might, too. They did.

On Tuesday, the platform where we load episodes to be published on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify and elsewhere seemed to enter a wormhole. This Week in the CLE is our weekday news discussion podcast with an avid audience. People look for episodes by 10 or 10:15. But loading the audio file for the Tuesday episode was like living through Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. The platform kept requiring a repetition of the tedious series of steps involved in publishing an episode, blanking out and starting over.

At one point, the screen flashed and all of the text converted to Chinese characters. Just when we were about to give up and not have an episode for the day, the platform began to work, at a snail’s pace. The episode was more than an hour late.

We capped off our week of tech battles Friday on the platform where we record This Week in the CLE. The platform records each participant on a separate track for mixing together later. That means we get separate tracks for me, Leila Atassi, Lisa Garvin and Laura Johnston.

On Friday, the platform somehow neglected to record a track for Leila.

There’s a backup system, a lower-quality track that mixes all of us together with poor sound. So we had to go in and slice out Leila’s parts of that backup for mixing with the higher-quality tracks for the rest of us. This was less of a delay than on Tuesday, only a half hour, but annoying all the same.

I go through all of this because I hear from people when they go to their porches for the print edition and it’s not there. And when their digital editions of the paper are glitchy. Or when our website is frozen or our podcast episodes are late. People write because they are annoyed. They sometimes conclude that the team here is making bone-headed mistakes.

Believe me when I say we are annoyed, too. But everyone here goes the extra mile to get things fixed when they break down, to deliver to you the content that you prize. If you don’t get your digital edition on a rare morning, please consider that the people who produce it are working around formidable obstacles to get it into your hands as fast as they can.

I also want to point out that we are not alone in dealing with technical glitches. As you read this, there’s a good chance I’m on my back under my kitchen sink. We have one of those faucets in our house that you touch to turn the water on, and the tech that makes it work is fried. With old-fashioned faucets, you might have washers that wore out and caused leaks, but you always had water. With the “touch” technology, when the gizmo gets fried, you get no water. For a few days, until I could get the repair parts, we’ve had a kitchen without running water. You want to talk about being annoyed?

Whether it’s the flow of water or information, it seems, we depend on our technology. When the technology breaks, all we can do is fix it and move along. Just like I had to repair my flat tires to deliver newspapers when I was a kid.