The Millennium Is Now

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Los Angeles Times is ready for the year 2000.

The proof: You're reading this story.

In an effort to ensure that the presses will roll without a hitch as the calendar advances into the next century, The Times underwent a major test of the newspaper's Y2K readiness Sept. 26 and produced this eight-page newspaper.

About 60 Times employees from editorial, advertising and all phases of production came to work in the wee hours of Sunday morning to crank ahead all the computer clocks and put out a paper.

"We're have a great New Year, all systems are go," said Judy Kallet, a senior vice president and chief information officer for The Times.

It was the culmination of a process that started in January 1998. That's when Y2K project manager Niko Ruokosuo, director of publishing systems and pre-press, received a special assignment from The Times' senior management team: Assemble an organization to guarantee that the newspaper will be able to publish without disruption on Jan. 1, 2000. On that date, computers which were programmed some years ago--and not updated for this event--might mistake the 00 of the 2000 date for 1900. Affected computers might then malfunction, believing that their clocks have been set back.

This so-called millennium bug has sparked widespread concern that our computer-dependent society might be thrown into a tailspin on New Year's Eve, resulting in everything from mass failures of public transit to power outages to disabled automated tellers at banks and stores. For The Times, the worst-case scenario: failing to get out the paper to its millions of readers.

The Sept. 26 test started at 3:45 a.m., when all departments rolled over their computer clocks as if it were 11:45 p.m. on Dec. 31. In 15 minutes would come the witching hour, at least for test purposes.

The display advertising department was up first. At 4:15 a.m., the department entered ads into the Times system. Then all other key departments of the paper, from classified advertising to editorial to page makeup, filed their elements into the appropriate systems, as they do each day. By 10 a.m., the presses rolled, until this newspaper, bearing the faux Jan. 1, 2000, date, ended up bundled at The Times' Olympic and Orange County plants' loading docks about 11:30 a.m.

This special edition of The Times was designed to replicate all the key elements contained in the paper. Page 1, for example, is an editorial four-color page laid out partly manually and partly digitally; in contrast, Page 2 is a black-and-white inside page containing an ad pasted up manually. The rest of the pages contain a selection of diverse elements.

"Although we've tested the systems independently, we want to make sure they interact correctly," said Michael O'Hara, Y2K project lead.

Preparing for Y2K is one of the largest challenges The Times has faced over the years, ranking alongside other demanding technological changes at the paper. That has included the introduction of color, the conversion from hot to cold type, and the opening of the Olympic plant.

Newspaper veteran Ruokosuo thinks it's the biggest challenge ever. "This is companywide. Every department is impacted," he said. Also, unlike other tasks, this has a make-or-break deadline. "If you delay moving from hot type to cold type by three weeks, what's the big deal? But here, it would mean we're out of business," Ruokosuo said.

It's been an undertaking of massive scale.

"Y2K is mainly a software bug, so that's the natural place to look. But what may get overlooked is that software can also be embedded within integrated circuits on chips," said Eddy Azad, president of Parsec Automation, a Brea, Calif.-based business automation consultant to The Times. "It's possible you could have some nasty issues you're not prepared for."

The Times took Azad's advice. Over the past 18 months, the paper has inventoried and checked 4,000 personal computers and 800 hardware and software systems companywide.

A Huge Undertaking

It has meant scrutinizing every device containing an embedded computer chip--that includes parts of the infrastructure, such as elevators, air conditioning and security systems, in addition to the thousands of computer terminals and pieces of software within The Times' far-flung operations.

In addition to headquarters at Times Mirror Square, The Times has production facilities in the San Fernando Valley and Orange County as well as at the Olympic production plant. Fifty editorial bureaus are scattered throughout the state, nation and world. Nationwide, there are a dozen advertising offices.

The Y2K challenge has been particularly daunting because no company--not even an organization with its own power generators and water reserves like The Times--is an island when it comes to the millennium bug.

"We felt it was very important to have Y2K certification with the vendors we do business with for all our critical production systems," said Kallet.

The Times identified 140 vendors it can't do without--from suppliers of newsprint, ink, film and chemicals to the Associated Press--and demanded that they undergo Y2K testing and supply documentation.

In Times newsrooms in Los Angeles, Orange County, Chatsworth and Ventura, information technology staffers have been preparing for Y2K in addition to their normal duties of helping editors produce the paper every day. First, information technology staff and editors analyzed every piece of software in every computer terminal to determine if it was Y2K compliant, said David Rickley, Times production and technology editor. "We had reams and reams of paper" to document compliance, he said.

Some systems weren't compliant, but there was a bigger issue. The editorial department's aging news editing system wasn't ready for Y2K either.

Eventually, The Times opted to replace an estimated 1,000 editorial terminals, vintage 1982-83, with leased high-end personal computers. The servers to which the editorial terminals were connected also weren't compliant, and a new system was installed over the summer to serve all editorial computers.

"The system is now faster and has features that it never had before," Kallet said.

For the first time, Times editors and reporters have access to the Internet at their desks. "'We needed to do this for Y2K, but it's also provided these wonderful benefits to the paper," Rickley said.

The display and classified advertising departments have also undergone the once- and twice-over. Initially, Y2K technicians went through every line of code contained in 17 different applications the advertising systems use daily. Staffers put special focus on two systems they deemed critical: Advision, a classified order entry system, and ADMARC, for display advertising ordering.

After much testing, including scrutinizing the estimated 50 small utility programs that support the mainframe, The Times ended up changing the operating system on its mainframe computer. It upgraded 400 personal computers to the industry standard, Windows NT.

"It was really time-consuming and labor-intensive," Tom Elsesser, advertising systems manager, said of the process.

"We had a lot of systems that needed to be fixed," O'Hara said.

Parsec Automation's crew discovered that the press control system, the brain of the press that runs the various arms of the production line, wasn't Y2K compliant. It is now, after the manufacturer fixed it. The Times ran a follow-up test to make sure. The Times' energy management system, which has components with clock and calendar functions, also required tinkering.

In the weeks before the so-called "end-to-end test" of Sept. 26, The Times ran a number of mini-tests to gauge how it would respond should any of the more dire predictions of Y2K chaos become reality.

For example, on Aug. 29, at 2 a.m., the paper had the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power cut off its electricity to see how its backup systems would act.

Everything went on without incident, thanks to The Times' generators, capable of fueling all major components to put out a newspaper, said Jerry Holden, administrative service manager. "We're pretty self-sufficient," Holden said.

The paper estimates it could operate that way for three days (and indefinitely, as long as The Times has access to fuel).

How about other catastrophes? Water cut off? The Times' offset presses require thousands of gallons to operate. The Times is filling an underground reservoir beneath the Olympic plant, just in case. (Holden is also considering bringing in some portable toilets.) Natural gas? If that wasn't available, Times staffers would probably have to forgo their morning coffee, since there would be no hot water on site. But other than caffeine withdrawal jitters, that wouldn't present a problem.

"What if?" has been the watchword around the halls of Times Mirror Square.

"Some are as simple as: If the electric garage door doesn't rise, do we have a security person to open it?" Kallet said. Every department has extensive contingency plans, instructions on how staffers should proceed if something unusual happens.

O'Hara said he's leaving nothing to chance. Say that on New Year's Eve, telecommunications goes down. No problem. Helicopters will be on standby to fly editors to outlying offices or pick up materials, should such needs arise, O'Hara said.

The Times tentatively is planning to set up an emergency operations center, in which O'Hara and others will track the dawning of the new millennium as it unfolds around the globe. He'll do this by monitoring the Internet and calling papers in Europe, and Times Mirror's sister papers on the East Coast, which will experience the date change hours before Los Angeles. "We'll get a a little heads up that way," O'Hara said.

The next order of business for the Times Y2K team: Wait for the real Y2K.

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