SALT LAKE CITY — "The Wi-Fi ate my story."
Those are not the words an editor wants to hear just before deadline and they're certainly words all reporters fear saying. If you've been a journalist for any length of time, you've suffered through the anxiety of a well-written story lost or deleted. Forget about a dog eating your homework. Technology can do equal damage.
So it was a night of stress for Deseret News reporter Tad Walch and photojournalist Ravell Call who were in Samoa to report on the visit of the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to this island nation of 201,000 people. Here, where church membership is about 40 percent of the population, they faced a print deadline with only moments to file and a 19-hour time difference for us to navigate.
"We couldn't send our story and pictures because the staff here (at the site of the church devotional) apparently turned off the Wi-Fi to get more bandwidth to broadcast the meeting to meetinghouses around the island," Walch said. But no one told them that. Compounding the problem were 7,000 Samoans using cellphones to mark the occasion, sharing notes and images with family and friends.
Walch was working on a rewrite from a version written earlier for deseretnews.com. Our coverage is happening in real time, meaning we're posting stories as events occur regardless of the time back here in America. But the print versions have specific deadlines and those coverage deadlines don't match up very well with the events as they happen on the islands.
The print story was to incorporate a meeting with President Russell M. Nelson and the Samoan head of state. Coverage of the devotional itself wouldn't start until midnight Utah time, so that would be a separate story written and delivered early Saturday morning. It couldn't meet the print deadline. But we needed and were waiting on the story covering the meeting with the head of state.
With the expectation of going to press at 11:40 p.m., Walch and Call were under the gun. So when he told me at 10:30 pm "Wi-Fi ate my story" it was just the first of many challenges. He lost about 400 words of a 800-word story previously written and currently being updated. That would push the rewrite to 11 p.m. Still time to recreate it if he hurried. Once it was rewritten, and with the clock ticking, he was unable to send it in the designated files. And Call's photos weren't sending either.
Attempts made to bypass Wi-Fi with a cellphone "hotspot" didn't work. Texting wasn't working. He and I were unable to communicate by our normal methods.
Remarkably, cellphone reception remained clear. He dialed, I answered. So at 11:15 p.m. Saturday he simply read the story to an editor over the phone, who in turn typed it into a file and then got it to copy editors with few minutes to spare. Call, our photographer, while unable to send photos to the planned file, was able to get his images through by text message. Those were then pushed into the files here in Salt Lake City and placed on the printed page while yet waiting for the story to follow.
"This all just took me back to high school when as a high school student I would phone in stories from high school football games to the Oregonian," Walch said, recalling the start of his journalism career as a high school student.
Technology has come a long way since then. And it remained remarkable that he could be standing on an island in Samoa dictating a story from a cellphone to an editor in Salt Lake City.
The internet issues were resolved hours later and he was able to file a second story on the devotional posted to our web pages by 6 a.m. Saturday.
These aren't the only obstacles our reporters and photographers face as they bring to light interesting stories from around the world.
The humidity in Samoa is fogging Call's camera lenses. At one point he mentioned of his equipment, "This might be permanent." But he has adapted. He was positioning himself not far from the ocean and enduring 90 percent humidity as he waited to record the arrival of President Nelson, his wife Wendy and those traveling with them on this nine-day Pacific ministry tour. The camera was moist and foggy before a key moment. What to do?
Call said he raised his arm straight overhead, the lens pointing directly at the sun, and he held it there for several minutes. It worked. The sun burned through the condensation and moisture. Clear pictures prevailed.
Later, when President Nelson was meeting with His Highness the Honorable Head of State Tuimaleali'ifano Va'aletoa Sualauvi II, the stabilizers in the camera stopped working. "That's when you begin to shake a little bit," Walch noted, as he watched Call work through the problem. When the shutter finally began clicking, more clear pictures were recorded.
"And navigating the island is an adventure," Walch said.
They have to remind themselves to drive on the opposite side of the road from Utah roadways.
"Ravell spent half the trip hitting the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal and we have to remind ourselves to stay on the left and look right."
And there are no addresses there so GPS isn't an option. Navigation means asking directions: "Go out the hotel, turn right and you'll see some shops on the way. Stop there and ask for more directions."
That's how they found the residence of the Samoan head of state.
Meanwhile, in Australia, Church News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver is prepping for the next leg of the trip. Her coverage begins there and she will continue on to New Zealand, Tonga and Tahiti. Walch will also be in New Zealand and he'll continue on with our photographers for the following legs of the trip.2 comments on this story
Weaver is an expert at problem-solving and our media group (KSL is also chronicling the trip) often turn to her as the fixer. They've already made a few adjustments in Australia after a video crew got stuck in customs with its equipment and missed a planned shoot. It's all part of working the problem and doing the job.
Both the Deseret News and the Church News, as well as KSL-TV, are able to bring stories back to readers and viewers despite the obstacles. It's stressful, but rewarding.
"Everybody is terribly helpful," Walch said of the islanders. "That's been a fun part of the culture."