My apologies to those of you who glanced at the blog yesterday and found only a blank white screen. You were encountering a fairly well known WordPress flaw colloquially known as the White Screen of Death. I was looking at it myself in a lot more panicked way since my entire website seemed to have vaporised.
How did this happen? Why was I panicking? Let’s deal with the second one first. I was panicking because two and a half years worth of blog posts and comments along with various widgets I had hand-written had vanished into the ether and I had absolutely no idea what had happened to them. To add to my angst I thought I had compounded the disaster with a rookie error.
How did it happen? When I logged into my WordPress dashboard yesterday I saw a notification stating there was an update available for Prose the child theme of the Genesis framework that gives this blog its rather fetching appearance. I was only half paying attention since I was looking at the baby as he played on the carpet in front of me. I toyed with backing up the site as is my usual practise before any update but then I thought hey, it’s only an update to a child theme, not even the framework, what could possibly go wrong? I hit the update, it unpacked and installed and everything seemed to go fine. Then I took a look at the site. Nothing, just a blank white screen.
I tried typing the URL of the admin panel in. Nope. The site was stone dead. I tried looking at the site in a couple of different browsers just in case its a problem with Firefox. In a panic, I took a look at the update log sent to me by my site security plug-in and fired off a quick email to Studiopress, the providers of the Genesis framework.
I kept hitting refresh like a lab rat hitting a lever in search of a food pellet but nothing happened. It was not a temporary glitch and it didn’t resolve itself. Anyone looking at my site was seeing the same blank white screen as me. Unless they were using Chrome in which case they had the option of looking at error box telling them they were getting a type 500 server error.
I took the next obvious step and googled type 500 errors. I discovered rather unhelpfully that this is a generic error message that means the server is either incorrectly configured or undergoing maintenance. Initially my plan was to just wait for the Studiopress tech support people to get back to me which the support ticket said would happen within 48 hours, but the idea of having the site down for potentially a couple of days started niggling at me. I was googling this stuff anyway so I kept at it. I came across the inevitable references to the White Screen of Death and I came across a couple of solutions, the best of which was here.
Since I could not get to my admin panel, the only way in to my WP installation was through my web-hosting package. It involved renaming and deleting things on the server. This is not something I am normally all that keen on doing but what the hell I might soon be doing a total reinstall anyway.
I renamed the plug-ins folder and still the white screen was there so the problem was definitely not a rogue plug-in.
I made a duplicate of my themes folder on the server and then deleted the Prose theme. That brought the site back but without the theme (obviously). If you looked at the site yesterday and found yourself looking at very basic HTML with very plain links that would be about then. I restored the default 2010 theme and to my surprise discovered that all of my custom widgets, all of the comments and stuff were still there, even if the menus looked very strange. I switched to a very plain text theme where no widgets appeared but at least the site looked tidy.
I thought about quitting while I was ahead but it struck me that the basic problem was solved. I decided I would download the latest version of the Prose Child Theme, install it and see what happened. I did and it worked and everything was back to normal. My guess is that the problem was not with the child theme itself, but with something that went wrong during the installation. A couple of hours after I put my ticket in Nick from Studiopress support got in touch. He’d taken a look at the site and noticed I seemed to have solved the problem. I was impressed by the swiftness of the response.
So what did I learn? Well, let’s put the obvious thing first– always make a backup. Even though I have all the material for my blog posts on my client, I risked losing all of my reader comments since the last backup. That would have been annoying.
I also learned that WordPress is very robust and modular. Despite my theme problems, all the comments, widgets etc survived.
I learned that StudioPress respond promptly to problems which might be useful in the future, if something of a more serious nature goes wrong, although it’s worth saying that this is the first problem I have had in two and a half years of using the Genesis Framework.
I learned that Murphy’s law applies. The one time I don’t do a backup, disaster strikes.
The worst thing that happened is that I forgot to reactivate my plugins immediately and without Akismet to filter my spam, I got some junk comments. Under the circumstances, I can settle for that.
Anyway, everything seems fine now and I even got a blog post out of it. Hopefully it will be another two and half years before something else like this happens. Now if you will excuse me, I am off to backup the site.