White Screen of Death

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. 

4 Replies to “White Screen of Death”

  1. Glad that you fixed it, Bill. I empathize with your terror having experienced something similar when upgrading from WordPress 3.6.1 to WordPress 3.7 (only solved by having the manually downgrade back to 3.6.1. via FTP.

    What are your thoughts on updating whenever they go to a new version? Tech support people I speak to give me conflicting advice about this. Some say that you should always upgrade a.s.a.p. to avoid security problems. Others are in the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (because there a good chance you will break it) camp. After my last scare, I have now joined the latter camp too.

    1. I am usually in the upgrade ASAP for security reasons camp myself, Nick, but like yourself I will be thinking twice about it in the future. That said, at the end of the day, scary as it was, it wasn’t really all that difficult to fix what went wrong. And if I had been in possession of a recent backup I could have done a clean install and complete restore if I had to. Still, next time I will no doubt pause for a moment or two and do a risk assessment instead of automatically clicking on that update button :).

  2. Thank You, William, for providing this well written caution about backing up a blog.

    I started publishing on the Kindle about 2 months ago and found out right away that I needed a blog. It turns out that you are, in a way, my mentor on many aspects of blogging. I came to you via Joan Druett’s post on http://kindlepublishinghints.blogspot.com on June 2012 about “Can an old dog learn new tricks.” In her post she introduced me to you via your blog “Creating your own eBook cover, step by step, with pictures.” It is at http://www.williamking dot me/2012/02/22/create-your-own-ebook-cover-step-by-step-with-pictues/. Your blog led me to StudioPress, the Gensis Framework and the Prose Theme and that is what I am using.

    Trying not to make this too long, I have you bookmarked and several times a week I check out what you are writing about. Today I saw this post and I immediately became concerned about the status of my own posting at elmanforbooks.com (you might remove that link if I am not properly following posting etiquette). Anyways, I have put quite a bit of effort into my blog and suddenly realized that I needed to take care to keep it all backed up. I was immediately on the phone to my web host company and found out how to do the backups and can now say that I have my site backed up to my own server and to my PC desktop.

    So, Mr. William King, I am very grateful for your helpful postings that help all of us who are working as authors. Please continue as you are most helpful

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