McGuire on Media

Bridge collapse coverage is the right mission

In the speech I gave this summer to the American Association of Independent Newspaper Distributors I wrote, “I am convinced that those companies who are worshiping at the altar of hyperlocal are worshipping false gods.”  For me, the coverage of the 1-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis is just one more proof of the truth of that contention. People want stellar coverage of the larger community and they want their newspaper to watch over the interests of the entire community and not just the sewers in a far-flung suburb.

Despite all the turmoil surrounding the Star Tribune, and I have been highly critical of that turmoil, the newspaper has excelled in its bridge coverage. They were onto the bridge’s structural deficiency problems the morning after the collapse, they have related the human stories with a fine sense of drama and they have been tough watchdogs on the state and government officials who seemed to want to whitewash the possible bridge inspection system failures.

The newspaper did not acquit itself as well on the death toll and the accounting of the missing, but no media outlet did and neither did law enforcement. The early web coverage of the event was not worth bragging about either.  For the first five hours of the event MSNBC told me more than I found on Star Tribune.com.

Now one can argue that this is a “all hands on deck” kind of reporting event and even a newspaper totally committed to hyperlocal coverage would have thrown all its resources at this story.  I would argue, however, that if you have a staff that is totally focused on the community walk-a-thon in a suburb, you are not going to have the reportorial connections and knowledge to cover this kind of story.

It was obvious to a keen observer that years of contacts and government knowledge allowed Star Tribune reports to cover this story so well. If the Star Tribune and other metropolitan newspapers make the promised switch to a hyperlocal focus, those resources will be lost and the coverage of a major community event like this one will be seriously degraded.

Just as important in this kind of discussion is the definition of community.  Twin Citians have rallied behind the victims and the heroes in this spectacular tragedy regardless of where they live or where the victims and heroes live.  This is a Twin Cities and a Minnesota tragedy. It is not a Blaine event or a Coon Rapids event.  Perhaps more than any other metro area I know, people in the Twin Cities are Twin Citians and not citizens of small municipalities.  Hyperlocal coverage threatens that larger sense of community that is so important if our big urban problems are going to be solved effectively.

As this blog moves forward I will be talking often of my friend Tom Mohr’s contention that “local is indefensible online.” http://future-of-journalism.blogspot.com/2006/12/newspapers-tom-mohr-cronkite-asu.html . Mohr is talking about the business and economics of local news. As he is always quick to stipulate he is not talking about the need for local news. The Minneapolis bridge collapse and the Star Tribune’s role in the Twin Cities community is another reminder of how important aggressive, sensitive, and tough watchdog reporting is to the lubrication of civic discourse.    

Media Musings…… Murdoch

Amid all the hand-wringing over the Rupert Murdoch purchase of the Wall Street Journal my longtime friend Paul Tash makes the most sense in his Sunday Column in the St. Petersburg Times. http://www.sptimes.com/2007/08/05/Opinion/No_roon_for_tycoons.shtml  Paul makes the same point I tried to make on NPR’s All Things Considered last Friday when he writes: “Presumably, he did not buy a trophy property to use as a spittoon.”  

I argued on a David Folkenflik report that Murdoch is too smart a businessman to trash a great brand. However, I tried to justify the strength of the Special committee the Bancrofts asked for with the argument that people like Lou Boccardi and Jack Fuller would have an effective bully pulpit.  Paul makes more sense when he argued, “Maybe I’m missing something, but the guy who writes the checks usually gets to call the shots…..”,Paul is absolutely correct when he writes, “ Contracts are a poor substitute for character.” Journalism’s best hope for the WSJ is that Murdoch decides that trashing a top flight brand is simply bad business.

Let’s celebrate……Before the Minneapolis Bridge collapse is too far past we should all celebrate the Investigative Reporters and Editors databases http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003621184 which allowed so many newspapers to do some great bridge analysis.  One of the important results of this coverage may well be a dramatic shift in these cavalier labels of “structurally deficient” and “obsolete” that states are giving to bridges that they then ignore.  Good computer assisted reporting on this case could bring about dramatic change in the way bridges are evaluated. IRE deserve big credit for maintaining these data bases and newspapers and reporters deserve kudos for using them well and quickly.  

Categories: Media Criticism, Investigative journalism, Leadership and mangement, Business of journalism.