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Strib vs. PiPress bridge coverage: Who had the most gussets?

I-35 bridge chart from NTSB
Courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board
The I-35W bridge locating the key gusset plates the NTSB — and the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press — have focused on.

Somewhat below the radar, there’s a nice little newspaper war simmering over the I-35W bridge collapse. In one corner, the Pulitzer-pursuing staff of the Star Tribune; in the other, the PiPress’s lone beat guy, Jason Hoppin.

With the National Transportation Safety Board’s bell-clanging, horn-honking Tuesday press conference, “gusset plates” leaped out of the Mississippi River’s ooze and into the local lexicon. To the NTSB, under-designed gussets were “the critical factor” in the I-35W bridge collapse, with “no indications” that maintenance inadequacies by Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration were to blame.

In five months of post-collapse coverage before Tuesday, the PiPress has repeatedly referenced gusset plates; the Star Tribune far less. The plates first hit public consciousness Aug. 9, barely a week after the bridge fell, when the NTSB advised states to check gussets. The PiPress, Strib and Associated Press all covered the basics.

From there, a divergence: between Aug. 11 and early October, the Pioneer Press returned to the gusset issue 11 times, according to the paper’s online archives. Many were passing mentions, but at least two made the gusset issue prime: an Aug. 11 piece that linked the investigation to the “U10” gusset, a culprit that NTSB fingered Tuesday; and Aug. 27, where the plates were the first factor mentioned in a discussion of collapse theories.

The Strib, meanwhile, only referenced gussets five times. At most, the plates were a secondary element in stories advancing the maintenance angle.

Fixation on repair
The Minneapolis paper made up for infrequency with column inches on Oct. 18, with a lavishly illustrated front-pager. Gussets made the headline, but maintenance would not be elbowed out: “Did heat, rusted plates doom the bridge?” The Strib focused on the L11 plate — another gusset the NTSB highlighted Tuesday — noting that it had lost nearly half its thickness due to corrosion.

That angle fit with the Strib’s fixation on 21st-century repair over 1960s design. After all, the paper made its bones immediately after the bridge came down by revealing that state transportation officials had feared a collapse and battled bridge beam repair-cost pressures.

After the Oct. 18 story, the Strib only mentioned gussets twice until this week. One was a short Nov. 2 piece buried on A14. The other, a Nov. 11 B1 feature on pre-collapse disagreements over repairing fatigued steel beams, again only mentioned gussets in passing.

Ten days later, Hoppin responded with the clearest shot across the Strib’s bow. The subhed: “Evidence suggests metal fatigue is not to blame for the I-35W disaster — or that MnDOT’s oversight was lax.” (Sadly, this story is among the many not in the paper’s free archive.)

Hoppin noted that the beams in question were not on the bridge’s “fracture critical” segments, and the foregone reinforcement plan wouldn’t have prevented the collapse. The only dissenting quote was near the end of the piece.

To me, Hoppin’s story was fair comment; if it shaded toward the government’s point of view, it added fact-based context to the fatigue-collapse link. The story supported subhed’s first clause; the second clause clanged then and still clangs now. Exculpating an entire agency is simply too sweeping, even at this point.

As for the Strib, in its ongoing tsunami of enterprise work, reporters somehow produced scant original copy about gusset’s non-maintenance design issues. (Can’t we get Paul McEnroe to do a Mike Wallace outside the no-comment Pasadena engineering firm that bought out the original bridge designers?)

Exculpatory factors
So is the Strib a bunch of blame-Pawlenty obsessives and Hoppin the NTSB suck-up? Sadly for the Court of Moral Judgment, there are some exculpatory factors on both sides.

Coverage hole aside, the Strib’s thorough fisking of MnDOT has been a tremendous public service; the scoops have kept coming (Sonia Morphew Pitt). The facts remain powerful even if the collapse cause shifts; infrastructure maintenance will be a vital issue long after the bridge reopens.

Meanwhile, the NTSB’s confident segregation of design and upkeep feels false, and as one reporter astutely noted Wednesday:

“University of Pittsburgh engineer Kent Harries said a factor other than design must be in play — design alone is not enough to bring a bridge down.

“‘There has to be something else going on because the bridge did survive for 40 years with no distress significant enough to be noticed,’ he said. ‘Something else has to happen.’

“Another mystery is why no one detected the problem with the gusset plates. [NTSB Chair Mark] Rosenker said bridge inspectors aren’t trained for that, but the span was one of the most-analyzed bridges in the state.”

The byline? Jason Hoppin.

Comments (3)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 01/20/2008 - 11:11 pm.

    Great article. Too bad the Star doesn’t have any credibility left. They have been shouting “burn the witch” so loudly, you would think they had some evidence. But alas, once their motive was uncovered, they had to stick to their fictional account. Their motive can be found in their political bias of any of their writings. You can look in their oped pages or their news pages; their bias is transparent.

    If they focused on facts and rebuilding their credibility, growth and profitability may follow.

    Avista better work them into shape soon. I can’t imagine a business being run by making up their numbers. The Star is now the “Enron” of papers.

  2. Submitted by Grace Kelly on 01/21/2008 - 10:14 am.

    Wow, is the bias showing in reporting the news.

    Any research on this type of bridges shows that this design was prone to catastrophically fail. That is why these types of bridges are no longer built. Have you all forgotten “structurally deficient”?

    Several times maintenance people did mention the gusset plate problem and were redirected to rewrite reports.

    Given the KNOWN structural design problems the weight limits and use of the 35 bridge were still increased, and still no replacement was being planned.

    The response to problems with bridges that are rated even more “structurally deficient”, has been
    paint. People here in St Paul reported an immediate paint response on bridges after the 35 collapse. No update in plans. No increase in taxes. Just paint.

    How could the state not KNOW when the poor state of bridges, when the poor state of bridges has been a frequent topic of concern on the St Paul Information Forum and other community discussion lists. The only surprise was which bridge fell first.

    So strip out spin and back to facts.

    1) The state(governor) knew, “structurally deficient”!

    2) The state(governor) chose to do nothing about it to avoid raising taxes.

    3) Many other bridges are in KNOWN to be in very bad conditions.

    4) Since the collapse, the state(governor) still chooses to do nothing more about upgrading and fixing our roads and bridges to avoid raising taxes.

    It is not “blame”, it is “responsibility”, it is accountability for the our governor to govern well. “Blame” is a word used, when someone is unfairly given responsibility. When a murderer is caught, we don’t blame the murderer, we hold the murderer accountable. In the phrase, “blaming the victim”, the word blaming is used because it implies unfairness. So every use of the word “blame” is a spin word.

    Furthermore how many times “gusset” is used is just another form of spin. Who knew and who did not respond is more important. Remember the newspapers that said “yellowcake” the most often are the newspapers most guilty of lying us into war.

    So if Minnpost is going to be better than our known biased corporate spin news, then maybe this article should have reported on

    1) Investigative reporting of who knew what, where and how and cite sources. I, a mere blogger, know more than this article demonstrated,

    2) Use context – what has the governor promised and changed? Has anything changed?

    3) Are there any other gusset problem bridges and are they being fixed? Answers: yes, more bridges and no, no changes in from previous transportation plan. Pictures are even easily found up on the web.

    4) Then there should be a contrast between a true investigative story and what corporate news is reporting

    I expect and demand better reporting from Minnpost. I suggest that this article be removed, researched, rewritten and reposted.

  3. Submitted by David Brauer on 01/21/2008 - 03:43 pm.

    Grace, with all respect, I’m a media reporter, so I’m focusing on differences in the papers’ coverage, not the governor’s culpability or lack thereof.

    I think that’s a worthwhile story and deepens readers’ insight about what tacks two dailies have taken. (The number of times gussets was mentioned is only an objective detail to the larger point that the Strib has downplayed design and the PiPress hasn’t as much.)

    You’re looking for a different kind of story – an investigation, rather than analysis. That’s valid, and one MinnPost’s editors can respond to.

    But suggesting any story short of that needs to be “removed” is a bit much; it is not the only word on the bridge, nor should it be so.

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