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

Somewhat below the radar, there’s a nice little newspaper war simmering over the I-35W bridge collapse.

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.

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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.

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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.