Thursday, August 02, 2007

Trouble over bridged waters

One of the biggest, most obvious stories not being covered by the media is the dangerous disintegration of the nation’s aging infrastructure.

The frightening steam-pipe burst in New York City and the shocking collapse of an eight-lane bridge over the Mississippi are not isolated, idiosyncratic failures.

They are proof that heavy traffic, the movement of the earth, metal fatigue, inadequate design, substandard materials, poor construction practices and, quite simply, old age will combine over the years to weaken the infrastructure we take for granted in modern life.

As reported, sadly after the fact, the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis was deemed “structurally deficient” in the “National Bridge Inventory” maintained by the Federal Highway Administration.

Newspaper editors looking for compelling local stories and broadcasters seeking to redeploy the money they save by grounding their helicopters could start by buying for less than $200 a copy of the list of 709,742 bridges from Investigative Reporters and Editors. (If you ask nicely, you probably can get a copy for free from your local highway authority.)

To add a bit of graphic pizzazz to the story, you can plot the list of failing bridges in your town on one of the slick, new, free mapping technologies available from Google, Microsoft and others.

For journalists eager to add crowdsourcing to their repertoire, this is a golden opportunity. They can deputize their readers, viewers and listeners to gather images and descriptions of cracking concrete, sagging powerlines and gaping sinkholes.

Staffers can follow up on these reports by identifying the responsible authorities and putting the problem – and the name, phone number and email address of the official – in the newspaper or on the air. The San Francisco Chronicle has had enormous success with a feature it calls ChronicleWatch, though some identified issues admittedly remain unattended two years after the fact.

There’s no reason to stop at bridges. The nation is filled with enough leaking pipes and crumbling roads to generate significant and riveting stories for years to come.


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