One local journalist recounts the race for records in Minnesota.
From the Fall 2007 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 10.
Minnesota has seen its share of big stories in recent years, from the 2005 Red Lake High School massacre to the 2004 killing of five by a Hmong hunter in a nearby Wisconsin wood. The collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge was the latest big one.
When the bridge fell into the Mississippi River during rush hour Aug. 1, telling the stories behind the 13 killed and more than 100 injured took a remarkable effort by reporters and editors here at the Pioneer Press and other media outlets.
But this story was also big for another reason — it came with a paper trail. And following that trail has become the task of those reporters who have stayed on the story, including me.
It hasn’t always been easy. Though the Minnesota Department of Transportation has released a flood of information about the I-35W bridge and others throughout the state, the department has a mixed record because it has been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of public records requests.
First the good. Immediately after the collapse, the transportation department began posting detailed bridge inspection reports, original plans for the I-35W bridge and past reports about a troubling pattern of small cracks that were developing in the bridge’s steel truss.
It was a “warts-and-all” approach to releasing information that deserves to be commended.
These were not only valuable tools for reporters, but also for a public trying to grasp new terms such as “fatigue cracks” and “structurally deficient.”
Since putting up its I-35W Web site, traffic on MnDOT’s server has doubled.
The agency still uses the Web to get information out. When controversy erupted over the award of a bridge rebuilding contract to the highest bidder, MnDOT posted notes and documents related to the bid evaluation process online.
That’s the good. Now for the bad. Questions linger about how the department handled troubling signals about the I-35W bridge, including the appearance of very slight cracks in the steel.
No one knows yet why it collapsed, but state engineers did ask for two studies of the bridge, with the second in its final stages when the bridge fell.
Minnesota has a good public records law called the Data Practices Act.
The Pioneer Press filed the very first Data Practices Act request following the collapse, producing the now-famous video of the bridge falling suddenly into the Mississippi River.
The department has since fallen behind in filling those requests. To get more information, we have had to ask for less.
Like other news organizations, we made an omnibus request for information about the I-35W bridge, including e-mails, memos, transcripts of telephone calls — whatever we could get.
However, it was soon clear that such a large request wasn’t going to be filled anytime soon.
I started working with MnDOT to more narrowly tailor our requests. I asked to see what had been released to other media (which you can do under the Data Practices Act) and cleared parts of our requests that I didn’t think were critical. By focusing on specifics, we made some progress.
But we still hit walls. Detailed inspection reports on a handful of other bridges are being withheld out of concerns for national security.
That may be a valid point, but it’s a fair question to ask whether terrorists are really going to target a bridge over the Mississippi River near Hastings, Minn., population 18,000.
Reporters aren’t the only ones who are frustrated. Recently, a lawyer representing some victims of the collapse, including family members of those killed, filed suit against MnDOT, demanding that it produce documents related to the I-35W bridge. The lawyer had also filed a Data Practices Act request, which has not been acted upon yet.
I don’t want to bash MnDOT. They’re still dealing with a crush of local interest in the bridge collapse, and a dozen reporters might be covering any given bridge story — from the Associated Press to several television outlets to Minnesota Public Radio to two daily newspapers still fighting a 150-year-old turf war.
And that doesn’t even count fulfilling requests from federal investigators looking into the cause of the collapse, or hard questions from state legislators who have held hearings and called for the head of MnDOT to resign.
Jason Hoppin is covering the Interstate 35W bridge collapse for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he has been working since 2004. His primary beat covers local politics in Minnesota’s capital city.