June 6, 2007

It
really is a sign of the times. Al’s Morning Meeting reader Joseph Gidjunis, a staff writer at The
Daily Times
in Salisbury, Md., found that gasoline
prices are changing so quickly these days that gas stations have started
installing electronic signs. That way, prices can be updated quickly several times a day.

The story says:

7-Eleven, with more than 2,200
stores selling gasoline, is investing [in] hundreds of electronic displays. By the
end of this year, 309 of its stores are expected to use the technology.

Don’t
you just know that whoever has to change the gas-price sign the old-fashioned way, sticking those plastic numbers up there, takes flack from passing
drivers every day?


The Newest Online Mapping

A
lot is happening right now in the world of online mapping. This fall, a site called EveryScape will light up interactive maps that will take you on a virtual, ground-level tour of major cities. I hope this expands to
more cities fast.

Last week, Microsoft launched a 3-D version of its maps, featuring views of New York;
Austin, Texas; Cape Coral, Fla.; Cincinnati; Indianapolis; Northampton, England; Ottawa; Savannah, Ga.; and Tampa, Fla., throughout the day.


Nonstandard Hydrants

WTOP
Radio in Washington, D.C.,
has discovered that fire hydrants in the nation’s capital are
different from those in neighboring cities. So if there were a big fire that
requires help from outsiders, they would have to use adapters for the hydrants,
and some of the out-of-towners don’t have those adapters. In effect, the
firefighters would be hosed.

Have you ever heard of nonstandard hydrants in your town?
The city fire department or the water and sewer department should be able to
tell you.


The Black Hawk Investigation

I
want to point you toward some really nice work done by WTNH-TV in New Haven,
Conn. The Black Hawk helicopter, a combat workhorse, is built in that
state.

When investigative reporter Alan Cohn started asking questions
about repeated mechanical and quality problems with the helicopter, Sikorsky Aircraft, the manufacturer, sued the Pentagon to stop releasing records of
problems.

This is not a quick-turn story. Click here to see a
collection
of three years’ worth of WTNH reporting about the Black Hawk’s
problems.

You will also see that Sikorsky Aircraft
responded to the quality complaints by shaking up management and putting new
quality-control measures in place. The
investigative work and long-term commitment to the story was rewarded with a
Peabody Award.

I interviewed Cohn about the project:

Al: You have been reporting this story for more
than three years. How did it surface?

Cohn: It surfaced with a call
from a Sikorsky employee to my tip line that went something like this: “Defective parts are being installed on Black Hawk helicopters. I have
documentation. Call me at this number …”

I receive hundreds of
phone calls. A call like this jumps out. I called him, talked several times,
met him, and he turned over Sikorsky documents showing the problem and a Defense
Department document which detailed just how serious the issue was.

Al: Local TV reporters often tell me that they
don’t have the time, resources or airtime to go after huge stories
like this. What advice do you have for them?

If
you get a big tip like this, you have to make the case to your news director to
pursue the story. It is up to the news director and assistant news director and
their priorities. My argument is always the question, “What makes our broadcast
better and different from the competition?” In the Sikorsky case, I didn’t have
to sell the story. My management knew it was a huge story and were very
supportive. They were supportive every time I brought them a new and important
development.

The only reason we got
the results we did is because we stayed on this over three years, until both
the Defense Department and Sikorsky were forced to take action.

Al: What were the biggest obstacles you ran into
in investigating this story, and how did you overcome them?

Cohn: The company would only
answer written questions. That changed in November (2006) when they agreed to
an on-camera interview. The company told me they
made a mistake not doing it earlier.

Another obstacle — few
elected officials from Connecticut wanted to touch this story for obvious reasons — big employer.
While we were pointing out serious and documented problems, Sen. Joe
Lieberman was giving speeches about the great quality control at Sikorsky.
Congressman Chris Shays was about the only one who demanded answers.

Al: Sikorsky
even sued the Pentagon to stop you from seeing some complaint reports about the
Black Hawk. What kinds of databases, public records and other documents did you
use to prove your stories?

Cohn: Because of that suit,
FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] provided little help. Unlike civilian crashes, the military won’t release
accident reports, so it was difficult to link the problems of quality control
to incidents. The only way we were able
to do that in 2006 was when we obtained Sikorsky and military records through
our sources inside the company, who risked everything to get them out of the
factory.

The only reason we were
able to break this story is because of the sources we were able to develop
inside Sikorsky.

Al: What was the public reaction to these stories,
especially since Sikorsky is a local employer in your market?

Cohn: We received very little
negative reaction. We did get tips from other employees and from people around
the world who do business with Sikorsky and had incidents they wanted to
report. Few, if any, criticized us for
going after a local employer. I was told by someone I know outside the office,
whose son worked at the company, something like, “This wasn’t much of an issue, and what problems that existed were
fixed years ago.” Our stories from November showed that wasn’t true.

Both Sikorsky and the
government realized that and took action.


We are always looking for your great ideas. Send Al a few sentences and hot links.

Editor’s
Note: Al’s Morning Meeting is a compendium of ideas, edited story
excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as
original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly
from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided
whenever possible. The column is fact-checked, but depends upon the
accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. Errors and
inaccuracies found will be corrected.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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