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Safety Net: Is groveling good exercise? Editor tries to fix story error

Friday, October 31, 2008

As I mentioned in the column published Wednesday, Oct. 29, I started this column in order to catch stories that have fallen through the cracks. Wednesday I tried to make amends with members of the local political parties for campaign events I attended but failed (bipartisanly!) to get in the paper.

Today I have more bowing and scraping to do, but this time to a Republican, state Sen. Bill Stouffer.

There are times working for a newspaper is infused with low-grade desperation, like I imagine a truck driver would feel if he was running late in a truck with a quarter-sized hole in its fuel tank. The deadline, it goes without saying, looms. What else would a deadline do? Missing it would be bad. Running out of fuel would be doom.

But those circumstances (running out of time, running out of fuel) would not give a driver an excuse to run up U.S. 65 at 95 miles per hour, blowing past every red light along the west edge of Marshall.

That's sort of what I did recently -- not with a truck but with a story.

In haste to get an election preview story done on time, I told our reporter to use information from a campaign rally Stouffer was at and to refer to previous news stories to help flesh things out.

That, in itself, is not an ideal approach -- contacting Stouffer directly would have been better -- but with care it could have sufficed.

Most of the story turned out fine, but the last paragraph was misleading in that it sounds like Stouffer was responding to something his opponent, Democrat Joe Sadeghi, had said about transportation issues, specifically about whether Interstate 70 should be upgraded to eight lanes, a proposal Stouffer has championed for some time.

In an accompanying story, Sadeghi said he thought upgrading other highways, specifically U.S. 50, U.S. 24 and U.S. 36 should have priority over I-70.

Instead of contacting Stouffer for a response, we referred to comments he made in a town hall meeting earlier this year about the future of I-70 -- and ended up putting words in his mouth in the process.

The offending passage read: "He has previously said that it is an issue of I-70's convenience as a straight cut through Missouri, which makes it attractive to truckers." Makes it sound like we should spend a lot of money on I-70 so truckers can zip through the state faster, but that's not why Stouffer thinks the project is so important to Missourians.

He does want I-70 to be capable of handling ever-heavier traffic, to solidify and expand on the state's position as a distribution center of the nation. He points out that 36 percent of Missouri's jobs currently are located within just three miles of I-70 and I-44 (which is the next on the list for upgrading after I-70). That's not counting the many cities and towns within 30 miles of the interstates that are profoundly affected economically by those major thoroughfares -- including all of Saline County.

Sadeghi's assertion that the state should consider investing in other highways was raised by a member of the audience at Stouffer's town hall meeting. There is an argument to be made that state money would be better spent taking some of the load off I-70 by upgrading to four lanes some of the more heavily traveled U.S. highways, making those roads -- also heavily traveled -- safer in the process.

Stouffer said he doesn't think that approach would be cost-effective, however, noting that it could cost more per mile to upgrade U.S. highways than to upgrade I-70.

I-70 has long outlived its design life, making long-term maintenance an expensive proposition. Its heavy traffic, with long-haul trucks and passenger cars sailing a long, elbow to elbow, in a 75 mph dangerous dance, makes driving on it -- especially in bad weather -- a harrowing experience.

The ambitious project of converting I-70 to an eight lane road, separating trucks and cars, would be very costly. Stouffer thinks it would be an investment in the future of the state economy.

That's what our election preview should have said. It's my fault it didn't.

We've got to work fast in this business. But we've got to get the story right. Fast and right. Not one or the other.

I'm giving myself a ticket for running a red light on this trip.

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I can't believe that a true journalist would just "skip" over going straight to the source, and making up a new "truth." Sounds like what a little kid would cal LYING! Certainly not quality journalism in any respect.

-- Posted by Owl12345 on Mon, Nov 3, 2008, at 4:15 PM

Don't be so hard on yourself Eric. Considering the dire straits of printed media, you and the other staff members are doing an outstanding job.

I-70 certainly needs expansion or upgrades. Just think it began in the middle of the last century and it has been patch, patch, patch since.

The idea of expanding other highways is intriguing. Perhaps that would serve as a catalyst for growth in other areas. A "build it and they will come" approach.

I think this country is better served by small towns with a diversified base of commerce, education and farming. Missouri has successfully held to that ideal far better than other states.

If I-70 is expanded, perhaps it could become a toll road until the improvements are paid. Of course, with the high cost of gas, it is becoming more economical to use freight trains for shipping. On the other hand, with the economy going down the tubes...we may see dandelions growing on I-70.

-- Posted by upsedaisy on Mon, Nov 3, 2008, at 3:41 PM

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