Blog

Whoever thought infrastructure could be this compelling

In my hometown, there is a giant stone levee that keeps the Mississippi River from overflowing. It was built some years after a massive flood in 1965 damaged downtown. So, when there was an even more massive flood in 1993, Clinton stayed dry. It’s an ugly thing, this massive rock strip along the riverbank. But what we lost in aesthetics we gained in peace of mind, I suppose.

Todd Frankel, in Taming the Mighty Mississippi, has set a difficult task for himself: telling a story about a subject as banal as infrastructure, like that levee in my hometown. But his writing – the river is a “powerful beauty” and a “corrosive force” with an “alarming propensity to flood” – combined with beautifully shot video and humanizing audio, compel the reader forward as surely as a tug does a barge.

The expansive overhead shots of different points along the river’s 2,350-mile path on the story’s opening page are overlaid with gentle sounds of trickling water and softly chirping birds. It’s so peaceful it could be used as a sleep aid. But the serenity, you know, will set up the conflict to come. And the perspective, which was shot from hundreds of feet in the air, underscores one of Frankel’s themes: a sense of our hubris in trying to control such a natural wonder.

Frankel’s writing is equally compelling. His initial three graphs are so sharp that each has its own kicker. He takes care to couple this story with a current topic of interest, Trump’s infrastructure plan, to add a dose of timeliness to an otherwise evergreen. And he introduces us to interesting characters as we meander down the Mississippi with him, like the farm family that used the silt left by one flood to build a levee to protect their home from another one.

What’s old is new(s) again

I once read a twovolume history of the Washington press corps. (I guess I was between relationships at the time.) Few of the anecdotes in the books have stuck in my brain sufficiently to be of much use at parties. But one overarching theme I do remember is just how much journalism changed from one century to the next. 

At the start, newspapers operated in service of political parties, dependent on printing contracts that underwrote their newspapering. It wasn’t until the 20thcentury that objective journalism took hold.

That won’t be exactly news to anyone who has read a biography of Thomas Jefferson, I realize. I bring it up because my favorite blog, Bleeding Heartland, strikes me as a bit of a hybrid, and I wonder when there’s a volume of political reporting written about the 2000s whether it will feature news outlets like it.

There are no gifs. The photos are often uncompelling (there is an appealingly quirky Wildflower Wednesday feature). And the graphics look like something even I could do, and I need to call the IT guy over every time I fill out an expense report. 

But it has the crucial element all blogs (or magazines or newspapers for that matter) must have: good content. 

It’s definitely news with a view. Not an official party organ but colored in support of Democrats. The name I assume is a play on the phrase “bleeding liberal” and hints at frustration with rural America’s rightward tilt.

But the main author, Laura Belin, backs up her analysis with objective facts. It’s smart stuff that supplements coverage provided by the Des Moines Register, which no longer has the firepower that once made it one of the great regional papers in the country. Here’s a series Laura wrote after the most recent mid-term election.

Is this the wave of the future? I think anyone interested in Iowa politics would benefit from reading Laura’s blog. But is anything lost if this model becomes the new standard and the influence of the newspapers that we grew up with continues to wane?