WHAT WERE THE odds? That's what Off Beat wondered earlier this month when our TV-watching pals regaled us with descriptions of the instant-classic jaw-dropper they'd glimpsed on the local news: an escaped 1,500-pound Hereford steer wandering loose on I-394 in Minnetonka, tying up morning traffic for half an hour on May 8. (A capital offense, as the steer soon learned.) Strange episode, to be sure. And stranger yet that the execution happened to be caught on tape. Or so the ink-stained Off Beat thought. As it turns out, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has 240 traffic cameras, each of which is equipped with pan, zoom, and tilt functions--enough to cover about 70 percent of the freeway system. Plans for total coverage are pending, reports Melanie Braun, the agency's traveler information specialist. "We've still got a few blind spots, but we can see most incidents," Braun says. And so can the denizens of local newsrooms, where dispatchers routinely eyeball the traffic cams, ready to pop a tape into the VCR at the first hint of mayhem. "I think it's the most extensive network in the country," says Scott Libin, news director for KSTP-TV (Channel 5). "And while we can't monitor them all, it has extended our coverage in a lot of ways." Like the other local stations, KSTP makes daily use of live MNDoT footage for morning traffic reports. But Libin says that every few weeks the traffic cams provide heftier, er, fodder for the hard-news segment as well. "We don't just put anything on the air," he stresses. "A lot of times we see things that aren't worth reporting--drunk people wandering down the side of the road, things like that. One day recently we saw a threatened suicide attempt on one of the interstates. We didn't do anything. We routinely don't." Was the Demise of the Sad Steer the best traffic-cam story Libin has ever run with? "I'd be reluctant to say it was the best because I don't want to appear in a newspaper saying, 'The shooting of an animal was the best video I ever saw!'" the newsman muses. "But the steer is the obvious example."
"Newspaper of a Whole Bunch of Indistinct Counties and Municipalities"
WHEN LAST OFF BEAT checked in with reporter Steve Brandt, the man who covers Minneapolis neighborhoods for the Star Tribune had taken to the Mpls-issues online soapbox to chastise his employer's lackadaisical approach to filling the slot for a reporter at Minneapolis City Hall (November 17, 1999). So we weren't terribly surprised last week when we espied another of Brandt's cyber-insights into the ways of the Strib. A fellow Mpls-issues-ite had posted a message pointing out that while the St. Paul Pioneer Press had recapped the legislative session's impact on both its hometown and neighboring Minneapolis, the Strib had failed to offer a similar assessment (the paper's wrap-up focused on statewide issues). "Trying to get coverage by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis issues at the Legislature (unless it's the convention center or Guthrie) has been so difficult and fruitless that I've stopped raising the issue," Brandt screeded. "This may be attributable in part to what a top editor who lives in Minneapolis told me a few months ago: since most readers of the paper don't live in Minneapolis, she doesn't want to draw attention to Minneapolis. Obviously, I disagree." Brandt declined Off Beat's suggestion that he enlarge upon the matter and said he'd let his posting speak for itself. So we will... though we can't resist noting that it has been 14 years since the Strib dropped the "Minneapolis" from its name and debuted the slogan "Newspaper of the Twin Cities." Off Beat hereby solicits nominations for a new catch phrase.