Meandering Mississippi, by Mary Delach Leonard & Robert Koenig. Published by The St. Louis Beacon. iPad (requires iBooks 2). $.99 iTunes
Reviewed by Seth Mnookin
A little after 10 pm on May 2, 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers detonated explosives along a two-mile stretch of the Bird's Point levee, just below the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The goal was to save the city of Cairo, Illinois, which was facing such severe flooding that all but 100 of Cairo's 2,831 residents had already been evacuated. It was a dramatic event; pictures of the explosions, like the one below, have a vaguely apocalyptic feel.
Since the initial explosions took place at night, reporters sequestered a half-mile away weren't able to see how fast the water from the swollen river was flowing. In all, officials estimated up to three trillion gallons of water -- that's 3,000,000,000,000 gallons -- poured onto the Bird's Point-New Madrid floodway, comprised of approximately 130,000 acres of farmland and 90 homes.
This is precisely the type of story that The St. Louis Beacon, an online-only news organization launched in 2008 by St. Louis Post-Dispatch ex-pats, describes as its raison d'etre, and a handful of Beacon reporters spents months covering the flood's aftershocks. In February, the Beacon became one of the first news organizations to use Apple's new publishing software, iBooks Author, to package its reporting into an ebook.
The greatest virtue of iBooks Author is that it makes putting together a book incredibly easy--but, as Meandering Mississippi illustrates, that's not always a good thing. The book assembles eight Beacon pieces that were originally published over a two-month period, from May 6 to July 7, 2011. As far as I can tell, they were simply dumped into the iBooks template without any editing, condensing, or updated reporting. I'm one of those old-school romantics that believes that daily journalism really is, as the old saying goes, the first rough draft of history. In order to do its job, each day's story needs to give the reader enough background to ensure that he won't feel lost. That context, so important in news reports, becomes deadly when a bunch of pieces are strung together in a row.
Just as frustrating is the fact that errors that were present in the original Beacon stories are reproduced in Meandering Mississippi. Take this Beacon piece, where the floodway is described as "having been established early 1930s." "In the" is also missing from the ebook. In other places, new errors actual seem to have been introduced: That same story describes how the Corps regarded the activiation of the floodway "a success"; in Meandering Mississippi, that becomes "asuccess." Even the editor's letter that serves as a kind of introduction to this project feels half-baked. It misspells the compound-adjective "long-term" and is signed "Margie" -- no last name, no title, nothing. These are all minor points, to be sure, but they add to the overall impression that this was a slapdash effort. If the Beacon isn't going to take its work seriously, why should we?
But maybe I'm focusing too much on, you know, the words. After all, in a Nieman Journalism Lab piece about Meandering Mississippi, Brent Jones, the Beacon editor that created the iBook, said, “The text carries the basics and the meat of the story, but having all these extra elements" -- which Nieman described as " slideshows, audio, interactive graphics, and video interviews" -- "to add to the book really make it stand out.” Would that that were true. The one video clip that is included is eight, unedited minutes of a Corps press conference on the night of the detonation. At least that's what I gathered after watching the whole thing: The clip's headline is simply "Decision Made," and there's no caption or other information to go along with it. (I did find some impressive video of the actual detonation -- but that was on the Post-Dispatch's site.)
There's also a single audio recording, which is made up of several not-very-informative minutes of talking by the mayor of one of the affected towns; when I looked on the Beacon's site, it turns out that was originally a video clip.
The still photographs are, if anything, even more disappointing. As the picture at the beginning of this review shows, there was some striking imagery that was produced on the night the levee was breached. I found that shot, by an AP photographer named David Carson, on The Washington Post's site; in contrast, Meandering Mississippi includes a series of small shots that look like they could be anything from a fireworks display to the detonation of a bunch of surface-to-air missiles.
Even more confounding is a series of seven images that are spread out over eight of Meandering Mississippi's 54 pages. Only the first one, reprinted below, has a caption; it explains that the images are taken from "a 1944 report to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by Harold Fisk. The different colored bands represent the courses taken by the Mississippi over time."
Got that? I didn't think so. My efforts to figure out what I was actually looking at eventually brought me to a 2010 blog post by Radiolab's Robert Krulwich describing these very maps. It was only then that I learned that the white channel traces the path of the river during Fisk's time. (Krulwich's piece is well worth reading. He also pastes together all of Fisk's charts end to end; the result is spectacular. It's the type of thing I imagine would look great on an iPad.)
The story of the flooding across the Midwest last spring is one that is still evolving: As it turns out, the Corps rebuilding efforts are going better than expected, and the dire warnings of toxic crops and long-term devestation turned out to be overwrought. Hopefully one day, a great book about this saga will be written. Unfortunately, this is not it.
Seth Mnookin teaches science writing at MIT and blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book, The Panic Virus: The Truth Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy, was a Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist and won the New England Chapter of the American Medical Writers Association's Will Solimene Award for Excellence. Follow him on Twitter.