Monthly Archives: June 2008

CLIPS: How to build a roller coaster (05/18/08)

(This is posted simply so it can be added to my Clips page. Also visit this previous entry to see the video I made along with the story.)

BY DANIEL VICTOR
Of The Patriot-News

More than two years ago, Hersheypark officials privately gambled that few people would miss the Western Chute-Out.

They figured the water slide, built in the 1980s, would become old hat as the colorful Boardwalk water attraction opened nearby in 2007.

“We ended up being right,” said Frank O’Connell, the Derry Twp. theme park’s general manager. “We saw a significant reduction in ridership.

“Phew.”

In a park with very little available land, where everything new must replace something old, the Western Chute-Out was sacrificed for the next big attraction. Its land became a canvas for what would eventually be named Fahrenheit. The coaster is scheduled to open Saturday.

To build a roller coaster, you must deal with the small: What kind of sand should be used to fill the supporting columns to make the coaster less noisy? You must deal with the big: Is this going to hurt people’s necks?

In a process that spanned several years, the creation of Fahrenheit, Hersheypark’s newest roller coaster, combined advanced engineering and science with the childlike joy of fitting together an Erector set.

Selecting the design

When park officials ask guests what they want to see next, they have consistently delivered two answers:

More water attractions. More roller coasters.

The successful launch of the Boardwalk, which park officials have said was a big reason for a record-setting 2.7 million visitors in 2007, took care of the need to cool down.

But the park hasn’t had a new roller coaster since 2004, when Storm Runner was launched.

It was time.

So the park sent out requests to vendors, asking for their best attempt at filling the long, thin space to be vacated by the Western Chute-Out. The park supplied the topography, the safety requirements, and a few requests.

The coaster must get close to 1,000 riders through the turnstiles per hour. It must have a “vertical lift” — a 90-degree rise that has riders feeling like they’re riding straight up into the sky.

It was, essentially, a design competition. Three months later, they had four bids.

One bid came in too far over budget, O’Connell said.

One couldn’t handle the park’s request for 1,000 riders per hour.

One offered the vertical lift, but didn’t offer enough fun.

Then there was IntaRide LLC, the Glen Burnie, Md.-based division of the Switzerland company that designed Storm Runner. It offered something that got the attention of park officials:

An “est.”

In roller coaster terms, an “est” is bragging rights in the industry. It’s a marketing hook. Sometimes it’s the fastest, or the highest.

What IntaRide offered was the steepest. After the requested 90-degree lift, the design would shoot riders back to earth at a 97-degree angle, surpassing what used to be the United States’ steepest drop of 95 degrees.

The design was selected, and it was time for the park’s engineers to take over.

“I’ve never been asked to build the tallest or the fastest,” O’Connell said. “I think that’s consistent to our philosophy of family-first, safe and clean.

“But we try to find ‘ests’ that fit our core values.”

The plan comes to life

Kent Bachmann, director of design and engineering, and Joe Prowell, the senior project manager, like to say that they worry so you don’t have to.

“The last thing you want to think of is how this was put together, how this was built,” Prowell said.

Of the many challenges he and the other engineers and construction workers face, perhaps two are the biggest:

It has to be done safely.

And it has to be done in a very short amount of time.

Used to be they could get to work in the fall, after summer ended and the park closed. Not anymore, not with Christmas Candylane, a seasonal event in December.

All the construction has to take place between the first week of January and May 24, that constantly impending, inflexible and sometimes horrifying deadline.

Oh, and you’ve got to work in the freezing cold, find a way to make up for days lost to bad weather, and work around April’s Springtime in the Park.

“We said it’s going to open, and daggummit, that thing’s going to open up,” Bachmann said.

The pieces of the ride are assembled in Europe, then come by sea into Baltimore and New York. They’re delivered to Derry Twp. in 60 to 80 tractor-trailers.

Several outside contractors are lined up. The park has to coordinate them and make sure they stay on schedule.

The coaster has now been named by the marketing department, the colors have been chosen, and plans have been announced to the public. Time to get to work.

Fitting it all together

Sometimes Aycock LLC, of Hummelstown, works mechanical construction on power plants. They also work at quarries and food plants.

But assembling a roller coaster is what it really enjoys.

It’s contracted with Hersheypark for more than 40 years, putting together most of the rides, including all of the steel roller coasters.

“You’re going to be a part of something that kids, that people will enjoy themselves on for 20, 30 years,” said Scott Campbell, the project manager. “Every time you go into the park, you have a sense of pride that you participated.”

It’s a good thing they enjoy it, because they work longer hours at the park than on any other project.

In March, at the height of the construction, there were about 20 workers toiling six or seven days a week, with 10- to 12-hour days.

Two weeks before the park opened, they were back on site to check and retorque the bolts on the track and steel columns. That required a 16-hour day, a 14-hour day and a 10-hour day, said Brian Peiffer, a 28-year-old worker from Elizabethville.

So when it’s assembled, and they watch people ride it, the workers feel a small sense of ownership, he said.

“To know that you put it up, helped build it and then to watch somebody enjoy it,” he said. “We made their day.”

During the construction, there are often several different contractors on site, either working together or working on different parts of the ride. One would be pouring concrete to hold the ride’s supporting columns, while another was building the station.

All of them are depended upon if the ride is going to open on time.

“You don’t want to be the first team to get in there and not complete a job,” Campbell said.

One day, several workers stayed after their shifts to watch the first time the empty train went around the track. The workers were dead silent, Campbell recalled, hoping nothing would go wrong.

Then, as it pulled into the station, they all clapped and cheered.

Ready to ride

Before any humans experience Fahrenheit, Fred has to ride it.

Fred is a brown, computerized dummy with no legs who measures the g-forces of the ride. In other words, he makes sure your neck, head and back aren’t jerked around too much.

Fred, coupled with other machinery, feeds data to engineers, who confirm that the ride exceeds safety standards.

Problems could arise from faulty construction work, or unforeseen design problems. Park officials said the track has fully checked out.

Fred is joined in the train by 10 180-pound dummies filled with water. Weekend parkgoers in May could see those dummies taking their rides.

As of now, only one human has taken a ride: Sandor Kernacs, the owner of IntaRide. IntaRide continues to own the ride until it passes state inspection, which is expected to happen this week.

Once ownership is passed on to Hersheypark, the first rides will be given to park officials, engineers, and other workers who put Fahrenheit together.

Then, less than a week later, it’ll be open to the public.

“It’s fun to be in this business,” O’Connell said. “Not too many people get to build a roller coaster.”

Meet a blogger: Run up the Score

Run up the Score, in my humble opinion, is the best of the many Penn State football-themed blogs out there. Though my particular newspaper, in my humble opinion, offers the best Penn State football coverage out there, RUTS has become required reading.

I swept the pigeons away from my typewriter long enough to e-mail the author some questions. He was kind enough to answer those questions, mid-air, while doing some kind of trick on his skateboard. (Try Fire Joe Morgan or Deadspin for an explanation of that ridiculous image.)

It was an effort to show that bloggers aren’t the inherently evil, newspaper-reader-stealing, ethics-depraved leeches that some newsroom dwellers paint them to be. A lot of thought and passion goes into their craft, and the sooner journalists understand that, the better.

(Any italics are my own, to emphasize what I believe are key points. I cut out parts of his answers just so it wasn’t too long; if anyone is interested in reading the full Q&A, I’d be happy to forward it to you.)

BDV: At what point, and why, did you decide you wanted to blog?

RUTS: Personally, Run Up The Score started as a general sports blog with a moderate concentration on college football. It didn’t take long for it to become a college football blog with a heavy Penn State concentration. Now it’s a Penn State blog that occasionally dabbles in other areas. Nobody succeeds with a blog, certainly not on a personal satisfaction level, if they only passively care about the subject. That’s why so many blogs pop up and disappear after a month. The writer finally says to himself, “wait, why the hell am I doing this?” and quits.

I think anyone who takes the time to start a blog and maintain it on a consistent basis feels that the entire story isn’t being told. It doesn’t matter if the chosen topic is college football, politics, or baking. Blogging gives a potentially loud voice to people who don’t have access, and there’s certainly a place for writers who don’t get too intimate with the people and subjects they cover. The best blogs fill in the gaps that newspapers, television, and radio can’t always cover for whatever reason. They can’t be everywhere. The Associated Press is never going to pick up a Joe Paterno road rage story unless he kills somebody. Why would they? But if you type “Joe Paterno road rage” into Google, I guarantee that 95% of the stories on the topic are written on blogs, and they did it with an informality and sense of humor you can’t get from traditional media sources.

That’s also part of why blogs published by established news outlets are often so awkward — there’s often an editing process and the writer doesn’t get to write stories predicting Anthony Morelli’s performance on the Wonderlic Test at the NFL Combine. They’ll state that he’s in Indianapolis with three other players for the NFL Combine, which is something that 80% of Penn State fans already knew. Newspaper blogs usually end up being exactly what they shouldn’t be — another source of the same news found elsewhere, not to mention there’s hardly ever any evident joy in the writing.

Credibility issues iron themselves out in the blogosphere, especially because the best bloggers are sensitive to the constant, uninformed criticism that all blogs are written by people with no regard for fact (especially because newspapers so often bungle or conceal significant parts of a story). Sure, some sites are like that, but who reads them on a consistent basis? If I posted tomorrow morning that I had an inside source in Old Main stating that Joe Paterno will resign on Thursday morning and Jay Paterno will take over as head coach, it won’t take many more of those mistakes before I squander whatever readership I’ve built up over the past two years. In a weird sense, this is my baby. If I blatantly plagiarized or fabricated something, I’d eventually be called on it in a very real, public fashion. Consumers of traditional media don’t often get the opportunity to lash out at reporters, at least not for the whole world to see.

BDV: You give a great definition of what newspaper blogs shouldn’t be. So what should they be? What do you think reporters could learn from the best bloggers?

RUTS: There are any number of ways a newspaper can go if it wants to get into the blogging game. Blogs can be heavy on opinions, or play a straighter role. They can be text, audio, or video. They can be live-blogs of the game as seen from the press box or a couch somewhere in Scranton. Really, they’re all just different forms of supplementing the newspaper’s usual processes.

Sometimes, the blogs can be completely independent of what’s happening elsewhere on the site while still being a complement to the traditional coverage — Dan Steinberg’s “D.C. Sports Blog” is a great example of this. Sports fans have a thirst for intimate details of their favorite teams, even if those details aren’t something that would normally work their way into a Michael Wilbon column.

PennLive actually does a very good job with their bloggish coverage, especially with regard to the press box videos and weekly preview videos from the office. That’s something that no other media outlet has provided with respect to Penn State football coverage.

Using a Penn State example, we know there are a number of stories that will come out of any game. There’s the standard game recap, and a handful of stories that are dictated by the smaller events within the game — individual performances, coaching decisions, all that stuff. A live-blog of a Penn State game could include descriptions of the parking lot atmosphere, the excitement within the stadium, emotional swings within the game, an ability to immediately post analysis, pictures, and video. Reporters who venture into blogging have to realize it’s a different medium that opens up innumerable opportunities to infuse technology into the reporting process. Happy Valley Hoops is a tremendous example of that.

This is all just an unnecessarily wordy answer to a simple question, though. The very nature of blogs and the internet allows news organizations to augment their traditional coverage however they see fit. Some are more entertaining and informative than others.

BDV: How did you go about growing readership? Have any stats to share?

RUTS: Growing readership is a tricky business for a blog. The art of “blogwhoring” — posting links to your site in comments of other sites and message boards — is universally frowned upon. Some people attract readership by sending in tips to bigger sites like Deadspin or Every Day Should Be Saturday. That’s a good way to solicit extra attention, because it allows the owner of the bigger site to decide whether to link to your tiny blog, instead of you clogging up someone else’s comment section with what is essentially an unpaid, unwanted advertisement.

As for my stats, they’re modest. RUTS usually attracts around 2,000 readers a day during the work week, give or take a thousand depending on incoming links from other sites and Google searches. It tapers off during the weekend, and of course, during the off-season. More importantly, the quality of the comments has increased, which naturally leads to higher interest and return visits. And hey, 2,000 people stop by to read my thoughts on Penn State football. That’s more than I’d get shouting at passing traffic on Front Street in Harrisburg! Again, to compliment the PennLive.com folks, they added links to what I suppose could be considered the “big three” PSU blogs — Black Shoe Diaries, The Nittany Line, and RUTS — and eventually added a few others to their main PSU Football page. That’s been a great help, especially because none of us really asked to be linked. PennLive totally did that on its own, which I believe is extremely rare (and quite frankly, gracious) for a newspaper site.

I could pepper Deadspin, The Big Lead, EDSBS, and other sites and plead for links on a daily basis. With the exception of sending a tip to EDSBS once a month, I try not to beg. I don’t like to get too caught up in site stats, though. Anybody can tailor a site to attract readers without necessarily providing quality content. Lots of people do it, and can generally carve out a nice secondary income in the process.

TimesPeople: An important first step

TimesPeople will be marked as the beginning of a key revolution in newspaper Web sites.

Not because of what it is — a pretty underwhelming social network based on recommending stories at nytimes.com — but because of the doors it’ll open to a more social experience in consuming news.

Shoving content onto existing social networks isn’t going to save the industry. Newspaper organizations need to focus on becoming the social network.

In addition to the obligatory forums and blogs, the newspaper site will be home to the mingling that’s happening on Facebook or MySpace, the dating that’s happening on Match.com, and the conversation that’s happening on Twitter. It will take the fun and utility of those other sites and infuse them with the one advantage every newspaper has: Local, local, local.

None of that is happening on TimesPeople, an effective recommendation system with few frills, but it does move us in that direction by the all-important step of introducing the reader profile. My profile just has my name, location, and a story I recommended for the sake of trying out the service.

But maybe that profile will expand and enable me to have the headlines I want, from only the categories I want, delivered to that profile page. Maybe all my activity on the site — forum postings, story comments and blog entries — will be displayed on that profile page. Maybe I’ll be able to RSVP to entertainment listings through my profile.

Maybe that profile will expand and enable me to include everything I have in my Facebook profile. Maybe that profile will enable me to declare that I’m single, and to search for other single Times readers.

Maybe that site will incorporate conversational tools, whether it’s wall postings, intra-site messages, instant messaging or microblogging.

The newspaper site will defragment the local Web space, centralizing it around the news product that we desperately need to sell. Meanwhile, it gives the readers the personalization, control and voice that they increasingly need.

When you think about what it could become in the future, TimesPeople seems pretty insignificant right now. But let’s use it as the starting point toward the radical rethinking that every newspaper site really needs.

Where are all the college bloggers?

I was delighted to find Jessica DaSilva’s blog (via Pat Thornton). Jessica, a journalism student at the University of Florida, had a recent entry about her internship at the Tampa Tribune that took me back to the good old days of unadulterated enthusiasm.

Reading through Jessica’s blog shows you don’t have to be an expert with years of experience to have something valuable to offer.

So why aren’t more students blogging? I suspect it’s because, all over the country, students are still being taught to have a fear of blogging, bloggers and blogs.

I talked to a group of students at Lebanon Valley College this spring about blogging, and the professor challenged each of the students to start their own blog.

Some of the results: Popcorn Nation, A Mess of Youthful Innocence, PA Press Watch, Over the Counter, Not Just Another Indie Hipster, Today’s Menu.

Some of them are really impressive offerings. PA Press Watch was a great read in the Pennsylvania primaries, as he dissected how different newspapers covered everything. Popcorn Nation and Not Just Another Indie Hipster have been embedding videos and linking with the best of them. Over the Counter and Today’s Menu have given interesting looks at working in a pharmacy and restaurant, respectively.

These are difficult subjects to maintain blogs on, but they need not be professional. What’s really cool about the project is that the students are beginning to understand the culture of blogging. You see them leaving comments on each other’s entries. You see them linking to each other, or leaving comments in other blogs.

These students, once they find themselves at a news organization, will be much better suited to starting a blog on their beat. Having maintained a blog while in college was one of my big selling points in being hired for my current reporting job.

So let me ask: Do you know of any other students blogging about journalism, like Jessica DaSilva? If you are one, please make sure to let me know you exist.

UPDATE (12:22 p.m.): Jessica makes two great points in the comment thread:

And I agree that more students should be blogging. I’ve noticed that in keeping up my blog, it forces me to keep abreast on my news to ensure I know what I’m talking about.

It’s also teaching me how to combine my own personal flair with what I know. Later, when I have a beat to blog about, I feel like it’ll help me connect with readers so they know I’m not a robot.

The new Syracuse.com is a big improvement

Via Syracuse.comI’m not sure when it went live, but the new Syracuse.com looks like a significant step up from the prior design shared by all Advance Internet sites (including Pennlive, which posts stories written by my newspaper. Clicking those two pretty much gives you the before and after for Syracuse). Read more details of the Syracuse.com redesign at the site.

Before I praise it too much, a caveat: It’s still lipstick on a pig. We need a rethinking far more than we need a redesign. I’m still waiting for a truly innovative newspaper site that establishes itself as the real town square of the local Web. That won’t happen until newspapers start leading the way in the social aspect of the Web, instead of just doing its duty with a few blogs and forums.

That said, the Advance team deserves some praise for what amounts to significant cosmetic and usability improvements. The labyrinthine layout of the Advance template has been the bane of journalists nationwide, as we produce great content that can’t be found by our readers. This looks to go a long way toward reducing the usability problems.

  • Placing the “Real-Time News” box in the top left corner is a fool-proof way of ensuring that the newspaper’s true brand, the breaking news and enterprise, gets the placement it needs. I don’t think five breaking news headlines are enough, and I wish there was a place to better promote the print stories, but this is a step in the right direction.
  • This is done without coming at the expense of sports stories, the apparent click-magnets, by giving them just as much visibility at the top. Under the previous design, sports and news competed for precious little space atop the site. It’s wonderful that they’ll never have to compete again.
  • The ability to search entertainment listings from the home page is a good idea, and I hope the staff is up to providing the exhaustive listings that it would really need. I know in Harrisburg there’s a hard-working crew at Spotobe who are plenty willing to pick up the slack.
  • Perhaps most exciting is the better play of videos and photos. Of all the usability issues with the prior design, this was perhaps the most glaring. At my paper, quality videos and photos were consistently buried in an obscure blog that wasn’t consistently linked on the home page.
  • I enjoy the Interact box, and easily seeing where the most comments are coming in.

Much more work remains, and I’m sure I’ll find more problems once I dig deeper through the site. But if this home page design comes to my paper soon, I’ll be a happy reporter.

Beatblogging success story: The “Open for Business” sign

I love the beatblogging project because it’s innovation in real newsroom laboratories, as opposed to tsk-tsking and dreaming.

My foray into it has had its ups and downs, but I recently had a kind of success story that I didn’t expect when I signed up.

And it shows why I believe so much that social networking can revolutionize small-town beat reporting.

A woman in the town I cover believed that she had spotted an injustice. (I won’t go into detail for competitive reasons, and because my work on the possible story is ongoing.)

But she didn’t know what to do with this knowledge, so like any other computer user, she turned to Google. She typed in the name of a resident in town who her neighbors had recommended, a person who might know what to do with this information.

One of the first results took her to The Hershey Home, the Ning network I set up for the beatblogging project. The resident she sought has been a frequent contributor to the network.

Once there, she strolled around the site. She read all of my solicitations for story ideas, background information on stories I was already working on, and feedback for stories I’ve already written. She went ahead and e-mailed me to set up a meeting.

After she spilled the beans at our meeting, I asked her why she contacted me.

“I just read through your comments on the site, and you seemed like the type of person who would want to hear this,” she responded.

Imagine that! I may have stumbled upon a high-impact story based on a tip from a person who isn’t even a member of the network. She chose to contact a reporter because the network put up an “Open for Business” sign,  and revealed that I have a genuine interest in hearing from as many residents as possible.

An obligatory listing of our e-mail address at the end of our stories doesn’t invite our readers to contact us, it just allows them to. Setting up this kind of network, interacting with people online, and really advertising that we really, really do want to hear from people can directly lead to stories.