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Flying Cheap: SOC, Frontline Expose Regional Airlines

Chuck Lewis, left, Investigative Reporting Workshop executive editor, and Rick Young, "Flying Cheap" producer and workshop staffer (Photo: Anne Doyle)

From crisis comes opportunity.

While newspapers across the country continue to fold under economic pressure and the weight of technological advancements, the School of Communication (SOC) has partnered with Frontline to incubate new business models and develop the next generation of hard-nosed investigative reporters.

“There’s been a tectonic shift. We’re in the middle of an earthquake and I’m one of the victims,” said Frontline correspondent Miles O’Brien, who recently left CNN after 17 years with the cable news network. Journalists must develop “new, powerful ways to continue to do what we care about.”

“We’ve got to keep this alive—we’ve got to keep this going for other generations.”

O’Brien was among the newsroom veterans on hand for the March 3 screening of Flying Cheap, Frontline’s first collaboration with SOC’s Investigative Reporting Workshop. Reported by O’Brien, the documentary was produced by Rick Young and co-produced by Catherine Rentz, both workshop staffers. Additionally, three SOC students conducted research for the program under the careful eye of Chuck Lewis, workshop executive editor and journalism professor.

This is only the second time the PBS public affairs series has partnered with a university to produce its award-winning documentaries.

“Lots of people want to partner, but there aren’t lots of people who want to make the investment,” said Frontline executive producer David Fanning, who praised SOC’s new $100,000 editing facilities. “Journalism is in crisis . . . and we’re hoping that as we gather more productions here, we bring a new generation to Frontline and to broadcast journalism, to put their hands on these kinds of films and learn from them.”

Flying Cheap chronicles the fatal crash of Continental flight 3407 outside Buffalo last year—what one interviewee called “the watershed accident of this decade.” The documentary, which aired on Feb. 9, takes a hard look at the regional airline industry, which handles half of all domestic flights—and accounts for the last six fatal commercial airline accidents in the United States.

The documentary, which the Washington Post raved “is full of common sense and outrage,” drew a viewership 20 percent higher than the average Frontline program. And with additional content on the Web—including an interactive graphic with safety information for the country’s top 50 airports, produced by the workshop—Flying Cheap continues to spark conversations around airline safety.

Before the program even aired, a 10-minute video with a Colgan Air pilot garnered hundreds of comments, many from those working within the industry.

SOC dean Larry Kirkman said such thought-provoking reporting is essential to the future of journalism.

“Investigative journalism on TV is an endangered species. We need to keep the tradition alive—and build on it.”

Added Lewis: “There’s a big world out there, and it needs to be investigated.”