Friday, August 30, 2013

No Room for Error: Why The Wichita Eagle's Molly McMillin Gets it Right

The Wichita Eagle's senior aviation/aerospace
reporter, Molly McMillin
By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

As aviators, we've all seen the same mainstream media articles or TV broadcasts that were wrong on many levels, and made us crumple up the newspaper and throw it forcefully at the television. The article or news segment is usually written by someone who has never been close to the heartbeat of general aviation, and knows little if anything about airplanes and the people who fly them. These journalistic train wrecks usually go something like this:
(ANYWHERE, USA, Friday, July 5, 2013) A fixed-wing rotorcraft made an emergency takeoff upon landing two miles short of the departure end of the arrival runway at Poedunk Municipal Airport today. We've learned the crash involved a Skyokee-22, a six-passenger biplane with retractable wings. The "lighter-than-air" hovercraft was seen flying at a very low attitude near the airport according to an eyewitness, who stated, "I heard it come right over my barn real slow, in a nose-high altitude, I'm guessing it was trying to land upon takeoff." We are still trying to confirm reports that the ATP-rated student pilot was on an ILS flight plan. Reports on social networks indicate that the craft may not have had an operating glideslope on its Transponder, a device equipped with something called "Mode See" to allow the pilot to watch for other air traffic, and even birds.
On the streets of 49 of our 50 states, this might pass as "journalism." But right there in the middle of the country, below an endless stream of airliners blasting through the flight levels connecting the coasts, is one state where this sort of inaccurate aviation reporting simply will not, um, fly.
   
That state is Kansas.
   
Outside of the aviation world, the state of Kansas is known for producing great college basketball teams, enormous amounts of wheat, and maybe most notably, for Dorothy's departure point on a rather interesting journey down a colorful road of yellow bricks to the Land of Oz. But all Airplanistas know that the state - and in particular the City of Wichita - is the "Air Capital" of the United States, because so many large and important airframe and parts manufacturers are located there. When you are in Kansas reporting aviation, there is no room for error.
   
According to this site, Wichita is home to Spirit AeroSystems, Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft, Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier Learjet, Goodrich, Honeywell Aerospace, and hundreds of smaller aviation and aerospace companies that support the larger corporate factories.
   
When there is an abundance of one industry in a city, the local daily newspaper assumes the role of reporter to the world on that sector, a daunting task when the topic is as complex and ever-changing as building airplanes of all shapes and sizes. Over the years, The Wichita Eagle, the state's largest newspaper, has stepped up and proudly handled that assignment, reporting in-depth and breaking aviation news without the usual mainstream media inaccuracies that seem to plague some other papers and TV outlets.
   
How they manage to report aviation without the usual silly mistakes that we aviators love to find all comes down to one person, Molly McMillin, the Wichita Eagle's senior aviation/aerospace reporter. She brings an essential attribute to the newsroom every day, and it shows in the quality of her articles...because McMillin is a pilot. She's an airplanista...she is one of us:
"I earned my private pilot's license in 2011 and learned to fly in my dad's 1956 Piper Tri-Pacer," McMillin says. "My dad had been a private pilot for decades and had a true passion for flight. But I also wanted to fly to help me in my job. I work on the business team at the Eagle and cover aviation primarily from a business standpoint. I wanted to be able to talk to pilots and speak their language. Learning to fly gave me an understanding of this part of the industry that I wouldn't otherwise have known."
McMillin skydiving with the U.S. Army Golden Knights

McMillin joined the Wichita Eagle in 1995, covering banking, real estate, retail and economic development. When the paper's aviation reporter left in 1999, she took over the beat and has received a number of state and national journalism awards, including awards for a four-part series on Boeing's globalization called, "Shifting Winds: Boeing's Global Push."Along the way, she's had some great experiences, including a ride with the U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds Demonstration Team, a tandem parachute jump with the U.S. Army Golden Knights and an up-close ride in the back of an Air Force tanker watching a boom operator fuel a fighter jet.
   
As aviation writing gigs go, McMillin's might be as good as it gets, because she has the support all the way up the chain of command. "The Eagle's coverage of the aviation industry is important to the direction of the newspaper," she said. "I'm lucky to have editors who recognize the importance of the industry on Wichita's economy and appreciate its long history in the city. It's rare for a daily newspaper to have a reporter dedicated to aviation. In this town, it's essential."
   
Her attention to detail and perseverance in working to get it right has paid off, with McMillin building a stellar reputation in the industry. "We have worked with Molly and she is a consummate professional - does her homework, asks pertinent questions and is a pleasure to work with," said Jackie Carlon, Director of Marketing & Communications at Piper Aircraft. "A measure of her effectiveness is that many other writers in aerospace media follow her postings because she has an inside track on aviation news through her contacts and reporting skills."

Nicole Alexander, Manager, Communications and Public Affairs, Beechcraft Corporation agreed and said "the aviation industry is fortunate to have Molly as one of its key voices, as she demonstrates great knowledge and passion for its people and products. She is thorough, straightforward and responsible in her reporting of the various issues."
   
McMillin on the job in The Wichita Eagle newsroom
If you have ever been around a busy newsroom today, what you won't see or hear is the clacking of old Royal typewriters being pounded on by crusty old hacks sucking on Pall Malls, with a tattered PRESS placard crammed into the trim ribbon of their worn Fedora. But what you will see and hear is the same deadline-driven explosion of words being ripped from the fingers of reporters watching the clock with the same apprehension of those old hacks "back in the day." And of course, when you are cranking out the stories while staying true to the AP Stylebook, it is only a matter of time before a "gaff" slips past the copy editor's trained eye and catches ink:
"Like every reporter, I never want to make a mistake or see an error in my stories," McMillin explained. "Unfortunately, sometimes they creep in. For example, one time I wrote "the single-engine Boeing 737" when I meant to write "the single-aisle Boeing 737." I knew the difference. It was a stupid mistake. Boy, did readers let me know about it. If I'm not sure about something, I call sources and experts and run things by them. Once I sent a photographer out to a local FBO to find someone flying his or her airplane for business. When he got back, he had photographed a man standing beside an unusual airplane. The photographer failed to put the model of the plane in the cutline. I spent a lot of the next day fielding phone calls from readers wanting to know about the plane. This is such an aviation town!"
Circling back around to the real reason McMillin is able to "get it right" in her aviation reporting, it really all comes down to the fact that she is in love with aviation just like the rest of the aviation family.
   
"Being a pilot has helped my coverage in a number of ways. A big one has been the networking that has come from attending pancake feeds and general aviation events," she says. "More than that, it's given me an additional level of respect. Sources can speak to me in the language and know I will understand it. And while I cover the manufacturers in town, it's also made me more aware of just how broad general aviation is. It's helped me see stories I may not have otherwise seen. Being a pilot has also helped me get the terminology right. It has helped me be able to explain things better in laymen's terms to a general audience. I know the difference between the kind of stall that happens with a car and the kind of stall that occurs in an airplane."
   
In a sea of mainstream reporters that either doesn't understand or doesn't care about our world of aviation, Molly McMillin is a shining star that the aviation family should consider a valuable asset. I'm pretty sure that the inaccuracies we see all the time in some aviation reporting will continue, but there is one thing you can etch in stone. It's likely that those mistakes will not find their way into The Wichita Eagle, because they have a secret weapon, and she walks, talks and lives aviation just like you and me.

And when it comes to covering the aviation/aerospace sector, having that level of knowledge about the industry and passion for flight is money in the bank.