Q&A: How we localized flood insurance investigation for states and small towns

For many years, the federal government offered subsidized flood insurance on homes and businesses constructed before there were many rules about building close to the water. But premiums have been insufficient to cover the payouts, leaving the National Flood Insurance Program billions of dollars in debt. There has been public outcry over some actions taken in Congress to support the program.

The west branch of the Susquehanna River flows past Jersey Shore, Pa. on Sunday March 23, 2014. About a third of the borough (population 4,300) is in a flood hazard zone and nearly 470 homes in town are expected to see flood insurance premium hikes because of changes to the National Flood Insurance Program. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)

The west branch of the Susquehanna River flows past Jersey Shore, Pa. on Sunday March 23, 2014. About a third of the borough (population 4,300) is in a flood hazard zone and nearly 470 homes in town are expected to see flood insurance premium hikes because of changes to the National Flood Insurance Program. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)

The Associated Press today published an important investigative project by reporter David B. Caruso that details how rising flood insurance premiums across the country will have devastating, long-term impact on many homeowners and communities. Caruso’s report was distributed along with an interactive and AP sidebars from each of the 50 states.

In addition, data shared by AP with member news organizations – such as the New Haven Register and The News Journal (Delaware) – helped them to further localize their coverage.

“This report is a great example of how AP can work with its members and clients to help them produce exclusive, highly local stories that can’t be found elsewhere,” said Brian Carovillano, managing editor for U.S. news. “Going forward, many of our data-driven investigations will include national and state reporting from AP journalists, and our content partners around the country can provide local perspective using data gathered, formatted and distributed by AP.”

Here, National Investigative Editor Rick Pienciak describes how AP tackled the ambitious reporting, which includes data on more than 18,000 communities across the country.

National Investigative Editor Rick Pienciak

National Investigative Editor Rick Pienciak (AP Photo)

What prompted AP to explore this issue?
David Caruso, who has written a great deal about post-Superstorm Sandy insurance issues, proposed looking at the big rate hikes in store for 1.1 million participants in the National Flood Insurance Program, 20 percent of all participants. We figured we could perform a nice public service for a large number of people – in all 50 states.

What were the most striking findings and concerns?
For one, we learned that the public outcry was so strong against the 2012 law to make everyone start paying true-risk premiums (increases as much as 15-fold), that Congress might push back some of those increases, many of which had started to take effect in October. In fact, compared to the usual speed of Congress, a bill was passed by the House and the Senate earlier this month, spreading out the increases. And President Barack Obama signed the bill on Friday. (It is worth noting there are congressional elections in November.)

Instead of paying the full rate immediately, depending on the type of property, those impacted will face annual increases of up to 18 percent or a mandatory 25 percent. In analyzing the data for more than 18,000 communities, we were taken aback by the impact these premium increases will have – even spread out over years – on small, old river towns. The numbers help tell the story that some of these places might very well turn into ghost towns.

What challenges did you face?
One of the biggest challenges was distributing a large amount of data for so many communities. First, we had to decide what to use and what to skip from the Federal Emergency Management Agency data because it wasn’t relevant. And, as anyone who has ever worked with a large, complicated data set might say, “messy” is an understatement. So David, AP’s top data guru Troy Thibodeaux and I spent a great deal of time talking through what we would use, how we’d use it and then those fellows spent a lot more time “cleaning” the data and getting it ready for distribution.

One other challenge was the need to distribute the data ahead of time, via a password-protected FTP site, and then prepare our national piece and our state sidebars – one for every state and the District of Columbia – all without knowing exactly when the president would sign the bill to ease the rates of increase. He did so Friday, so we were able to update each story just before they actually hit the wire. We also fielded countless emails and phone calls from member editors and offered them assistance on using the data. Being able to present this package just a couple of days after the president signed the bill is a big accomplishment.

What did AP offer member newspapers to localize this story?
We offered 28 columns of key data for 18,423 separate towns, cities or unincorporated sections of counties. That is a lot of information.

We provided a unique identifying number for each entity, its name, location by county and state, population, number of policies receiving rate discounts, the number of policyholders facing annual increases of up to 18 percent, the number of policies facing annual increases of 25 percent (that category is generally for vacation homes and businesses).

We also provided the percent of all flood insurance policies in each community facing premium increases. Just from that information, a local reporter can get a really good idea of little towns where large chunks of the citizens are going to face hard times until Congress comes up with a long-term fix.

We provided data state by state, and by type of structure (a business, residential home or 2-to-4-family building). And then there were columns for claim history, numbers of active policies in each community, the total annual premium in a community, total payments since the community joined the federal insurance program and total number and dollar amounts of claims paid out to each respective community. Local reporters could really dig in deep and write their own stories about their town or city, regardless of size.

Deep source reporting pays off big

There are endless ways for politicians to hint about whether they will or won’t run for a particular office, but only a few ways to pin them down before they announce their plans.

Boston-based political reporter Steve Peoples (AP photo)

AP political reporter Steve Peoples (AP photo)

In a memo to staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano describes how Boston-based politics reporter Steve Peoples delivered an exclusive, deeply sourced story last week that former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who was defeated in 2012, was seeking to hire staff and launch an exploratory committee for a New Hampshire Senate campaign:

The key was finding operatives who had been offered positions, and Peoples did. Working more sources, Peoples was able to report that Brown had told state Republican leaders that he would be announcing a formal exploratory committee.

The developments, reported exclusively for hours by The Associated Press, have implications, both locally, for the 2014 Senate race, and nationally, in the battle for control of Congress. Brown’s bid puts New Hampshire in play as a state where Republicans could take a seat away from the Democrats and take control of the Senate and the entire Congress the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Brown’s camp did not want Peoples to break the news.

That didn’t stop Peoples from digging further.

He had been following Brown’s flirtations with office-seeking for three years since joining the AP, had interviewed several sources who told him about Brown seeking a campaign staff. He then tracked down people who were offered positions, even though Brown’s camp told him there had been no such outreach.

Broadening the circle with more calls and with help from Concord statehouse reporter Norma Love and correspondent Rik Stevens who contacted GOP legislative leaders, Peoples got high-level Republicans to confirm on background that Brown had told them he would form an exploratory committee.

Peoples continued reporting and seeking sources to confirm the information. Brown confirmed the AP report nearly 24 hours later, but by then, Carovillano noted, it was old news. He wrote:

Politico, ABC, CBS and Fox (where Brown was still working as a commentator) all credited AP with breaking the story. The New York Times and the Washington Post both posted Peoples’ story for hours.

For providing our customers with an only-from-AP newsbreak on a big state political story with likely ramifications for the national political scene, Peoples is awarded this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Follow Peoples on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sppeoples and learn more about how AP’s national politics team endeavors to break news, while providing clarity and crucial context.

Datelines from Crimea

We’ve been asked whether, with the Russian takeover of Crimea, we will change our style for datelines from Crimean cities.

Previously, we wrote “SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (AP).” But Ukraine no longer controls Crimea, and AP datelines should reflect the facts on the ground.

Therefore, effective this week, we are using the city name and “Crimea”: “SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (AP).”

Why not “SEVASTOPOL, Russia” if Russia formalizes its annexation of the territory? The reason is that Crimea is geographically distinct from Russia; they have no land border. Saying just the city name and “Crimea” in the dateline, even in the event of full annexation, would be consistent with how we handle geographically separate parts of other countries. For instance, we just say “Sicily” and “Sardinia” in datelines — “PALERMO, Sicily (AP)” — even though they are part of Italy, and “Guadeloupe” in datelines even though that island is part of France.

What does it take to cover big-time sports?

Ferrara_Lou

AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara

So you want to be a sports writer? Start with a hunger for news.

That was the message AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara delivered to aspiring journalists gathered at the College Media Association’s Spring National Convention in New York on Thursday.

Ferrara, fresh from leading AP’s coverage of the Winter Olympics, stressed the importance of strong newsgathering skills and explained how news reporting underpins stories from the slopes and the skating rink:

“When I look in the very near past at the Sochi games, the sports and events themselves were almost a backdrop to the bigger story. Russia. Vladimir Putin. Security. Pussy Riot. Gay rights. Construction problems. Ukraine. And then there were other threads that got more attention than the game stories we wrote: Accessibility for the disabled. A worker hit by a bobsled. A malfunctioning Olympic ring that the world saw but Russians did not. How the IOC restricts athlete endorsements during the games. Or, how social media is part of the fabric of an Olympian’s celebrity.”

Ferrara also highlighted the accomplishments of a number of AP journalists, including a Texas Statehouse reporter who has carved out a niche beat covering Lance Armstrong (though he’s never gone to the Tour de France), a London-based sports editor who regularly breaks news about the International Olympic Committee and a sports writer covering Penn State who ensured AP was the first news agency to accurately report when Joe Paterno had died.

As a manager, Ferrara said he’s looking for smart reporters “who can identify a news story when they see it happening around the sport they are covering.”

Read his full remarks, including tips for being the next great sports writer, on the Poynter Institute’s website.

AP honored with First Amendment Award

The Radio Television Digital News Foundation (RTDNF) honored The Associated Press for defending a robust free press with its challenge to the U.S. Department of Justice for secretly seizing AP phone records.

Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of the Associated Press, receiving the First Amendment Award for The Associated Press from RTDNF Chair Vince Duffy, during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12,  2014. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Gary Pruitt, the president and CEO of The Associated Press, receiving the First Amendment Award for AP from RTDNF Chair Vince Duffy, during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt, a First Amendment attorney, accepted the award at a black-tie event Wednesday evening in Washington emceed by Chris Wallace of Fox News.

A video narrated by “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer recounted how AP’s industry leadership this past year resulted in greater protections for all journalists.

“Because of the AP-DOJ dispute the rules protecting journalists from the reach of federal prosecutors improved swiftly and substantially,” Pruitt said.

He added: “The Department of Justice made clear, for the very first time, that they will not prosecute a journalist for doing his or her job.”

Watch a video of Pruitt’s remarks and read the AP news story.

 Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of the Associated Press, with members of the Associated Press staff during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12,  2014. Posing from left to right Dave Gwizdowski, Sally Buzbee, Ivett Chicas, Sara White, Larry Price, John Turell, Pruitt, Karen Kaiser, Ted Bridis, Denise Vance and Julie Pace. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)


Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of The Associated Press, with members of the AP staff during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12, 2014. Posing from left to right Dave Gwizdowski, Sally Buzbee, Ivett Chicas, Sara White, Larry Price, John Turell, Pruitt, Karen Kaiser, Ted Bridis, Denise Vance and Julie Pace. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Visit AP at SXSW Interactive

The Associated Press is joining thousands of digital and creative professionals from around the world converging at the 2014 SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, which runs March 7 through 11.  Here’s a rundown of where you’ll find AP:

David Guttenfelder and Eric Carvin

David Guttenfelder and Eric Carvin

Saturday, March 8

Sunday, March 9

  • AP Social Media Editor Eric Carvin (@EricCarvin) and Mandy Jenkins, managing editor for Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, will discuss the responsibilities news organizations have to citizen journalists. The session will cover topics such as credits and permissions for user-generated content and working with amateurs who may find themselves reporting in dangerous circumstances. Follow along on Twitter with hashtag: #UGCEthics.  12:30-1:30 p.m., Austin Convention Center, Room 18ABCD.
  • And AP is sponsoring the Film + Interactive Fusion Party, which brings together filmmakers, designers, social media experts, producers and more. Featuring a DJ, games, photo booth and more, the party is open to all Interactive, Film, Gold and Platinum badge holders. 7-10 p.m., Palm Door, 508 East 6th St.

The Oscar for best selfie goes to …

Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres granted The Associated Press the rights for the editorial use of her star-studded selfie by AP members and subscribers.

AP reported that the photo had been retweeted more than 2 million times, breaking a record set by President Barack Obama with the picture of him hugging First Lady Michelle Obama after his re-election in 2012.

An alternate view of Ellen DeGeneres' star-studded selfie: DeGeneres takes a photo with, from left, Kevin Spacey, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jared Leto during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Los Angeles.  (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)

An alternate view of Ellen DeGeneres’ star-studded selfie: DeGeneres takes a photo with, from left, Kevin Spacey, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jared Leto during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)