Automated earnings stories multiply

The Associated Press, working with Automated Insights and Zacks Investment Research, is now automatically generating more than 3,000 stories about U.S. corporate earnings each quarter, a tenfold increase over what AP reporters and editors created previously. Here, Assistant Business Editor Philana Patterson, who has been overseeing the rollout of this process in the newsroom, gives an update on AP’s automation efforts that began last summer.

Assistant Business Editor Philana Patterson (AP Photo).

Assistant Business Editor Philana Patterson (AP Photo).

What changes has AP made to the automation process?
Since automation began in July, AP has added a number of enhancements to the stories. Descriptions of businesses have been added and the stories now include forward-looking guidance provided by the companies. We are running smoothly, and always looking for opportunities, along with Zacks and AI, to improve what we are producing with automation.

What has the reaction been?
There has been a great deal of interest about how automation works from both members and readers, and overall the reaction has been incredibly positive. AP members are getting more stories about companies in their markets than ever before. We want this process to be as transparent as possible so we have added an explanation of how earnings automation works. It can be found on Automated Insights’ landing page: http://www.automatedinsights.com/ap/.

That link, and one from Zacks, is provided in the tagline of each story. We’ve also encouraged our members and subscribers to make these links available to readers when using the stories, especially online.

Internally, the reaction has been positive from staff, largely because automation has freed up valuable reporting time and reduced the amount of data-processing type work they had been doing.

How does AP ensure quality control?
Quality control was critical from the outset. We worked with Zacks and AI to make sure that every step of the process would produce stories without errors. When we launched last summer, a fair number of errors were discovered in the testing process. We then worked with Zacks and AI on solutions to ensure they wouldn’t happen again. Today, mistakes are rare. Pretty much the only time we will now have an error is if a number is entered incorrectly into the system at the beginning. Once you set up automation, and go through a rigorous testing process, you reduce the prospect of errors. In fact, we have far fewer errors than we did when we were writing earnings reports manually.

Has automation allowed staff to focus more on reporting?
Absolutely. Like all media, we are working with limited resources and it’s critical that we maximize the time reporters have to do journalism and break news. We estimate the automation of earnings reports has freed up about 20 percent of the time that we had spread throughout the staff in producing earnings reports each quarter. It is enabling us to reconfigure our business breaking news operations to be more in sync with social media and user-generated content, and focus more reporters on higher-end enterprise stories that break news that no one else has. Our goals are to break more business news than our competitors, aim higher on investigative and explanatory journalism and focus more of our work on the general consumer. We’ve got some big projects in the works. Automation is helping us free up resources to do all of these things.

What’s next?
This quarter, we are testing the automation of earnings from Canadian and European companies. We expect to add further enhancements and more companies in future quarters. My colleagues in the sports department are also exploring small-audience sports for automation in order to free staff to report news that fans and consumers do not get on the field or a broadcast. We expect to be talking about automation through the year, including at this year’s SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas.

Super Bowl through the years: Off the field with AP photographers

The Associated Press has covered every Super Bowl since the first in 1967. Here’s a look at AP photographers and technicians at work covering football’s biggest contest through the years.


As recently as the early 1990s, photographers were still “souping” film in makeshift darkrooms at the stadium. Transmitting a single color photo over phone lines from the big game took about a half-hour per photo. But the introduction of digital cameras and transmitters in the mid-1990s changed that, saving time and eventually improving technical quality.

From front, photographers Spencer Jones, Rob Kozloff, Claudia Counts and Brian Horton work from a trailer for the NFL Super Bowl XXV football game in Tampa, January 1991. (AP Corporate Archives photo)

From front, photo editors Spencer Jones, Rob Kozloff, Claudia Counts and Brian Horton work from a trailer for the NFL Super Bowl XXV football game in Tampa, January 1991. (AP Corporate Archives photo)

Photographers Mark Humphrey, foreground, of Nashville and Cliff Schiappa of Kansas City work at Leafax negative transmitters, sending photos from a trailer for the NFL Super Bowl XXV football game in Tampa, January 1991. (AP Corporate Archives photo)

Photographers Mark Humphrey, foreground, of Nashville and Cliff Schiappa of Kansas City work at Leafax negative transmitters, sending photos from a trailer for the NFL Super Bowl XXV football game in Tampa, January 1991. (AP Corporate Archives photo)

Sometimes the Super Bowl presents AP staff, who are brought together from around the U.S. to cover the game, the opportunity for a reunion. Certain traditions, like the deep frying of a turkey by the late photographer Dave Martin, provide staff a moment of respite and a chance to reconvene.

Photographer and South Regional Editor Dave Martin, center, deep fries a turkey outside the AP photo trailer at the Super Bowl in Detroit, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2006. Standing to the left of Martin is Global Photo Operations Manager Tim Donnelly. It had become a tradition for Martin to deep fry turkeys at major events for the enjoyment of AP staff and other journalists. Martin died after collapsing on the Georgia Dome field while covering the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, Jan. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Schiappa)

South Regional Photo Editor Dave Martin, right, deep fries a turkey outside the AP photo trailer at the Super Bowl in Detroit, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2006. Standing to the left of Martin is Global Photo Operations Manager Tim Donnelly. It had become a tradition for Martin to deep fry turkeys at major events for the enjoyment of AP staff and other journalists. Martin died after collapsing on the Georgia Dome field while covering the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, Jan. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Schiappa)

During 2013’s Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, the Baltimore Ravens were leading the San Francisco 49ers 28-6 when most of the lights in the 73,000-seat Superdome went out in the third quarter. While fans and players waited for the stadium to regain power, AP reporters and editors relied on AP generators and jet packs with Wi-Fi hotspots to continue covering the night’s events.

Deputy Director of Photography Denis Paquin, front left, and colleagues edit during the Super Bowl blackout, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, at the Superdome in New Orleans. (AP Photo/ Julie Jacobson)

Deputy Director of Photography Denis Paquin, front left, and colleagues edit during the Super Bowl blackout, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, at the Superdome in New Orleans. (AP Photo/ Julie Jacobson)

Washington Assistant Chief of Bureau David Ake edits during the Super Bowl blackout, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, at the Superdome in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Washington Assistant Chief of Bureau David Ake edits during the Super Bowl blackout, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, at the Superdome in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Photographers Matt Slocum, left, and Mark Humphrey, right, in red, covering Denver Broncos Peyton Manning during media day for the NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football game Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Photographers Matt Slocum, left, and Mark Humphrey, right, in red, cover Denver Broncos Peyton Manning during media day for the NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football game Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Technology specialist Jorge Nunez, far left, watches as Global Photo Operations Manager Tim Donnelly and Houston-based photographer David Phillip, right, install a robotic camera on the catwalk in preparation for Super Bowl XLIX, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015. (Photo by Denis Paquin)

Technology specialist Jorge Nunez, far left, watches as Global Photo Operations Manager Tim Donnelly and Houston-based photographer David Phillip, right, install a robotic camera on the catwalk in preparation for the NFL Super Bowl XLIX football game, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Denis Paquin)

Photographers David Phillip, left, and Morry Gash work on a robotic camera in preparation for for Super Bowl XLIX, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015. (Photo by Denis Paquin)

Photographers David Phillip, left, and Morry Gash work on a robotic camera in preparation for the NFL Super Bowl XLIX football game, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Denis Paquin)

Photographer Charlie Riedel shown during  Super Bowl XLIX Media Day at the U.S. Airways Arena in Phoenix, Ariz., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kazdan)

Photographer Charlie Riedel takes photos of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (not pictured) using a camera attached to a monopod during the NFL Super Bowl XLIX Media Day at the U.S. Airways Arena in Phoenix, Ariz., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kazdan)

Photographer Charlie Riedel takes photos from the stands during the NFL Super Bowl XLIX Media Day at the U.S Airways Arena in Phoenix, Ariz., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kazdan)

Photographer Charlie Riedel takes photos from the stands during the NFL Super Bowl XLIX Media Day at the U.S Airways Arena in Phoenix, Ariz., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kazdan)

In recognition of the game’s rich history, AP is hosting a photo exhibit of its Super Bowl game coverage. “Super Moments, Superstars, Super Game—An Associated Press Exhibit” is on display at Gallery Glendale, 9830 W. Westgate Blvd., in Glendale, Arizona, until Feb. 1.

What’s the deal with Davos?

DAVOS, Switzerland — It’s hard to think of any other event quite like the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting here in the Swiss Alps. The U.N. General Assembly draws more world leaders. The Oscars attract more celebrities. But nothing brings together quite this combination of corporate executives, academics, philanthropists and media.

Participants walk in the main entrance hall of the Congress Center the day before the opening of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. The world's financial and political elite will head this week to the Swiss Alps for 2015's gathering of the World Economic Forum at the Swiss ski resort of Davos. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Participants walk in the main entrance hall of the Congress Center the day before the opening of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

It began in 1971 as a two-week meeting designed to improve European management. Some 450 executives attended. It has grown to something both grander and broader, with 2,500 attendees and a sweeping motto: “Committed to improving the state of the world.” No small task.

To a considerable extent they all come because they all come. Some critics dismiss the meetings as a talk shop or a gathering of elites who fly pretty high above the world most people live in, the one they are committed to improving.

Yet, for all that, interesting things are often said here and occasionally news is broken here. One year, AP Chief Switzerland Correspondent John Heilprin scooped the world on a new security policy in which the United States said that protecting corporate supply chains was now as important as the longtime job of guarding shipping lanes. How did he get the scoop? The then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was sent to Davos with half a dozen copies of the new directive signed personally by President Barack Obama. They were intended for other world leaders. But it’s hard to actually catch up with a world leader here, even though there are usually about 40 at least passing through. So John seized the moment and cajoled one of those documents out of an aide.

Some news organizations send small armies to cover Davos. One, for example, takes over the town’s library for its operations. AP takes a different approach. A small but hearty band of journalists covers all formats. It’s a great place to snag newsmakers for video or text. Pan Pylas, an AP business reporter here from London, recalls standing feet from actor Matt Damon one moment and then being quick marched by his editors (well, me actually) to a private briefing with the president of Iran.

“It’s unusual to get so many newsmakers and thought leaders all together in a very small place, when they are unusually accessible and a little bit more relaxed than usual,” Heilprin said. “For a reporter, the first challenge is to recognize them all. The second is to quickly think of a good question when one passes by.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron and  rock star Bono speak during the panel discussion  "The Post-2015 Goals: Inspiring a New Generation to Act", the fifth annual Associated Press debate, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014.  (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

British Prime Minister David Cameron and rock star Bono speak during the panel discussion “The Post-2015 Goals: Inspiring a New Generation to Act,” the fifth annual Associated Press debate, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

The highlight of our Davos week is the annual AP Davos debate, the brainchild of Director of Global Video News Sandy MacIntyre and Senior Field Producer Masha McPherson. Working with the Davos organizers, we turn one of the panel discussions into a broadcast and send it to our 700 broadcast clients and hundreds of digital news outlets.

We’ve had some memorable moments. Like the time Prime Minister David Cameron asked Bono to help craft a message for the fight on global poverty. Or when the Italian finance minister got angry because we asked about a bank scandal in Siena instead of the high-minded global financial questions he was looking for. Our Italian customers were very happy.

But that’s Davos. If you remember why you’re here, as a journalist, you can always find a story.

Why AP didn’t run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

In this Sept.19, 2012 file photo,  Stephane Charbonnier also known as Charb ,  the editor of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays the front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. AP moved this image on the wire this week. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

In this Sept.19, 2012 file photo, Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays a front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. AP moved this image on the wire this week. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

The attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris raised many questions about how news agencies handle controversial images. We answered some of them Wednesday in response to calls from reporters and bloggers. Below is a summary of the questions and our replies.

Did AP run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons mocking Islam?
AP tries hard not to be a conveyor belt for images and actions aimed at mocking or provoking people on the basis of religion, race or sexual orientation. We did not run the “Danish cartoons” mocking Muhammad in 2005, or the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the same type. While we run many photos that are politically or socially provocative, there are areas verging on hate speech and actions where we feel it is right to be cautious.

This policy is consistent with our approach to sound bites and text reporting, where we avoid racist, religious and sexual slurs.

But don’t such images and speech sometimes make news?
They do, and we may need to describe hate speech and images when they lead to attacks or arrests. But we limit ourselves to brief descriptions, often without the images or slurs themselves. Routinely publicizing hate speech and images can lead to a “can-you-top-this” situation where provocateurs produce increasingly offensive material for news media to lap up and redistribute, accusing them of censorship when they fail to bite. We don’t want to fan such flames.

We also believe we should not rotely transmit propaganda images designed to sow fear and terror. These could include images that display hostages in demeaning situations, prisoners being abused or the bloodied bodies of vanquished enemies. Sometimes such images, or crops of them, may be essential to convey an event.

On occasion we’ve run a few seconds of video of a hostage. We also ran the well-known photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But any such material requires discussion by our editors and a judgment that it is truly newsworthy. We never transmit such material simply because “it’s out there” and others are carrying them.

What about images mocking Christianity or Judaism?
We try to be even-handed. We have declined to run cartoons demeaning Jews and the Holocaust, although we have referred to them in stories when the reaction to them has made news. In the urgency of a 24-hour newsroom, some images get through despite our best efforts; we removed from our service some photos we put out showing a crowd in Afghanistan burning a cross to disparage Christianity.

These are AP news policies for the pictures we distribute in our news reports. In addition, the company has a separate commercial photo business called AP Images that, among other things, has an archive of 22 million photos, including AP pictures that predate our current editorial standards and pictures from many other photo partners. Sometimes photos that don’t meet our current editorial standards are found among those millions of pictures.

Thus, on Wednesday we removed from AP Images some Charlie Hebdo cartoons that had come from a non-AP source. We also became aware that a 25-year-old image of the controversial “Piss Christ” photo was among the photos there, and removed it. Of course, every removal is a judgment call, and we took some flak over the decision on “Piss Christ.”

We learned long ago that some of our news decisions will be controversial. While there’s certainly a slippery slope that leads to avoiding any image that could cause offense, there’s an equally slippery one that leads to suspending our editorial judgment and allowing our news service to be hijacked by whatever offensive image is circulating on a given day. Our best approach is to try to be as thoughtful and even-handed as we can, knowing we’ll sometimes be criticized for a decision not everyone likes.

But what about the censorship issue? Who is the AP to decide what images the world will see?
This question was more valid a couple of decades ago, when a very small number of international news agencies “owned the wires” that distributed photos around the world. If the agencies chose not to run a photo, few were likely ever to see it. Even at that time, we felt a responsibility to use our judgment and distribute only those photos we were comfortable with.

But now the censorship argument has largely evaporated. The most hotly disputed images of recent years can usually be found easily via search engines and social networks by anyone who wants to see them. In the Internet era, we are free to edit our news service in line with our own professional consciences and the valid needs of our readers and subscribers without people being able to claim we’re making some decision for the entire world. We have an editorial policy, and that’s what you get from AP.

AP’s long history of reporting from Cuba

As the United States and Cuba move to restore diplomatic relations for the first time in more than 50 years, a look at The Associated Press’ long and unparalleled history on the island reflects the tensions that have marked the relationship between the two countries.

Valerie Komor, director of the AP Corporate Archives, prepared this account of the AP in Havana:

A 1961 edition of The AP World, the AP company magazine, reported on staffer Harold Milks' delayed exit from Cuba after Fidel Castro took power.

A 1961 edition of The AP World, the company magazine, reported on staffer Harold Milks’ delayed exit from Cuba after Fidel Castro took power.

The Associated Press stationed a correspondent in Havana as early as 1870, when the Spanish authorities exerted complete censorship over all news dispatches. A seething General Agent J. W. Simonton, writing in The New York Times on March 16, 1870, declared “the business of the Company seriously embarrassed thereby.”

Francisco José Hilgert, who may have operated in secret for some years for his own safety, reported on the explosion of the battleship USS Maine on Feb. 15, 1898. During the ensuing Spanish-American War, a staff of about 20 used chartered boats to cover naval actions and carry copy to cable points in Haiti, Jamaica, Key West and the Danish West Indies. In 1916, AP announced a direct New York-Havana leased wire to serve its Havana newspaper members, which included El Mundo and Diario de la Marina.

Larry Allen and William Ryan were on duty on Jan. 2, 1959, when Fidel Castro’s rebels overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista in a “blood-wet battle of tanks and guns,” as Allen described the scene. After Castro took power, reporting became increasingly difficult. As chief of Caribbean Services, Harold K. Milks, a veteran war correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief, ran the bureau from May 1959 until the spring of 1961. When the botched United States invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs began on April 17, 1961, Milks sought refuge in the Swiss Embassy until he and 100 others were flown to Miami a month later.

Shortly thereafter, Daniel Harker, a stringer out of Colombia, resumed reporting from Havana with instructions to “keep the AP doors open” and not antagonize the government. Ike Flores replaced Harker in mid-1965 and began doing interviews with Castro and his generals. Not surprisingly, Flores gradually became persona non grata and asked to be reassigned.

In 1967, John Fenton Wheeler took over. For a time, he seemed to be enjoying greater privileges. But after Castro directly attacked Wheeler in a speech, saying he had been reading “AP lies” since he had come to power, the end was just a matter of time. It came on Sept. 8, 1969, with a 3 a.m. phone call from the Foreign Ministry — and Wheeler found himself on a plane out of the country. “Don’t worry,” AP General Manager Wes Gallagher told him. “We’ve been kicked out of better places.”

During the height of the Cold War, AP’s Miami bureau made coverage of Cuba one of its priorities.

From 1961 to 1986, AP employed exiled Cuban newsmen to monitor, translate and write up the Radio Havana broadcasts.  In the summer 1965 issue of AP World, AP’s in-house magazine, the operation was described this way: “When Castro makes one of his four-hour speeches, the monitors take turns making notes. At the same time, the speech is taped as a backstop. Ted Ediger takes the reams of copy and cuts and molds it into shape for the wire. The radios are in the same room with WirePhoto. The bleep-bleep of the Wirephoto, the hysterical rantings of Castro and the rattle of typewriters blend into an unearthly racket.”

After 1969, it would be 30 years before AP could reopen an office in Havana, first because of Castro’s strictures and secondly because the U.S. government barred American news organizations from operating there. Years of effort by AP CEO Louis D. Boccardi paid off when the Cuban Foreign Ministry granted AP permission to re-establish a permanent presence in Cuba. Anita Snow reopened the bureau and was followed by Paul Haven (2009-13), Peter Orsi (interim) and Michael Weissenstein in 2014.

Q&A: AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch

As food editor, J.M. Hirsch keeps The Associated Press’ global coverage of cooking and eating relevant, accessible and authoritative. He’s also the expert behind the popular food chapter of the AP Stylebook. Here, he explains what coverage AP served up to Lifestyles subscribers for the holidays and what to watch for in the new year.

AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch (AP Photo).

AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch (AP Photo).

What are the highlights of AP’s holiday coverage?
For AP’s food team, the holidays start in July. That’s when we start dreaming up delicious things for an entire season of holidays. From the usual treats at Halloween through three weeks of Thanksgiving offerings then right on through Hanukkah, holiday cookies and entertaining, Christmas and New Year’s. By the time the real holidays roll around, we’re pretty burned out.

Still, we had some delicious stuff this year. I loved Tyler Florence’s spatchcocked turkey, and I even served Yotam Ottolenghi’s roasted sweet potatoes glazed with orange bitters at my own Thanksgiving dinner. And if you’re looking for a last-minute project with the kids, it’s hard to beat Dorie Greenspan’s flawless take on sugar cookies.

Is it hot cocoa or hot chocolate?
All depends on how you make it. Hot cocoa is made using cocoa powder, while hot chocolate is made using melted chocolate. This was one of the fun things we covered in an AP Stylebook Twitter chat in November. All sorts of holiday food style terms. Even kicked up a little kerfuffle when I told folks our style is “baking sheet,” not cookie sheet (because it’s used for more than just cookies). And I’m hoping to add plenty of new food terms to the 2015 Stylebook (which comes out in May), including the difference between bruschetta and crostini, as well as why “preheating” an oven is nonsense.

Oh, and I’ll share my secret for the best hot cocoa/chocolate. I use both cocoa and melted chocolate. Heat 1 cup of whole milk (this is not the time to cut the fat) in a small saucepan, stirring frequently. Whisk in a few tablespoons of cocoa powder and at least 1/3 cup of semisweet chocolate chips. When the chips have melted, hit it with a tiny pinch of salt. Best. Cocoa. Ever.

FoodNetwork

Food Network star Aarti Sequeira (Photo courtesy Food Network).

AP introduced a number of celebrity food columns this year. What has the response been?
We have such a great lineup of celebrity food columnists. AP’s subscribers have really loved the fresh, authoritative voices they bring to our content. Sara Moulton’s KitchenWise gives home cooks the basic skills they need to feel confident in the kitchen; Elizabeth Karmel’s The American Table wows with all things Southern and barbecue; Melissa d’Arabian’s The Healthy Plate shows us how to eat better (and save some cash); and my Cooking on Deadline column continues to show busy families how to get big flavors on the table fast.

I’m also excited that in January we are launching a new column by Food Network star Aarti Sequeira. The column, called World’s Fare, will offer up weeknight-friendly takes on global cuisines. She’ll show us how easy it can be to liven up our cooking by using widely available ingredients from the grocer’s international aisle.

What food trends will AP be watching in 2015?
In the restaurant world, pop-ups will continue to change the landscape. Bigger names are getting into the game because it lets chefs take risks and try new things without committing to a space or concept. Scott Conant did this in New York in the fall as a test run of a new place he’s working on. We’re going to see a lot more of this.

We’ll also see more influence from the science side of cooking. It used to be mostly limited to avant garde chefs _ the so-called molecular gastronomy side of things _ but this year we saw more of the tips, techniques and ingredients showing up in more mainstream eaters and cookbooks. We won’t all cook sous vide, but we all can learn something from this approach, and people are catching on to that.

Hirsch is also the author of three cookbooks, including “Beating the Lunch Box Blues.” Follow him on Twitter and read his blog.

A scoop that surprised the experts

The following memo to AP staff from Senior Managing Editor Mike Oreskes describes how an environmental exclusive came together through the reporting of a European correspondent, joined by AP colleagues in Asia:

A scoop tells readers something they didn’t know. AP’s Karl Ritter went further and broke news so exclusive that even experts in the field were surprised. His story, this week’s Beat of the Week, disclosed how $1 billion in climate-change financing under a U.N.-led program was being used to build coal-fired power plants in Indonesia.

In this Oct. 18 , 2014 photo, fishing boat passes near a fired coal power plant on the river in Cirebon. The coal-fired power plant in Cirebon came online two years ago despite years of protests from environmentalists and villagers who say the plant is polluting coastal waters, killing off fish and crabs.  (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

In this Oct. 18 , 2014 photo, fishing boat passes near a fired coal power plant on the river in Cirebon. The coal-fired power plant in Cirebon came online two years ago despite years of protests from environmentalists and villagers who say the plant is polluting coastal waters, killing off fish and crabs. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

The story broke as key players in the climate change community were gathering for a summit in Peru, and they reacted with surprise and concern. Coal, after all, is a major source of carbon pollution.

Even U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres acknowledged she was unaware that Japan was building coal plants with climate money, until she saw AP’s story. “There is no argument for that,” she told Ritter. “Unabated coal has no room in the future energy system.”

Ritter, the AP’s bureau chief in Stockholm, started with a simple goal. “I wanted to investigate where climate finance money was going because there didn’t seem to be any accountability in the UN system,” he says.

He began by turning to a non-governmental organization that tries to keep track of the scores of channels of climate finance, which is money flowing from rich to poor countries as a way to tackle global warming. Searching the group’s database, he found that Japan had provided funding for the biggest projects so far.

Turning next to the U.N. climate secretariat, he located an annex listing Japanese climate finance projects reported to the UN in 2010-2012. That’s where he spotted the “thermal” power plants in Indonesia.

When he realized they were coal-fired power plants, he thought there must be some mistake. He went back to the NGO and asked if they had any idea how coal plants could get on the list. They, too, thought there must be a mistake: “That can’t be right,” the NGO representative said.

“That’s when I realized we had a story,” Ritter says. “If even NGOs dedicated to tracking climate finance didn’t know about these plants, how would anyone else?”

He started researching the plants in question and found reports from Indonesia saying villagers near the Cirebon plant had protested, in vain, plans to build it.

Margie Mason in Jakarta then led a cross-format team that went to Cirebon in September. Villagers told her that since the plant was built in 2012 their catches of crab, mussels and shrimp had dwindled. Plant officials denied any environmental problems, though they acknowledged there may have been some inconvenience to local fishermen.

Next, Ritter needed Japan’s response. How did officials there justify counting Cirebon and two other plants in Indonesia as climate finance at a time when other developed countries were restricting public money for such projects, precisely because of their high emissions?

Yuri Kageyama and Ken Moritsugu pressed reluctant Japanese officials for comment. In the week before the climate conference in Lima, Moritsugu secured interviews with Japanese officials who not only defended the plants but said Japan will keep counting such projects as climate finance in the UN climate negotiations.

The story played prominently on abcnews.com, MSN News and Huffington Post, among others. Newsweek did its own piece on AP’s scoop.

The scoop rippled through the U.N. climate talks. Environmental groups at the talks demanded that  the Green Climate Fund exclude coal. Climate activists staged a protest against Japan’s coal funding at the conference venue. And the U.N. climate secretariat called a news conference to showcase its efforts to improve the rules governing climate finance.

“We need to define what is climate finance and what is not,”  said Seyni Nafo on the U.N. climate agency’s Standing Committee on Finance.

For a scoop that informed us all and really got the attention of the experts, Ritter wins Beat of the Week and this week’s $500 prize.

Editorials criticize FBI’s impersonation

The FBI’s recent admission that it fabricated an Associated Press story and impersonated an AP reporter during an investigation of bomb threats in the Seattle area continues to generate criticism of the agency’s actions.

USAT1“Catching potential bombers obviously is a good thing, but there are ways to do it without making news operations look like government shills,” USA Today said in an editorial today. “When journalists contact potential sources — whether by phone, e-mail or in person — they need people to trust that they are in fact reporters, not undercover cops.”

WashingtonPost“What was wrong about the Seattle operation was the potential damage to the credibility of the Associated Press by the creation of a false news account by the government and by the impersonation of a reporter,” a Washington Post editorial argued. “The technique threatens to undermine all reporters — not just those from the AP — who seek information from sources and represent themselves truthfully as independent journalists.”

Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer wrote: “Whenever police officers masquerade as journalists, they introduce doubt into the public’s mind about whether the next person purporting to be a journalist is actually a police officer or the stories in the news are really bait set by police.”

In Pennsylvania, The Scranton Times-Tribune Editorial Board said this: “Democracy works only with an independent press that is not controlled by the government. The nation’s Founding Fathers knew that. That’s why, right there in the First Amendment, it says that Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, of the press.

“It doesn’t include a specific prohibition against government agencies impersonating reporters. Perhaps the founders believed that their successors would have the good sense not to jeopardize the independence of the press.

“Recently, however, the FBI has decided to impersonate the press, thus diminishing the press’ separation from the government.”

In an opposing view published by USA Today, former FBI Assistant Director Ronald T. Hosko, now president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, said the FBI “takes seriously its use of sensitive operations,” adding that in the Seattle investigation “no law was broken, no policy was avoided, nothing was traded away with an ‘ends justify the means’ calculus.”

Meanwhile, AP is awaiting a reply to President and CEO Gary Pruitt’s Nov. 10 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey in which he asked who authorized the investigative tactics in 2007 and sought “assurances that this won’t happen again.”

Editorials also have appeared in The New York Times, The Denver Post, The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, The Spokesman-Review (in Spokane, Washington), The Repository (in Canton, Ohio) and other newspapers.

Election Day effort continues into Wednesday

Though all the votes have been cast in the U.S. midterm elections, the importance of uncounted ballots looms large in some tight contests as AP journalists and race callers continued today to analyze Election Day results. Highlighting the remaining tasks, AP issued an advisory to its customers in the wee hours of this morning:

Hours later, only the Colorado and Connecticut gubernatorial races had additionally been called.

In all, AP tabulated results for more than 4,500 races last night, and our definitive race calls were cited by our members and customers around the world, from newspapers to major portals to national broadcasters. AP’s vote count also drove conversations on Twitter and Facebook.

U.S. Political Editor David Scott analyzes election results at AP's Washington bureau on Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Eric Carvin).

U.S. Political Editor David Scott analyzes election results at AP’s Washington bureau on Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Eric Carvin).

“I’m always awed to see the AP’s race-calling operation in action and last night was no exception,” said Sally Buzbee, AP’s Washington bureau chief. “The team spends election night watching the vote come in, discussing what the numbers mean and what’s yet to be determined. Our members and customers rely on us on election night to get it first, but first get it right, and we’re thrilled to have delivered for them.”

This mini-documentary produced in AP’s Washington bureau using 15-second Instagram videos gives a peek at how the night unfolded in the newsroom.

Election workers at AP headquarters in New York receive vote tallies from stringers across the U.S. (AP Photo/Emily Leshner)

Election workers at AP headquarters in New York receive vote tallies from stringers across the U.S. (AP Photo/Emily Leshner)

Q&A: How AP counts the vote

As votes in the U.S. midterm elections roll in across the country on Nov. 4, it’s The Associated Press that will be counting the results through the evening. The news industry and the public turn to AP, a not-for-profit cooperative, to provide fast and reliable results on national, state and local races and key ballot measures.

Here, Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee, explains why AP plays such a critical role for both the public and the press.

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

How does AP count the vote?
On election night, AP assigns stringers in nearly every county in the U.S., and in towns and cities in New England, to gather vote tallies from county clerks and other officials. They phone in the results to AP vote tabulation centers, where an AP election worker enters the results. Web teams check for election results on county and state sites, and the AP also processes direct feeds of election results in some states from secretaries of state, and from some counties. The returns are filtered through myriad checks and verifications before being transmitted to AP members and customers, and ultimately the public. The results are updated throughout the evening.

AP’s vote count operation, headed by Director of Election Tabulations and Research Don Rehill, is considered by many news organizations to be the definitive source of race results. In fact, formal government announcements of results often don’t come for weeks after an election.

AP election workers count the vote on election night, Nov. 4, 2012 (AP Photo).

AP election workers count the vote on election night, Nov. 4, 2012 (AP Photo).

Who makes the call?
Experienced journalists in each state are responsible for calling races. They’ve got on-the-ground knowledge that no other national news organization can match, as well as detailed data on voting history and demographics. The race callers in each state are assisted by experts in AP’s Washington bureau who examine exit poll numbers and votes as they are counted. A “decision desk” in Washington, overseen by myself and Political Editor David Scott, and headed by David Pace, AP news editor for special projects and elections, has final signoff on all high-profile calls.

When do you make the call?
In states with exit polls, we call top-of-the ticket races at poll close only if we’re confident the leader’s margin is sufficient to overcome any potential error in the exit poll, which is conducted by Edison Research for AP and the broadcast members that make up the National Election Pool (NEP).

In races that we can’t call at poll close, we make the call when we’re convinced that the trailing candidate can’t catch the leader, given the size of the outstanding vote and the voting history of those counties. We never make a call if the margin between the top two candidates is less than the threshold when a state would require a recount.

This is a key detail: AP does not call any race until all the polls in that jurisdiction have closed.

Does speed trump accuracy in the social media age?
Speed has always been important in elections, but AP values accuracy above all else. We’re proud of our long history and well-earned reputation of being the gold standard for election calls. For example, in 2012, AP called 4,653 contested races with a remarkable accuracy rate of 99.9 percent.

Calling races, from the national level to state legislatures, is a vital function AP provides to members and customers. Being able to accurately and quickly call those statewide and state-level races is critical to their ability to provide strong election night coverage for their audiences around the world.

Where can I find AP’s election coverage?
Member newspapers, websites, national and local broadcasters and major portals all carry AP election results, as well as text stories, photos, videos and interactives. The AP Mobile news app features election coverage from AP as well as member newspapers. Our reporting and statistics also drive conversations on social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Does AP tweet results?
The AP and our individual journalists share information that’s already been reported on the wire on Twitter and Facebook, but we don’t break news there. We’re going to share our calls in all races for U.S. Senate and governor from @AP and @AP_Politics on Twitter, but in a way that ensures the calls reach our members and customers first.