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.

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)

Recalling Vietnam’s ‘Real War’

Longtime Associated Press correspondent Peter Arnett remembered that journalists were “rarely unwelcomed” by the American soldiers fighting the Vietnam War. After all, AP stories were being clipped from hometown newspapers and mailed by family members to the men in the field.

AP journalist Kimberly Dozier, left, leads a discussion of Vietnam War photography and news coverage at New York's 92nd Street Y, with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett, center, and author Pete Hamill, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. Hamill wrote the foreword for AP's photo book "Vietnam: The Real War." (AP Photo)

AP journalist Kimberly Dozier, left, leads a discussion of Vietnam War photography at New York’s 92d Street Y, with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett, center, and author Pete Hamill, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. (AP Photo)

Panelists sign copies of the AP book "Vietnam: The Real War" after a forum at New York's 92nd Street Y on photography and media coverage of the war, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. From left are Pete Hamill, author of the book's foreword; AP national security journalist Kimberly Dozier and former AP Saigon journalist Peter Arnett, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam coverage. (AP Photo)

Panelists sign copies of the AP book “Vietnam: The Real War” after a forum at New York’s 92d Street Y on photography and media coverage of the war, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. From left are Pete Hamill, author of the book’s foreword; AP journalist Kimberly Dozier and former AP journalist Peter Arnett, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam coverage. (AP Photo)

As Arnett put it, “We made sure they would never be forgotten.”

Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his war reporting, was onstage Thursday evening at New York’s 92d Street Y in a discussion of the stories and images gathered in “Vietnam: The Real War,” the AP photographic history published in October by Abrams Books.

Arnett was joined by veteran journalist and author Pete Hamill, who reported from Vietnam as a columnist for the New York Post and wrote the book’s evocative introduction, and AP intelligence writer Kimberly Dozier, who served as moderator and drew on her own experiences working in combat zones.

“The photos became the verifying part of … what was in the story,” Hamill said. So much so, according to Arnett, that he once went to an antiwar rally in Central Park with AP colleague Horst Faas and they saw that some of Faas’ stark images from Vietnam had been enlarged for display by the protesters.

Dozier mentioned the challenges she’s had with the Pentagon’s practice of embedding reporters with combat troops, whereas in Vietnam a journalist could simply hop on a military helicopter to the front.

A video of Thursday’s program will be available on the 92d Street Y’s website sometime in the next few weeks.

Behind the Sochi scene with AP

As the excitement of the Winter Games unfolds, AP journalists are providing breaking news and images and crucial context for customers around the world.

“The AP team has been tireless,” AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara said from Sochi. “They aren’t just covering the games — they are telling stories that no one else has, with a global perspective and in video, text, audio and stunning photos. Credit goes to the AP journalists and the technology team.”

From laying cable on snowy mountains and testing remote cameras to securing exclusive interviews and capturing iconic moments, here are a few highlights of AP reporters, editors, visual journalists and technicians at work behind the Sochi scene:

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  • With the threat of terrorism looming over the games, authorities said they would clamp down on travelers being able to bring liquids into Russia. Karl Ritter, Stockholm bureau chief working at the Olympics, kept AP ahead of the competition with a story about how easy it was to bring banned carry-on items into Sochi.
  • Despite complaints of stray dogs and unfinished hotels, AP’s Jim Heintz, a Westerner who’s lived in Russia for 15 years, concluded that the games reveal “some promising signs for the country.”
  • When a glitch caused one of the Olympic rings not to open during the opening ceremony Moscow business reporter Nataliya Vasilyeva quickly confirmed that Russian TV viewers saw a rehearsal reel that showed all of the rings working – not the glitch witnessed by the stadium crowd.
  • And David Goldman, an AP photographer based in Atlanta, was a pool photographer in the VIP room with Russian President Vladimir Putin when it happened. What did Putin see? It turns out, he didn’t see the problem either, as AP was first to determine from Goldman’s images.

Follow AP staff at the Olympics in Sochi on this Twitter list and learn more about AP’s coverage in this video with Global Sports Editor Michael Giarrusso.

Paddling in sludge to get the story

In an era of smartphones and social media, an AP team opted for a more rudimentary tool to get the story: a canoe. The following note to staff from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes describes how AP journalists paddled into the middle of a river to get a firsthand look at a coal-ash spill in North Carolina, determine the scope of the mishap and keep AP ahead of the competition:

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden N.C. on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

What’s the most important word in journalism? How about “go.” Sometimes, you just have to go there. Even when there is out in the middle of a dirty river best reached by canoe.

That’s just what Michael Biesecker, Raleigh newsman, and Gerry Broome, Raleigh photographer, did when they sensed that the impact of a big coal-ash spill at a Duke Energy power plant in Eden, N.C., could be much worse than anyone was letting on. Turned out they were right. They could see that plainly when they paddled out into the middle of the ash-choked Dan River.

Biesecker had hit upon the idea of using the canoe – his canoe, by the way – as he and Carolinas News Editor Tim Rogers talked over the best ways to examine exactly what the spill had done to the river. Biesecker loaded it onto his car, and they were off. While he and Broome were putting it in the river, a man affiliated with the Waterkeeper Alliance, the environmental group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., offered to go with them in his own canoe. They agreed and he showed them to some places along the river.

Back at the spill site, Duke Energy officials and state regulators were trying to downplay the effects even as the river turned a deathly looking grey. Biesecker and  Broome started to find the elements of a very different story when they hit the river, the only journalists to do so at that point.

From the canoe, Biesecker was able to report that downstream of the spill, gray sludge was several inches deep. That became evident when a paddle was pushed down into the muck. In addition, the AP team saw that the riverbank was coated for more than two miles. And when the Dan crested overnight, a distinctive gray line stood in contrast to the brown bank, “like a dirty ring on a bathtub.”

Their reporting put the AP ahead on the extent and immediate effects of the spill even as hundreds of Duke workers scrambled to plug a hole in a pipe at the bottom of the 27-acre pond where the toxic ash had been stored. Up to 82,000 tons of ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water had spilled into the river.

More would be revealed in test results and court filings over the next four days, as Biesecker and Mitch Weiss, Charlotte correspondent, kept the AP reporting well ahead. Biesecker followed with a comprehensive story on a dispute over arsenic levels in the river downstream from the spill. He and Weiss then provided with a look at how the state was acting to try and shield Duke from federal lawsuits over the coal ash sites the company long had insisted were safely engineered and maintained.

The eyewitness on-the-river story and Broome’s photos played well across the state and around the country, caught the attention of national environmental groups. The ensuing AP reporting on the spill was placed prominently even on the site of the Charlotte Observer, which has assigned a reporter to cover just the spill.

The AP scoops also spurred Duke to share their testing results with us. In addition, after not addressing the spill for much of a week, Gov. Pat McCrory went to the spill site the day after we asked him why he had not been there yet.

This week, federal authorities launched a criminal investigation into the spill, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh issuing subpoenas seeking records from both Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources related to the Dan River incident and the state’s oversight of the company’s 30 other coal ash dumps in North Carolina.

For paddling further than the competition to get their story, Biesecker, Broome and Weiss share this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

A Q&A with AP’s health law expert

Viewers of C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” today got the chance to interact with Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, The Associated Press’ expert on the rollout of the nation’s new health insurance system. During the 45-minute segment, he took questions from callers and discussed trends in national health care spending and health law costs.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Among the key points he underscored:

  • Health care costs are rising, but not as fast as they used to. “It’s rising more or less in line with the overall growth of the economy, which is, if you think of it, a lot of money that the U.S. still spends for health care, but it becomes more affordable when that bill is rising more or less in line with the growth of the economy rather than galloping ahead,” he said.
  • The new law may leave some Americans who have a serious chronic illness “underinsured” because their annual out-of-pocket costs could still be high.
  • The law has varying effects across the states. For example, 25 states and the District of Columbia have decided to expand Medicaid, but the other 25 have not, which can impact health insurance affordability for low-income patients.

AP, which has reporters in all 50 states — a footprint unmatched by any other news organization — is providing comprehensive coverage and support for member news organizations in localizing stories as the law is being implemented across the states.

AP “flashes” – what they’re all about

Mandela Flash

The “flash” we sent last week on Nelson Mandela’s death brought a new flurry of attention to AP flashes. What are they and how often do we send them?

A flash is our first word of a breaking story of transcendent importance, a story we expect to be one of the very top stories of the year. We average one or two flashes a year. They’re never more than one sentence, and frequently very condensed: “Bells ringing signaling election of a pope.”

In the old days when AP subscribers received news over teletype machines, a flash rang a series of bells on the machine, sending editors rushing to see what was happening. Usually there were 10 to 15 bells for a flash, but AP teletype operators had to type a “bell” symbol to trigger each ring, and in the excitement of a big story the number could vary.

Kennedy Flash

Today, AP editors still put a “flash” designation on stories (by clicking a “flash priority” button on our editing screens). That marks the item electronically as being a flash and may insert the word “FLASH” into the story as well. But subscribers set their computer systems to react to that code in different ways. Some systems sound an audible alarm or pop up the flash in the middle of the editor’s screen. Other systems may simply move the flash into the queue of other urgent stories. (AP identifies less transcendent, but still urgent, breaking news as “APNewsAlerts” without the flash designation.

Sometimes we know in advance that a story will merit a flash. This was the plan for Nelson Mandela’s death. But big news can happen without warning. When the United States killed Osama bin Laden and Pope Benedict XVI decided to resign, editors decided on the spot that a flash was warranted.

Here are some of our other flashes from the past 10 years:

_ Nov. 6, 2012 – Barack Obama re-elected president

_ Dec. 18, 2011 – North Korea says supreme leader Kim Jong Il has died

_ Feb. 11, 2011 – Egyptian VP says President Hosni Mubarak steps down

_ Aug. 16, 2008 – Michael Phelps wins record eighth gold medal at Beijing Olympics

_ Feb. 19, 2008 – Official media says Fidel Castro resigns presidency

_ Dec. 27, 2007 – A party aide and a military official say Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has died following a suicide bombing

_ Oct. 14, 2003 – China launches manned spacecraft

_ Sept. 11, 2001 – Second World Trade Center tower collapses

_ Sept. 11, 2001 – One World Trade Center tower collapses

Executive editor on why AP sought Newtown 911 tapes

The Associated Press sought the 911 calls made during the Dec. 14, 2012, shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed 20 children and six educators. On Wednesday, the calls were posted on the town’s website after AP prevailed in a monthslong legal effort to obtain them.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained why the AP wanted to review the tapes as follows:

“We all understand why some people have strong feelings about the release of these tapes. This was a horrible crime. It’s important to remember, though, that 911 tapes, like other police documents, are public records. Reviewing them is a part of normal newsgathering in a responsible news organization.”

“Everyone knows what happened on that awful day. What we still don’t understand is why it happened. Perhaps we never will. But it’s our job to ask questions and gather facts for stories that seek to understand why.”

Carroll also discussed why AP pursued a legal challenge on the BBC World Service.

Read the AP news story.

‘Electronic shoe leather’: How AP found, verified images of train crash

The following note to staff from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes explains how AP sought and verified compelling visuals in the immediate aftermath of Sunday morning’s deadly train crash in New York:

The technology may be new but the goal is eternal: Get verifiable visuals and eyewitness accounts as quickly as possible when news breaks.

The AP accomplished just that after a Metro-North commuter train careened off the rails – thanks to fast and smart work by Caleb Jones of the Nerve Center, who harnessed social media to help AP tell the story of the deadly accident with photos, video, sound and text. Call it electronic shoe leather. Caleb tracked down sources and verified that they were who they said they were and had seen what they said they saw. He did it all with accuracy and speed.

Caleb Jones

Caleb Jones

First word of the Bronx derailment came shortly after the 7:20 a.m. incident, when Photos’ David Boe alerted the Nerve Center to a call from a former AP staffer who had heard scanner traffic. Jones first alerted the East Desk, then launched a search of social media.

He found that two nearby residents had posted pictures, and sent out Twitter messages to both: “Hello. Are you on the scene? Are you available to speak with The Associated Press?”

The first to respond, Rebecca Schwartz, did not have usable photos; Jones passed her along to the East Desk, and she provided the first eyewitness account of the derailment’s aftermath.

“You could see multiple train cars off of the rails, including one train car – I couldn’t tell from where I was whether it was right into the water or just out of the water,” she said.

Edwin Valero had posted a better photo, but the accident scene, as shot from his apartment window, was still largely obscured by trees. Jones asked him if he had more, and he did – from a better location on a nearby bridge.

Cars from a Metro-North passenger train are scattered after the train derailed in the Bronx neighborhood of New York, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Edwin Valero)

Cars from a Metro-North passenger train are scattered after the train derailed in the Bronx neighborhood of New York, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Edwin Valero)

The train, all of its eight cars knocked from the tracks, had stopped just short of the water. (Original eyewitness reports said cars appeared to be in the water, and that was corrected based in part on Valero’s photos). Strewn about like playthings, some of the cars were thrown on to their sides, trapping passengers until rescuers could pull them free.

Still, Jones wanted more. He asked Valero if he could safely return to his perch to shoot video, and he did. Valero’s subsequent interview with AP Radio also provided quotes for text and TV, and the video scenes he shot with his iPhone were used in the AP package.

Valero’s signature’s shot of the wreckage in the shape of a giant question mark led the AP coverage and was the most widely used image across online media from morning into the night, displayed prominently by The New York Times, the New York Post, The Boston Globe and The Guardian and other outlets even after news organizations had their own shooters in the Bronx.

And it provided the AP with crucial information before its reporters could get to the scene.

Said East Regional Editor Karen Testa: Caleb’s work “was extraordinary in securing compelling images that not only told the story visually but helped ensure we were accurate in describing the wreckage before we had boots on the ground.”

For his intrepid and determined use of social media, which put the AP ahead on a breaking story of wide interest, Caleb Jones wins this week’s $500 prize.