Uninspected wells: Finding local dangers in a sea of federal data

A team of Associated Press journalists across the states worked together to break an exclusive national story and help member news organizations leverage data to produce unique, local reports tied to AP’s findings. In this memo to staff, AP Vice President and Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains:

In this June 9, 2014 photo, a petroleum industry worker stands on an oil and gas rig on a well pad, in New Castle, a small farming and ranching settlement on the Western Slope of the Rockies, in Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In this June 9, 2014 photo, a petroleum industry worker stands on an oil and gas rig on a well pad, in New Castle, a small farming and ranching settlement on the Western Slope of the Rockies, in Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

The report from the Government Accountability Office was intriguing: The government had failed to inspect thousands of oil and gas wells on federal and Indian lands classified as potentially high risk for water contamination and other environmental damage.

But the details were missing. Where were these wells? And did the lack of inspections contribute to any environmental damage?

The Bureau of Land Management was reluctant to provide details, but Washington-based reporter Hope Yen, who broke the story on the GAO report, pressed the agency over the course of several weeks, citing the public’s right to know.

The GAO’s findings came as the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been increasing around the country. While fracking has produced major economic benefits, it also has raised fears among environmentalists that chemicals used in the process could spread to water supplies.

When BLM finally released the data to AP, it was in the form of nearly a dozen spreadsheets. Phoenix-based Interactive Editor Dan Kempton, a member of the data journalism team, consolidated them into two master files, allowing calculations to determine which wells on federal and tribal lands were considered higher risk for water contamination and other environmental problems, and whether or not they were inspected by BLM within the given time period, 2009-2012.

Kempton identified, and BLM later confirmed, that its data had duplicate entries and other inconsistencies. Kempton consolidated the duplicates and merged the missing entries to create the most complete and accurate list available of well inspection data. The consolidated spreadsheets were then distributed in advance to AP bureaus and members in states with drilling operations on public and Indian lands, so they could start working on localized stories to accompany Yen’s national overview.

But the data alone was dry. Absent was the human impact. What was the reaction of people living near these uninspected wells?  With Colorado among the top states with uninspected wells, Denver reporter Thomas Peipert and photographer Brennan Linsely literally knocked on door after door to gather reaction and get photos to illustrate the story.

The story was used on the front pages of more than a dozen newspapers from Denver to Akron, Ohio, to Williamsport, Pa., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. It was featured as a Yahoo showcase, and in the 24-hour period following its release, it was tweeted out nearly 600 times. It was also one on the most widely viewed stories on AP Mobile. About a dozen AP bureaus produced state separates, and many members did their own stories using data provided by AP (The Salt Lake Tribune, Times Leader).

It was yet another example of how data journalism offers AP an opportunity to work with its members to provide the tools for local, granular coverage of national issues.

For their enterprising and exclusive journalism, and for furthering AP’s efforts to help members localize our coverage, Yen, Kempton, Peipert and Linsely win this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Dogged source work yields scoops on bridge mess

In a note to staff, AP Vice President and Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how a reporter worked longtime sources to keep AP ahead on a significant state story:

When Delaware officials ordered the immediate shutdown of a bridge on Interstate 495 because its tilting columns presented a potential threat to drivers, correspondent Randall Chase and Mid-Atlantic News Editor Amanda Kell knew they had a major story on their hands. The route, which parallels busy I-95 between Philadelphia and Baltimore, was closed because columns supporting a bridge had tilted dramatically and an estimated 90,000 drivers a day were being diverted onto the busier highway.

AP correspondent Randall Chase walks on the damaged bridge in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

AP correspondent Randall Chase walks on the damaged bridge in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Chase and Kell, working in close concert with staff on the South Regional Desk, produced a week of insightful coverage that pushed authorities to justify their response to the crisis, pressed them to re-examine how the state inspects its infrastructure and beat the competition at the same time. The key to AP’s aggressive coverage across text, photo and video formats and its drumbeat of scoops was the stable of sources that Chase has accrued during his 13 years of coverage for AP in Delaware.

By often working late into each night and by arranging interviews with officials in advance of scheduled news conferences, Chase ensured AP was first to name the contractor responsible for dumping a massive pile of dirt under the bridge, which officials were blaming for the tilting columns. After days of pressing officials for their plans, Chase also broke the news that all bridges in Delaware would be inspected by the state and that Delaware will add examinations of the ground under bridges to its future inspections. His extensive interview with the engineer who discovered the tilting columns also led to a story that questioned the urgency of the state’s response and of its own official timeline, which until that point said the transportation department had been warned of the issue on a Friday, when in fact it had been warned a day earlier.  AP also was first with an acknowledgment from the state transportation agency chief that his department could have moved more quickly to examine the bridge after the engineer contacted officials.

Chase’s work landed in outlets including MSN and The Philadelphia Inquirer and AP was credited by The Washington Post, NPR and Tribune Co.

For aggressive coverage and working sources on a major story in his state, Randall Chase wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

D-Day account surfaces, ripped from the AP wire

Behold the first official AP account of the D-Day landings, reported by our chief invasion correspondent, Wes Gallagher. Though the words he filed on that fateful day 70 years ago are part of the first draft of history, a paper copy, likely ripped off a click-clacking printer at AP’s New York headquarters (as well as in newsrooms around the world), surfaced this week in the voluminous AP Corporate Archives during a D-Day-related search.

Seen here, Gallagher’s story, complete with typo, begins: “American, British and Canadian forces landed by daylight in massive strength on the Normandy coast of France today and sped inland from quickly-established beachheads. Gen. Dewight D. Eisenhower told his troops this grand assault was a crusade which must bring “nothing less than full victory.'”

The original story of the landings at Normandy, written by AP’s chief invasion correspondent, Wes Gallagher.

The original story of the landings at Normandy, written by AP’s chief invasion correspondent, Wes Gallagher. See more of the story at the bottom of this post.

Gallagher was stationed at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) in Portsmouth, England. His job was to take official military information and turn it into poetry, which he does here, as indicated by the red-penciling atop the page by Paul R. Mickelson, AP general news editor in New York. “Straight, factual, fast and superb,” he calls it.

At the end of Gallagher’s dispatch, which was his “second lead” of the unfolding story, is the signoff “DA1005AEW.” This coding includes the initials of the sending operator and the time: 10:05 a.m. Eastern War Time. That would have been 3:05 p.m. in England.

Gallagher (1911-97)  later became AP’s ninth general manager.

In all, 18 AP staffers “were assigned to various phases of the Expeditionary force news,” AP World, the company publication, later reported. “They were backed by ten desk men who pitched into the main and running story, reinforced by an elite team of photographers and artists … Copy flowed out. There were 40,000 words in the first 24 hours, all written by staffers on the scene.”

Also on June 6, 1944, daring cameramen were filming the Allies’ assault by sea and air, including the combat on the beaches. British Movietone News, whose current sales are handled by AP Archive, produced this vivid 10-minute reel of D-Day preparations and the onslaught that changed history.

 

The original story of the landings at Normandy, written by AP’s chief invasion correspondent, Wes Gallagher.

The original story of the landings at Normandy, written by AP’s chief invasion correspondent, Wes Gallagher.

Taking measure of limited media access

In a note to staff, AP Vice President and Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano lauds New York City Hall reporter Jonathan Lemire for strengthening AP’s fight for access to public information:

AP New York City Hall reporter Jonathan Lemire discusses limited media access to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on WNBC's "The Debrief with David Ushery."

AP New York City Hall reporter Jonathan Lemire discusses limited media access to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on WNBC’s “The Debrief with David Ushery.”

On the campaign trail, Bill de Blasio promised to have the most transparent mayoral administration in New York City history. The cracks in that promise literally began forming on the day he took office, when his staff announced that the official midnight swearing-in would be “closed press.”

After hours of protests led by the AP, that restriction was eventually lifted. But the episode tipped [Lemire] that de Blasio may not be as media-friendly as he’d claimed. So Lemire began watching.

For months, he collected de Blasio’s official schedule, taking note each time his official events and meetings were either closed to the press or designated as pool only, with just one print reporter, photographer and video journalist allowed.

As the months wore on, Lemire noticed the frequency of de Blasio’s media restrictions was actually increasing. Several news organizations in New York also noticed and wrote op-eds. The time seemed ripe, at nearly five months into the new administration, for Lemire to tally up the de Blasio schedules he’d collected.

Here’s what he found: 260 total events, 53 of which were completely closed, amounting to 20 percent of de Blasio’s entire schedule. Add in the 30 more events that were pool only, and more than 30 percent of the mayor’s events were either closed or restricted to the media.

A mayor’s spokesman told Lemire that any restrictions on media access were due to logistics, not secrecy. But Lemire didn’t think it would be fair to run the story without de Blasio’s comment. When Lemire told him what the AP had found, de Blasio initially said transparency is often “in the eye of the beholder.” But he eventually acknowledged that “there is a whole swatch of information that needs to be available to the public and we need to continue to do a better job on that.”

His story was widely used in New York, with TV attributing to AP in their own reports, and several local reporters hammering de Blasio on the subject for days. [Time Warner Cable News] NY1’s Bob Hardt opined: “The mayor might want to realize that openness isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics.” And the [New York Post] said “if progressives are really acting — as they claim — on behalf of the people, why are they so keen on keeping a free press from seeing what they’re up to?” Capital New York interviewed Lemire on how he got the story. [Lemire also discussed his reporting on WNBC’s “The Debrief with David Ushery.”]

There was even some evidence that de Blasio was softening his stand two days after the story ran, adding “photo spray” access to a closed event, which had not been normal procedure before.

De Blasio’s tactics echo those of the Obama White House, which has routinely restricted access to the media and then released a photo from an “official photographer,” meaning an official image of the event is the only one that exists. AP and other news organizations have labeled these “visual news releases” and refused to distribute such handouts from the White House, and we are taking the same approach with City Hall.

Lemire’s disciplined beat reporting produced a nice accountability scoop and furthered AP’s leading role in fighting for media access in all the territories where we operate. For that, he wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Injured AP correspondent analyzes swap for U.S. Sgt. Bergdahl

A revealing AP analysis about the history of talks leading to the release of U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, by correspondent Kathy Gannon, was published today. Gannon, who was shot and wounded on April 4 while covering the Afghan elections, is now recovering from her injuries.

Gannon, who has covered war and unrest in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than two decades, has reported extensively in recent years about intermittent U.S.-Taliban contacts and efforts to win Bergdahl’s freedom.

“Kathy Gannon was one of the first reporters to find out about the early U.S. contacts with the Taliban,” said AP Senior Managing Editor for International News John Daniszewski. “We are very happy to bring her expertise, knowledge and analysis again to the AP’s global audience.”

In August 2011, AP named three of the Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay now swapped for Bergdahl, who was said at that time to have “featured prominently in the talks” between the U.S. and a personal emissary of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The final list of fighters whose release was being sought by the Taliban appeared last June, as part of an AP Exclusive on the details of the proposed swap (“Taliban offer to free U.S. soldier”). They are the same five flown from Guantanamo to Qatar, a tiny Gulf Arab country that served as a mediator between the two sides.

Among the other stories by Gannon on the Taliban-Bergdahl discussions was one describing a breakdown in contact early this year.

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.