Reporters measure impact of state’s gay marriage law

Seeking to measure the first month’s impact of the new gay marriage law in Minnesota, two resourceful AP reporters built their own database to find the answer. A staff memo from Managing Editor Kristin Gazlay explains how:

Gay Marriage Rush

In a Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013 photo, Rob Thomas, left, and Joe Strong join guests in a line dance following their wedding ceremony at the Nicollet County Courthouse in St. Peter, Minn. Their marriage was the first same-sex ceremony to be conducted in Nicollet County, located in south-central Minnesota. (AP Photo/The Mankato Free Press, John Cross)

Activists on both sides of the gay marriage issue in Minnesota spent millions of dollars battling over whether same-sex couples should have the right to marry. In the end, Minnesota legalized gay marriage, becoming the 12th U.S. state to do.

Once it happened, St. Paul newsmen Brian Bakst and Patrick Condon decided to measure the enthusiasm that created the law in the first place. No database existed, so they had to create one: The two managed to obtain records from 83 of the state’s 87 counties to report that fully one-third of the licenses issued in the first month since the law passed were going to gay couples. “This is the product of people who were living in the legal wilderness for so long, suddenly no longer being told their relationships are substandard,” a state senator who was a sponsor of the bill told the pair.

The story was a huge hit in Minnesota, landing on at least three front pages and featured prominently on Minnesota Public Radio’s home page. Bakst also did a segment on MPR’s midmorning public affairs show.

For aggressively seeking data to tell an exclusive and important story of their state, Bakst and Condon share this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

AP is your all access pass to New York Fashion Week

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Iman is interviewed at New York Fashion Week, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Nicole Evatt)

From the catwalk to the sidewalk, AP is your all access pass to New York Fashion Week, which runs through Sept. 12, and will be followed by events in London, Milan and Paris. Here’s a look at our multiformat coverage led by AP East Coast Entertainment & Lifestyles Editor Lisa Tolin and fashion writer Samantha Critchell:

-          AP will review and provide runway and celebrity photos from 60-plus shows.

-          Our journalists are producing 2 or more runway videos per day.

-          On Twitter, @AP_Fashion is providing color and the latest industry news.

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AP’s Jocelyn Noveck interviews model Heidi Klum at New York Fashion Week. (Photo by Nicole Evatt)

-          A new interactive feature highlights behind-the-scenes images shot via Instagram by AP journalists such as entertainment producer Nicole Evatt and photographer Richard Drew.

-          All of AP’s fashion week coverage is accessible via AP Mobile, the award-winning mobile app and photo collections are available via AP Images.

“AP is always looking for new and innovative ways to cover one of the industry’s most-watched and highly anticipated events,” Tolin said. “The @AP_Fashion Twitter account and the Instagram project complement our comprehensive coverage and allow us to bring fashion fans behind the scenes and into the front row. ”

Meeting with Putin: the AP interview

Vladimir Putin speaks to John Daniszewski, the AP's senior managing editor for international news, at the Russian president's residence outside Moscow.  (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Vladimir Putin speaks to John Daniszewski, the AP’s senior managing editor for international news, at the Russian president’s residence outside Moscow. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Vladimir Putin “was in a talkative mood,” said AP Senior Managing Editor for International News John Daniszewski, who interviewed the Russian president Tuesday evening at the leader’s country home outside Moscow. “The interview stretched longer than promised. He was congenial and ready to address tough questions, including follow-ups.”

Daniszewski added: “He seemed at pains to correct what he felt were misinterpretations of Russia’s positions, on Syria particularly, but also on the Snowden affair and his relationship with President Obama.”

Daniszewski further described the exchange in a conversation on the BBC World Service’s “Newsday” early Wednesday. He told the BBC that Putin said he was not defending Syria per se in the current crisis, but was defending international law, as nations weigh a response to reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war.

BBC audio playback starts at the 7:00 mark.

Coming on the eve of this week’s Group of 20 summit of nations, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin’s rare interview with an international news agency generated wide interest and pickup among AP’s member news organizations, broadcasters and other customers around the world.

AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said the interview “was the result of great persistence on the part of AP’s news team in Moscow.”

How a reporter discovered lobbyists get state pensions

A tip received in the New York Statehouse, shared with other AP statehouse reporters across the country, leads to the news that public pensions are available to hundreds of lobbyists in at least 20 states. A staff memo from Managing Editor Kristin Gazlay gives the backstory:

It was a tip that walked in the door. A former Albany journalist who stopped by AP’s New York Capitol bureau to say hello offered a jaw-dropping piece of information: He had just landed a job lobbying for the New York Conference of Mayors and was surprised to learn that the non-governmental job came with a special government perk — a full state pension.

So Capitol reporter Michael Gormley started to dig. At first, officials who oversee the New York state pension system told him they were unaware that lobbyists for eight private associations representing counties, cities and school boards were entitled to state pensions. So Gormley filed a request under New York’s Freedom of Information Law and found that the state indeed offers lobbyists that benefit, on the premise that they serve governments and the public.

Stephen Acquario

In this May 9, 2013 file photo, Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, attends a news conference in the Red Room at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. Acquario is among hundreds of lobbyists in at least 20 states who get public pensions because they represent associations of counties, cities and school boards, an Associated Press review found. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Gormley also was able to obtain the names of people falling into that category, along with some financial data. Among the people pinpointed were the executive director and general counsel of the New York State Association of Counties, who already makes $204,000 annually and gets a company car, and New York Conference of Mayors Executive Director Peter Baynes, who makes $196,000 a year and also gets a company vehicle. Both will retire with full state pensions.

But Gormley didn’t stop there. With the assistance of East Desk editor Amy Fiscus, he enlisted his statehouse colleagues across the country to determine that a similar pension benefit is offered to hundreds of such lobbyists in at least 20 states. Several states are questioning whether the practice is proper, and two states — New Jersey and Illinois — have legislation pending to end it.

For thinking beyond his state’s borders to produce a smart piece of accountability journalism that once again underscores the value of AP’s statehouse reporting, Gormley wins this week’s Best of the States $300 prize.

Spain train crash: How a journalist’s quick thinking led to vital info

It was Spain’s worst rail disaster in 70 years. An express train careened off the tracks in a jumble of flying steel, killing 79 people. In chaos that followed one key question emerged almost instantly: Was the train driver speeding? Initial but unsourced reports indicated he was. Video of the crash from a security camera seemed to show this. But as in the immediate aftermath of most disasters, precise, reliable information was very hard to come by.

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This combo image taken from security camera video shows clockwise from top left a train derailing in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, on Wednesday July 24, 2013. Spanish investigators tried to determine Thursday why a passenger train jumped the tracks and sent eight cars crashing into each other just before arriving in this northwestern shrine city on the eve of a major Christian religious festival, killing at least 77 people and injuring more than 140. (AP Photo)

Then, video graphics producer Panagiotis Mouzakis at the GraphicsBank in London had one of those brainstorm moments that remind us that journalism is about thinking –and sometimes counting, too. AP had obtained the security camera footage of the train rounding a bend, derailing and plowing into two pylons. Mouzakis realized that if he could figure out the distance between the pylons, he could calculate how fast the train was moving.

What followed was a true multiformat effort: First, Mouzakis advanced the video frame-by-frame, using the time stamp to figure out how long it took the train to travel between the first pylon and the second. Next, Madrid-based freelance cameraman Alfonso Bartolome Zafio, who was running the liveshot at the scene, estimated the distance between the two pylons. To back that up, Europe Desk editor Fisnik Abrashi used an AP photo picked up from a local newspaper to count how many cross ties there were on the tracks between the pylons, and editor Bob Barr, a railroad buff, researched the typical distance between ties on European railroads.

Each method gave AP a range of possible speeds: one was 89-119 mph; the other 96-112 mph. The speed limit was 50 mph, so AP was able to report far ahead of official announcements that the train was traveling about twice the speed limit. (Black box data released five days later showed they were exactly right: The preliminary investigation shows the driver braked from 119 mph to 95 mph in the moments before the crash.)

The resulting story was used around the world, including in The Washington Post, The Guardian, the Boston Globe and ABC News. The Daily Mail in Britain _ where news agency attribution is almost unheard of _ credited AP’s calculation, and both the BBC and Sky News cited the AP analysis in their nightly news programs.

CNN’s “Reliable Sources” highlighted the AP reporting. In his glowing account, host Frank Sesno called AP’s calculations the highlight of the week:  “In less than two hours, the AP went from video to story, providing vital information. For instincts, initiative and transparency in reporting, the AP proved itself a reliable source.”

For taking material everyone had access to, and finding a way to draw crucial conclusions from it at a speed that produced exclusive news, Mouzakis wins this week’s $500 prize.

– A memo to staff from Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Michael Oreskes

AP’s everyday work of seeking access to government information, with names attached

The rules by which journalists engage with government officials can sound arcane. “Background briefing.” “Off the record.” “Not for direct attribution.” But arguments over applying these rules are part of a struggle that really matters. Most democratic countries explicitly promise the right to speak and publish freely. But often only implied is the right to gather the information you want to speak about or publish, or to have someone gather it on the public’s behalf.

Which is why, at the AP, we see it as our everyday job to argue for access to the workings of government and the information government holds. Government officials increasingly offer to provide official information only on the condition that they are not identified as the source. These so-called background or off-the-record briefings are popular in government because officials can present information without taking responsibility for it. Without attribution it is hard for citizens to know whom in government to hold accountable. We believe anonymity should be reserved for sources who want to share important information with the public but could lose their job, or even their life, if they were identified. That clearly isn’t a risk for most government officials when they insist briefings be “on background.”

So AP journalists are instructed to ask that briefings be on the record. Sometimes they succeed. When government officials refuse, our journalists are instructed to use their best judgment about whether the information is important enough, and credible enough, to distribute despite the restrictions.

The struggle for access is not only about words. The White House often bars photojournalists from events with the president. The only images of those events are thus by government-employed photographers. You get to see only what the White House wants you to see. In those cases the AP generally declines to distribute the government handout photos, unless the restrictions were unavoidable.

The importance we place on being allowed to gather the news without interference was given a great deal of attention after it was revealed last month that the Justice Department had thrown an investigative drift net over the phone records of some of our reporters and editors to identify their sources. We protested, vehemently. As AP CEO Gary Pruitt said, this was an unprecedented intrusion and chilled our ability to gather news. The case was unusual, but our position flowed from the work we do each day to assure access to the workings of governments all around the world.

AP Pulitzer winners reflect on challenges, risks of covering Syria

The Associated Press journalists who won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography come from vastly different backgrounds, but are united in their mission to document the civil war in Syria openly, fairly and accurately.

PulitzerPanel

From left, Santiago Lyon, Rodrigo Abd, Muhammed Muheisen, Khalil Hamra, Narciso Contreras, Manu Brabo and Manoocher Deghati.

The team of Rodrigo Abd, Manu Brabo, Narciso Contreras, Khalil Hamra and Muhammed Muheisen spoke candidly about their experiences, living conditions and the backstory of some of their powerful images at a panel discussion for staff at AP headquarters in New York ahead of the Pulitzer ceremony on May 30. They were joined by Middle East Regional Photo Editor Manoocher Deghati and AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon.

Abd, who is based in Lima, Peru, but is of Syrian descent, said “going back to his roots” to cover this story was sad, but important. “We don’t do this for awards. We believe in journalism and the impact we can have with pictures,” he said.

Speaking about the importance of getting their images out to the world, Muheisen said: “If this picture doesn’t go out, it didn’t happen.”

 See a slideshow of winning images.

AP photographer: For a moment, hope in devastation

AP Photographer Sue Ogrocki has worked in Oklahoma for more than 10 years where she has covered about a dozen tornadoes. She was at the elementary school destroyed by a tornado and saw rescuers pulling children out of the rubble, capturing the key images of the tragedy. This is her account of what she witnessed.

Watch AP news video.

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Follow the latest news from Oklahoma.

Deported while unconscious: Reporter explains ‘medical repatriation’ practice

Last fall, an Iowa Supreme Court decision about the deportation of two Mexican men who were in the United States illegally caught the attention of Des Moines-based reporter David Pitt.

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David Pitt

The ruling noted, but provided few details about, an obscure process formally known as “medical repatriation,” which allows hospitals to put patients who are living in the U.S. illegally on chartered international flights back to their home countries, often while they are still unconscious.

Pitt sought more information on the practice. In interviews with immigrants, their families, attorneys and advocates spanning several months, including some conducted in Spanish with the help of his colleague Barbara Rodriguez, Pitt was able to explain the “little-known removal system.” Pitt’s tenacity resulted in a fascinating look (in text, photos and video) at how two of the nation’s key issues — immigration and health care — are intertwined.

The story received wide play around Iowa and reaction from readers around the globe. You can catch Pitt discussing the story Wednesday on NPR’s “Tell Me More.”

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In this Thursday March 7, 2013 photo, Jacinto Rodriguez Cruz, 49, leaves his home on a wheelchair with the help of his wife, Belen Hernandez in the city of Veracruz, Mexico. Cruz and another friend suffered serious injuries during a car accident last May 2008 in northwestern Iowa. After their employers insurance coverage ran out, Cruz, who was not a legal citizen, was placed on a private airplane and flown to Mexico still comatose and unable to discuss his care or voice his protest. Hospitals confronted with absorbing the cost of caring for uninsured seriously injured immigrants are quietly deporting them, often unconscious and unable to protest, back to their home countries. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

Video journalist hightails it to the heart of disaster in Texas

With quick thinking and immediate action, an AP video journalist beat even the first responders to the scene of a disaster in West, Texas. AP Managing Editor for State News Kristin Gazlay explains:

Dallas video journalist John Mone got a telephone call from a friend in the small town of West, Texas, whose house had just been shaking. He checked Twitter, saw reports that a fertilizer plant had exploded and called the Dallas desk. “Go,” editors told him. So he went.

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John Mone

Because he was so quick to get on the road, he was able to get to the heart of the disaster, gaining access to first responders, witnesses and triage tents before authorities were able to cordon off the area. Austin-based legislative relief staffer Michael Brick wasn’t far behind, and Lubbock correspondent Betsy Blaney worked the phones.

Mone hightailed it down Interstate 35 fully expecting to be detoured to clear the way for response units. As he approached West, encountering the acrid smell of ammonia in the air, he was directed away from the blast site and to a triage center where all the witnesses were gathered –- and access to them had not yet been locked down.

He hit the record button on his video camera and didn’t stop rolling. He located people waiting for word on the injured, eyewitnesses wandering around in a daze and someone who had captured iPhone video of the explosion. Later, when police began to block off the area, he sneaked down a side road on foot with his camera, walked a mile and was able to film damaged homes.

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This Thursday, April 18, 2013, aerial photo shows the remains of a nursing home, left, apartment complex, center, and fertilizer plant, right, destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Mone shared his interviews with desk editors putting together the mainbar, and shared a byline with Brick.

See his video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RqnLR-ZWGU

Read the story here: http://www.bostonglobe.com/2013/04/17/texas-fertilizer-plant-blast-injures-dozens/ytYc2CZkcuF8XJjqe6AFLO/story.html

The video of his witness interview was used 1,000 times by AP clients and, overall, video filed by Mone was taken by 2,600 times clients internationally. ABC News regularly used AP video in its updates.

For helping ensure the AP owned the story of the fertilizer explosion in a way no other news organization could match, Mone wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.