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.


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.


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:

Read the story here:

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.

Behind the news of the marathon: data crunching and photo verification

Personal tales of Boston marathoners came together after The Associated Press analyzed images and data, including the finishing times recorded by chips on competitors’ bibs, to pinpoint some of the runners who were in the finish line area when the bombs went off.

AP has distributed photos taken by Massachusetts engineer Bob Leonard, whose images near the finish line clearly show the two brothers suspected in the April 15 blasts, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in shootout with police, and 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, later captured. “They actually stood in that corner for quite a bit of time,” Leonard told AP.

Leonard was not the only picture-taker to help with images of the suspects. David Green, a businessman from Jacksonville, Fla., who ran the marathon, produced a photo in which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears fleeing the scene, though initially there was doubt as to its authenticity because of the very low resolution of the image. It made the photo appear to be a composite image.

When Green later provided the high-resolution frame directly from his cellphone, editors of the AP were able to establish its authenticity based on the improved resolution as well as the time the photo was taken. The AP has established an exclusive arrangement for distribution of the photograph.

A story about Leonard and Green includes a slideshow with 12 of their revealing images.

Ahead of prison, Amish community gives journalists rare access

By gaining the trust of an Amish community in Ohio, a resourceful team of multiformat journalists were given rare access to tell their story. In a memo to staff, Managing Editor for State News Kristin Gazlay explains:

It was going to be the last time the tight-knit community would be together, before five Amish adults — four women and one man — would report to prison for the hate crime of forcibly cutting the hair and beards of fellow Amish.


Freeman Burkholder swings to hit the baseball during a farewell picnic in Bergholz, Ohio on April 9, 2013. A picnic was held for Burkholder and four Amish women who were sentenced to prison for their roles in a hair and beard cutting scandal against another Amish community. (AP Photo/Scott R. Galvin)

Cutting hair is shameful and offensive to the Amish, who believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards and stop shaving once they marry. Members of the insular group eschew any modern conveniences, rarely speak publicly and even more rarely allow themselves to be filmed or photographed.

But the team of Columbus reporter Kantele Franko, photo freelancer Scott Galvin and Washington video cameraman Dan Huff got an exclusive invitation to cover an end-of-school celebration, where children at old-fashioned schoolhouse desks sang in German, men played baseball in buttoned shirts and pants with suspenders — and members of the group heading to prison talked on camera about the sentences.

The Ohio AP had covered the case extensively, leading a defense attorney to invite them to the celebration, held early this year so the children could spend more time with their parents before they went to prison. The team worked to make the Amish feel comfortable, knowing that reporters and media equipment were an unusual sight. Franko persuaded the first interviewees to introduce the team to others, Huff explained the purpose of his microphones and the recording process, and Galvin wandered among the children so much that eventually even those who had shied away were smiling at the cameras.


Amish children play on the teeter-totters prior to the start of class in Bergholz, Ohio on April 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Scott R. Galvin)

The resulting multiformat play was dominating: The main broadcast networks, MSN, Miami Herald, Denver Post and Washington Post all used the material, with many sites posting photo galleries. The package was the fourth-most popular on Yahoo. One of Galvin’s photos, showing a tiny boy among young men lined up at a fence, made NBC News’ The Week in Pictures.

See the coverage here:

For expertly telling a story that required sensitivity, finesse and trust, Franko, Galvin and Huff win this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.


How an AP reporter found $50 billion buried in federal fine print

Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar

Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar

In the “Beat of the Week” memos to staff, AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes tells the stories behind the top news of recent days. In his latest note, he lauds the persistent, meticulous reporting of Washington-based health care reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar, who also is advising AP reporters across the country in covering the rollout of the Affordable Care Act:

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar has covered health care policy for the AP since 2009, dominating with beat after beat after beat. He has won the respect of colleagues and competitors. He has produced ground breaking policy coverage, a model of the genre, and has been cited here 11 times with honorable mention for work that impressed the Beat of the Week judges.

But for all that, he has never won Beat of the Week.

Finally, his persistence paid off.

Alonso-Zaldivar was studying the fine print (something he does) for the Department of Health and Human Services budget proposal when one number jumped out: a projected $50 billion in new Medicare revenue over the coming decade. That was up from last year’s projection of $28 billion. When Alonso-Zaldivar asked why, neither the White House for its Office of Management and Budget had an answer.

He wrote a spot story pointedly noting the murkiness of the administration’s plans, while at the same time agitating with HHS for an explanation.


Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, April 12, 2013, before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2014, and the HHS. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Two days later, congressional Republicans challenged HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the same points, and she gave a partial answer: The administration was planning to set up a new way to determine how much seniors pay in Medicare premiums, based on their incomes. It would clearly mean a cost increase for many beneficiaries, but there were no details about who, or how much.

Alonso-Zaldivar seized the opportunity to press his point again, telling his HHS contacts that he planned to put Sebelius’ incomplete answer on the wire.

One of those contacts soon popped a detailed data table into his email inbox, spelling out the details the administration had been reluctant to share. He was able to report exclusively that President Barack Obama’s new budget included a proposal to significantly increase the amounts paid by upper-income retirees in Medicare premiums.

AP was alone with the story throughout the weekend. Even the House Ways and Means Committee, which had challenged Sebelius for answers, read it first in Alonso-Zaldivar’s exclusive.

The story made scores of front pages, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Louisville Courier Journal, Jackson Clarion Ledger, Providence Journal, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was the lead story in a dozen papers. A follow-up humanized the proposal with the tale of a New Mexico retiree who has an income of $85,000 and would be hit by the increases, and felt penalized for her frugal retirement planning.

None of this was unusual for Alonso-Zaldivar, one of the relatively few people in Washington who has read the entire health care legislation, all 974 pages.

For this persistence and attention to detail, Alonso-Zaldivar wins this week’s $500 prize, his first Beat of the Week, recognition long overdue and now rectified.

Exposing behind-the-scenes efforts by US to aid Syrian opposition

In “Beat of the Week” memos to staff, AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes tells the stories behind the top news of recent days. His latest memo describes the dogged source work, in the Middle East and Washington, that went into recent AP reports of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war:

The tip came from Jordan, the confirmation from Washington, and the result was not one but two important beats on U.S. support for rebels in the Syrian civil war.

It started when Jamal Halaby, the AP’s chief correspondent in Amman, was told by a highly placed official that the U.S., working in the Jordanian desert, had for months been secretly training secular ex-servicemen from the Syrian army.

The operation, which also involved Britain, France and other Western allies, focused on Sunni Bedouin tribesmen who could fill a security vacuum (and provide a counterweight to militant Jihadists) if Syrian President Bashar Assad is ousted. The ex-servicemen were going back to Syria to train others, and that group, not the rebel Free Syrian Army, was the recipient of arms and weapons financed and shipped by U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

That was key information revealing the extent of U.S. involvement in Syria, but the tip was off-the-record, and since the information was highly classified, officials and diplomats in Jordan would neither confirm nor deny it. Continue reading