Reporter reveals disparity in state salaries

As the only news agency with reporters in all 50 statehouses across the country, The Associated Press is well-positioned to break important state government news. A recent report by an enterprising journalist in Minnesota revealed that 145 local officials earn more than the governor. A staff memo from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes explains:

BRIAN BAKST

Brian Bakst

The disparity jumped out at St. Paul newsman Brian Bakst. While reporting a routine story, he noticed the salary disclosure on a city/county website. A local official, according to the website, made substantially more in salary than the state’s governor.

That little nugget led him to research what had happened across the state since the legislature relaxed what had been a rigid salary cap for local officials. The cap had tied their salaries – and their raises – to the governor’s. He picked away at the story over the next six weeks as time allowed. Eventually, he had compiled salary data from 126 Minnesota cities and counties to report his overall findings: the salaries of city and county top employees had risen sharply since the law was relaxed. In some cases, the pay for a single position had shot up more than $40,000 in about eight years. This reporting emerged just as the state was considering pay raises for its top employees.

Bakst found that at least 145 city or county officials making more than the governor’s $120,303. And as he smartly pointed out in the story, that’s just their base pay. That doesn’t include car allowances and other benefits that add to the compensation package. In addition, he noted that the number of highly compensated workers might be higher than 145 because localities only have to list their top three earners.

After writing the story, Bakst emailed his spreadsheet with localization tips to members around the state as part of the package’s promotion three days ahead of publication. “This looks awesome … thanks,” wrote the editor of the Rochester Post-Bulletin, who used his own localized version on A1 and Bakst’s statewide story inside.

Bakst also earned front-page play across the state and those that didn’t run his story, ran their localized version using data Bakst had sent them – and credited the AP. The story ranked among the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s most-read.

For smart, enterprising reporting, and for going the extra mile to help members make the story their own, Brian Bakst wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Q&A: Uncovering the dirty cost of green energy

The Associated Press today published a major investigative report by Washington bureau journalists Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo showing that the ethanol era has proved far more damaging to the environment than the government has acknowledged.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they touched off a cascade of unintended consequences, including wiping out millions of acres of conservation land, polluting water and destroying habitat.

Ted Bridis

Ted Bridis

Here, Ted Bridis, the lead editor on the months-long investigation, describes what went into reporting the hidden, dirty cost of this green energy source:

What prompted AP to explore the topic of ethanol?
This year, among other stories, the Washington investigative team has been exploring some of the little-known costs and consequences of green energy. This project developed out of reporting by and conversations with Dina Cappiello, our excellent environmental reporter, who was “loaned” to our investigations team in the newsroom away from her everyday specialty beat responsibilities to work on some longer-term reporting efforts.

What were the most striking findings?
We were able to conservatively quantify how many acres farmers had set aside for conservation purposes but, driven in part by Washington’s biofuels mandate, had been converted to crops. The figure was at least five million acres _ more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined _ that have vanished on President Barack Obama’s watch.

We also conducted by computer a satellite-imagery analysis to show how many more acres of pristine grassland in the Corn Belt had been plowed into cornfields or soybeans since 2006, the year before the ethanol mandate passed. Insiders revealed to our reporters how the government’s analysis of ethanol’s carbon dioxide footprint was flawed and influenced by input from the industry. But in many ways no one in government is keeping track of its environmental toll.  

I also think one of our findings was how friendly and accommodating we found farmers and others in the Midwest when our journalists visited and explained the story we were investigating; many farmers, especially, explained they were genuinely conflicted by economic forces, chasing corn profits at the expense of continued conservation.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in reporting this project?
The tale of U.S. ethanol policy is complicated for many different audiences: farmers, motorists, policy makers, politicians, environmentalists, farmers, scientists and others. Turning months of reporting about agricultural and energy policies, scores of interviews and hefty data analyses into a narrative that readers will find compelling and informative is always a challenge.

How did you draw on AP’s resources — around the world and in the 50 states — to do it?
This project represents the efforts of dozens of AP journalists, photographers, video producers, data experts, editors and others who helped in its production

See the AP reporting here, which includes companion photos, video and a detailed interactive. Join a conversation about the AP’s reporting on ethanol today at 3 p.m. ET on Reddit.

Giarrusso to lead AP sports coverage

Michael Giarrusso

AP Global Sports Editor Michael Giarrusso (AP photo)

Today marks 100 days until the 2014 winter Olympics kick off in Sochi, Russia, and AP has named a new global sports editor to lead coverage of the games and other major events in the coming months, including the Super Bowl outside New York and the World Cup in Brazil.

Russia Sochi Olympics

In this Monday, Oct. 28, 2013 photo, workers are fixing the Olympic emblem at an entrance to the railway station of Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. Russia starts 100 day count down on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013 for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Lesya Polyakova)

In his new role, Michael Giarrusso, a former AP sports writer, news editor and state news executive, will oversee more than 100 journalists around the world and ensure that AP remains the leader in breaking sports news across formats.

What’s Giarrusso most looking forward to?

“People are consuming more sports news than they ever have before,” Giarrusso said, in newspapers and on television, smartphones and tablets. “AP sports is perfectly positioned to deliver any type of content to readers, members and customers at a moment’s notice.”

He added: “It’s so exciting to be leading this team of great journalists, and I’m honored.”

AP is already busy covering the countdown to the games, with stories on the athletes, the apparel, the politics and more.

Read more about Giarrusso and follow him on Twitter at @MichaelG1.

Gallery opening celebrates debut of Vietnam photo book

Nick_Ut

AP photographer Nick Ut stands near his iconic picture of a 9-year-old running from a napalm attack.

Crowds of journalists, photographers, distinguished guests and members of the public packed into the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York Thursday night to view iconic and rarely seen images of the Vietnam War taken by Associated Press photographers.

The exhibit showcases some of the nearly 300 images included in a new photo history book, “Vietnam: The Real War” (Abrams; Oct. 1, 2013; 304 pages; 300 photographs; US $40.00/CAN $45.00/UK £25).

Crowd

Visitors view the AP exhibit at the Steven Kasher Gallery.

Writer Pete Hamill, who penned the book’s evocative introduction, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Nick Ut, whose work is featured prominently in the book, were on hand to sign books at the reception. AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt, Tom Curley, former chief executive at AP, and Chairman of the Board Mary Junck were also in attendance.

The exhibit runs through Nov. 30. The gallery, located at 521 W. 23rd St. in New York, is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

AP is hosting other book-related events in Washington, D.C., at the Newseum on Saturday, Oct. 26, and next month in San Francisco.

AP Vietnam Photo Exhibit

Crowds attend the opening of the AP photo exhibit at the Steven Kasher Gallery (Photo by Sean Thompson)

AP Vietnam Photo Exhibit

Visitors crowd into the Steven Kasher Gallery to view the AP photo exhibit (Photo by Sean Thompson)

Visit AP at ONA in Atlanta

Kent_ONA

AP Standards Editor Tom Kent helps lead a break out session for an ethics panel at ONA. (Photo by Fergus Bell)

The Associated Press is joining digital journalists from around the country at the 2013 Online News Association conference in Atlanta, which runs today through Oct. 19. Here’s a rundown of where you’ll find AP:

October 17:

  • Standards Editor Tom Kent (@tjrkent) and International Social Media Editor Fergus Bell (@fergb) will participate in a discussion about an online code of ethics from 2:45 p.m. – 3:45 p.m. ET.

October 18:

  • Minkoff teams up with ProPublica to give a workshop from 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. ET on how reporters can find hidden structured data online to both drive and supplement stories, using non-programmatic tools.
  • Stop by the AP table from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. ET for a sneak peak at new AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) products that are coming soon.

And looking ahead to 2014, you can also stop by the AP table to learn more AP’s Election services.

AP statement on CPJ report

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report today on the Obama administration and the press that references the secret seizure of AP phone records by the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this year.

Read today’s AP news story about the report, which includes the following statement from Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll:

“The report highlights the growing threats to independent journalism in the United States, a country that has for two centuries upheld press freedom as a measure of a democratic society.

“We find we must fight for those freedoms every day as the fog of secrecy descends on every level of government activity. That fight is worthwhile, as we learned when the outcry over the Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP phone records led to proposed revisions intended to protect journalists from overly broad investigative techniques. Implementation of those revisions is an important next step.”

AP and Terry McAuliffe story

The Associated Press withdrew a story Wednesday night that said Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe was accused in court documents of having lied to a federal investigator looking into a benefit scheme.

Here is the most recent version of AP’s story on the matter.

Paul Colford, Director of AP Media Relations, said in a statement on Thursday morning:

The initial alert moved on AP’s Virginia state wire at 9:45 p.m. The story was withdrawn one hour and 38 minutes later. That was an hour and 38 minutes too long. As our retraction said, “The indictment did not identify McAuliffe as the ‘T.M.’ who allegedly lied to investigators.”

A new era in AP polling

Today the AP is publishing a poll that opens a new era in AP’s polling techniques.

Until now, AP polling in the United States has been based on telephone calls to a representative sample of Americans. AP had avoided most online polls because of questions about how representative they are.

AP and its polling partner GfK have now begun using online polls, conducted under very specific conditions, that we believe are as accurate as polls by phone.

The first poll based on the new method, which reports on public reaction to the U.S. government shutdown, was published today. Here, AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta explains the methodology behind the new polling system.

What to call it: “Obamacare”? Affordable Care Act? “New health care law”?

The question has come up again: What should we call this new program?

In AP news reports, our preference is to use wording like “the nation’s new health insurance system,” “the health care overhaul” or “the new health care law.”

Terms like “Obamacare” and the Affordable Care Act have their downsides:

_ “Obamacare” was coined by opponents of the law and is still used by them in a derogatory manner. It’s true that the White House, and even Obama himself, have used the term on occasion. But the administration hasn’t totally embraced “Obamacare” and still uses the Affordable Care Act much of the time. We’re sticking with our previous approach to “Obamacare”: AP writers should use it in quotes, or in formulations like “the law, sometimes known as Obamacare, provides for …”

_ The Affordable Care Act is the official name of the law. However, its very name is promotional; opponents believe it will not be affordable for individuals or the country. Also, polling indicates that not all Americans know the law by this name. AP writers can use the term when necessary to refer to the law, but should do so sparingly.

Bottom line: terms like “the nation’s new health care law” are preferred.

(According to the AP Stylebook, “health care” is two words.)

Another change in the spelling of the Iranian president’s name

We’ve made another change to the spelling of the Iranian president’s name. We will henceforth spell it Hassan Rouhani rather than Hasan Rouhani. During the current United Nations General Assembly session, Rouhani’s office has been sending out materials in English with the president’s first name spelled with a double “s.” We checked with officials there and they say the president prefers that spelling in English.

This is our second change to the spelling of Rouhani’s name this year. Until late June we had used Hasan Rowhani, a spelling we’d long used for this Iranian politician and former nuclear negotiator.

However, after he became president-elect, we noted that some publications were spelling his name Rouhani. We were told “Rouhani” is the English rendering that the president prefers, so we changed to that.

The AP Stylebook says we should “follow the individual’s preference for an English spelling if it can be determined.”