AP team interviews Iraq’s new prime minister

The Associated Press is the first foreign media organization to interview Haider al-Abadi, who was officially named Iraq’s prime minister on Sept. 8.

In the all-formats interview conducted today in Baghdad, the prime minister “strongly rejected the idea of the U.S. or other nations sending ground forces to his country to help fight the Islamic State group,” according to the AP account. He said that foreign troops are “out of the question.”

Read the AP news story by Baghdad Bureau Chief Vivian Salama and reporter Qassim Abdul-Zahra.

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Iraq’s new prime minister says foreign ground troops are neither necessary nor wanted in his country’s fight against the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Iraq’s new prime minister says foreign ground troops are neither necessary nor wanted in his country’s fight against the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Brad and Angelina costar in wedding, AP reports first

AP film writer Jake Coyle (AP photo).

AP film writer Jake Coyle (AP photo).

The wedding last Saturday in France of superstars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt “caps years of rampant speculation on when the couple would officially tie the knot,” writes AP film writer Jake Coyle, who broke the news this morning.

An eruption of tweets and Facebook posts followed.

Coyle, who is deeply sourced in the entertainment industry, said he’d been in close contact with Pitt and Jolie’s camp over the last two years.

Coyle contributes to AP’s Oscar and Grammy coverage, as well as covering film festivals in Cannes, New York and Toronto. He has profiled performers ranging from Woody Allen to Ryan Gosling to Oprah Winfrey, and had one of the last interviews with James Gandolfini.

Coyle is also responsible for creating the AP’s Entertainer of the Year award, which has been given to Taylor Swift and Adele.

Follow Coyle on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

Follow AP Entertainment on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apentertainment

Stirring the sauce for a spicy story

In a memo to AP staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how a saucy story that questioned a politician’s charitable claims generated wide interest in New England:

For years, former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci’s face has beamed from the label of his Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce, which promises that sales are “Benefiting Providence School Children” and that it has helped hundreds of students attend college.

In this Aug. 8, 2014 photo, bottles of former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci's pasta sauce sits on the shelf at a grocery store in Providence, R.I. Below his photograph is printed the line “Benefiting Providence School Children.” In recent years, no money from sales of the sauce has been donated to Cianci's charity scholarship fund. (AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith)

Something was fishy about the sauce, and Providence, R.I., correspondent Michelle Smith could taste it.

Smith dug into the charitable claims and discovered in recent years that in truth, no money from the sauce’s sales had been donated to Cianci’s charity scholarship fund. And from 2009 to 2012, the sauce made a total of $3 in income.

A Cianci adviser acknowledged to Smith that the label could be seen as false advertising and that he’d like to see it changed. Cianci himself admitted to Smith that even if the sauce didn’t make money, “There’s a certain public relations aspect to it all to me,” he said, “I can’t deny that.”

The concessions did not  come easily. Over 10 days of reporting _ around her other daily news duties _ Smith dogged Cianci’s lawyer for answers. Smith also pulled hundreds of pages of documents, set up a spreadsheet and got watchdogs to analyze the finances. She finally got what she needed from the lawyer by showing up in person to a Cianci event and eliciting a promise that he would turn over the relevant documents. This was critical because the specific financials were not available in any public documents.

A day after the sauce story,  Smith followed up with an examination of Cianci’s charity’s finances, finding it gives just a small fraction of assets out in scholarships every year, and spends most of its money on expenses other than for kids.

The one-two punch, both crafted in partnership with East day supervisor Jon Poet, created a ton of buzz.

The stories played atop the website for the Providence Journal, Rhode Island’s biggest newspaper. Both the Projo and The Boston Globe editorialized on it. Smith received notes and comments of congratulations from several [AP] members and sources.

Smith accompanied her reporting with her own photos, use by several members.

For hitting the sauce in a way that made the AP proud, Smith wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

How one Cuba scoop led to another

In a memo to staff, Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes hails the AP reporting team from around the world who worked together to break an important story about the U.S. government’s secret activities in Cuba:

It could be the makings of a James Bond movie: secure phones and encrypted emails used by AP reporters trying to penetrate a government program whose operatives were themselves using secret codes and trade craft. “I have a headache” really meant “They are watching me.” And “Your sister is ill” translated to “Time to get out.”

But it’s not fiction. It’s all part of this week’s Beat of the Week _ an accountability story furthering AP’s exclusive reporting on U.S. government efforts to stir political change in Cuba.

When does one scoop lead to another? When you’re the investigative team that this spring exposed a U.S. government program that created a secret “Cuban Twitter” text messaging service to encourage unrest on the communist island.

Cuba Secret Infiltration

In this July 11, 2014, photo, Cuban students exit Marta Abreu Central University in Santa Clara, Cuba. Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

Several weeks after that explosive piece hit the wire, reporter Desmond Butler‘s source gave him a new batch of documents. Tucked inside were details about security protocols with the secret codes and details of a story about an Obama administration program that secretly dispatched young Latin Americans to Cuba using the cover of health and civic programs to provoke political change.

The participants worked undercover, often posing as tourists, and traveled around the island scouting for people they could turn into political activists. But the clandestine operation _ which the AP found was continued even after the arrest of a U.S. contractor for smuggling technology into Cuba _ put those young operatives in danger.

Months in the making under the purview of international investigations editor Trish Wilson, the story reunited the original Cuban Twitter reporting team of Butler, the AP’s chief correspondent in Turkey; Washington investigative reporter Jack Gillum; Mexico-based Alberto Arce; and Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi in Havana. Andean bureau chief Frank Bajak chased Peruvians involved in the project, and Hannah Dreier reported from Venezuela.

Technology played a key role in the reporting efforts: Gillum dumped the source documents into AP’s internal document repository so everyone could pore over them. He and Butler set up a [mechanism], so that reporters could see one another’s notes and contributions _ including the travelers’ contact data and interview transcriptions. Gillum also obtained key USAID emails warning contractors from travel to Cuba.

Arce helped translate the source documents, many of which were in Spanish, and interviewed four Costa Ricans who took part in the program, including Fernando Murillo, who ran an HIV prevention workshop in Cuba.

In Cuba, Rodriguez and Orsi doggedly hunted down the Cuban participants, and Rodriguez persuaded them to speak to AP on camera, no small feat given the backlash they could have faced.

Dreier, like everyone else who joined the project, had to learn to use [a secure phone]. She also set up an account to receive encrypted email because communications in Venezuela, like Cuba, are not considered secure. Dreier found four of the Venezuelan travelers, and got the money quote from a woman who acknowledged they were trying to “stir rebellion.”

Orsi reviewed the Spanish documents to ensure all translations were accurate, working meticulously to check every detail and finding last-minute changes made just hours before the story was published.

Video got involved early on. First came the interviews with the young Cubans,  who said they did not know they were targets of the program.

Desmond Butler, AP's chief correspondent in Turkey, appears on Fox News to discuss the AP investigation into another secret U.S. government program in Cuba.

Desmond Butler, AP’s chief correspondent in Turkey, appears on Fox News to discuss the AP investigation into another secret U.S. government program in Cuba.

Then London-based correspondent Raphael Satter tracked down the main organizer of the young Venezuelans recruited to go to Cuba, living now in a small house in Dublin, Ireland. Satter, along with Belfast-based cameraman John Morrisey, tried repeatedly to contact the woman, but she wouldn’t talk and even hid in her bedroom when they came knocking on her door. Their doggedness paid off after several hours when she did come out. She still refused to talk, but Morrisey got a compelling piece of video as the woman ran back into the house, slamming the door behind her.

As the story came together, Washington video supervisor David Bruns donned many hats _ voicing and editing the video piece, as well as creating graphics. A gallery of photos by Franklin Reyes, Esteban Felix and James L. Berenthal also illustrated the story.

The story played widely in newspapers worldwide and on the Internet, showing up on front pages in Mexico and Miami. Several team members appeared on NPR, Fox News and Telemundo, among other media outlets.

For their multinational effort that broke news and kept the AP out front on American secret activities in Cuba, Butler, Gillum, Arce, Rodriguez, Bajak, Dreier, Orsi and Bruns win this week’s $500 prize.

How AP tapped its global resources to chronicle passengers’ final hours

When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 went down, major news organizations across the world rushed out profiles of the victims. In a memo to staff, Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes explores why one AP story resonated around the world:

Amid all of these who-were-they stories, how did Kristen Gelineau‘s narrative strike so deep, touching so many hearts, prompting so many reader tears and accolades? A typical tweet urged, “EVERYONE needs to read this!”

But why, exactly?

The answer may serve as guidance for any number of future AP narrative-behind-the-news pieces and explains why Gelineau’s story is the Beat of the Week.

Some 298 people perished when Flight 17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down as it passed through the airspace of strife-torn Ukraine.

Gelineau, AP’s Sydney-based bureau chief for Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, quickly went to work on “The Final Hours.” Its title reflected an organizing principle from the start: This would be a story showing how selected passengers happened to be on the doomed flight, how they’d spent the time before it took off. It would be a narrative, offering a glimpse of real lives, of scenes and characters, not just locations, names and occupations.

In this undated photo released by the Calehr family, Samira Calehr, left, poses with her son Shaka Panduwinata. Shaka Panduwinata and his brother Miguel Panduwinata, were killed aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/The Calehr family)

In this undated photo released by the Calehr family, Samira Calehr, left, poses with her son Shaka Panduwinata. Shaka Panduwinata and his brother Miguel Panduwinata, were killed aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/The Calehr family)

“We were looking for quality, not quantity,” said Mary Rajkumar, assistant international editor, referring to notes she and Gelineau sent to international regional editors and then individual reporters, requesting help.

One note said: “The quality of the tick-tock and whether we can pull it off will depend hugely on the contributions we get, especially on the details. We’re looking for the little things _ what they did that day, what their usual routine was, what they ate, their last conversation, the last person they saw, what they were like, etc.”

Gelineau requested further specifics, down to the time stamp on a last communication.

“Everyone really went the extra mile to get these details: putting in extra calls and having to ask grieving loved ones to look at emails from their dead relatives,” Gelineau said.

Supplementing her reporting were Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand; Jim Gomez in Pagbilao, Philippines; Firdia Lisnawati in Bali, Indonesia; Mike Corder in The Hauge, Netherlands, and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who jumped in to help while on maternity leave. Lisnawati, Gomez and Gary Chuah shot photos, which ran along with images contributed by families. Video was by Jakarta’s Fadlan Syam and Berlin’s DorotheeThiesing.

So it was that readers learned of Rob Ayley, a New Zealander who’d coped with Asperger’s syndrome from youth but who’d become a father and husband and successful dog breeder who was returning from a business trip touring European kennels; and of Willem Grootscholten, who happily boarded the flight to begin a new life after meeting Christine, a single mother in Bali whose children had come to call him “Daddy”; and of Irene Gunawan, the 53-year-old sparkplug of her Philippine family, who was headed for a reunion in a suburban Manila neighborhood called “Heaven.”

And there were others.

Gelineau pursued a profile that became the backbone of the story, that of Miguel Panduwinata, an 11-year-old who was traveling with his older brother to visit their grandmother _ and who had been raising ominous questions in the days before the flight.

“What would happen to my body if I was buried?” the normally cheerful boy asked his worried mother. “Would I not feel anything because our souls go back to God?”

Working from names on a flight manifest, Gelineau tracked down an uncle of the boy by phone as he arrived in Amsterdam. She interviewed him about his nephew (“He told me about Miguel’s eerie premonition and the hairs on my arms stood up.”) Then, over a couple of days, she gently persuaded him to put her in touch with his sister, the boy’s mother, for a 40-minute phone interview finally arranged at 2:30 a.m. Gelineau’s time.

“She kept saying, ‘I should have listened to him.’ I knew immediately that was the end of my story,” Gelineau said. “And I knew Miguel was going to be the beginning.”

Gelineau’s story was supplemented by an abridged version _ but not simply a truncating of the original. “There was no way to abridge six examples into 700 words and have any characters really come across,” Rajkumar said. “So we offered our single best anecdote instead as a shorter option, calling it The Boy Who Knew.

The response to the story — which was published around the world and shared widely on social media and mobile — was extraordinary.

Thousands of readers commented, many saying they were in tears as they wrote.

“The glimpses into the lives of these people, esp. Miguel, their loved ones, favorite foods, sports, made it all too real, almost as if I knew them,” said one.

Another offered thanks “for dedicating the time and space to this heart breaking, and yet heart warming glimpse into the photo albums of these precious lives.” This reader hoped that each family personally affected “has the chance to treasure this story.”

Many did, as notes from some victims’ loved ones made clear.

Rob Ayley’s mother wrote that she’d include the story in a “memory box” she was putting together for her son. The girlfriend of another victim wrote, “Thank you so so much from the deep deep deepest bottom of our hearts.” And the uncle of Miguel said talking about the boy and his brother for the story had been therapeutic for the family, a source of strength.

For combining exemplary craft and compassion to achieve a distinctive kind of world beat, Gelineau wins this week’s $500 prize.

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.

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.

The story of a prolific pedophile: How AP’s investigation came together

The discovery of a teacher whom the FBI regards as one of the most prolific pedophiles in memory has set off a crisis in the close-knit community of international schools and prompted hundreds of people to contact the bureau, greatly expanding the potential number of suspected victims.

There were decades of missed opportunities to bring William Vahey out of the shadows, The Associated Press revealed this week.

This combination of photos provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows William James Vahey in 1986, 1995, 2004 and 2013. Vahey, 64, killed himself in Luverne, Minn. on March 21, 2014. (AP Photo/FBI, File)

This combination of photos provided by the FBI shows William James Vahey in 1986, 1995, 2004 and 2013. (AP Photo/FBI, File)

The AP report and follow-up drew on AP’s global resources, as explained here by Mexico City-based Michael Weissenstein, a lead reporter in the investigation:

When did the scale of this story become evident to you?
The potential scale of William Vahey’s crimes was clear starting last month, when the FBI announced that they had photographic evidence that 90 boys had been drugged and molested, and they were seeking information from students and others who knew Vahey throughout his 40-year career. The FBI quoted Vahey himself as saying to his boss, after he was caught but before he killed himself last March, that he had been doing this all his life. What wasn’t clear was the scale of the missed opportunities to stop Vahey far sooner. This became evident as AP reporters around the world dug into Vahey’s past, digging up records and finding and interviewing people who had known him over the last four decades.

What were the obstacles and challenges in reporting it out?
This was a story about one of the most sensitive and upsetting possible topics _ child sexual molestation _ that sprawled over four decades and 10 countries on four continents. Many of Vahey’s students from years ago now lived in other countries and never knew they had been molested. The parents of students who are still minors understandably were deeply concerned about their children’s privacy. And schools and law-enforcement agencies were reluctant to talk due to concerns about privacy.

How did the global resources of AP factor into the reporting process?
We had a reporter with local sources and knowledge in every region where Vahey had worked. Tami Abdollah in Los Angeles dug deeply into the records of Vahey’s 1969 arrest for child-sex abuse, finding detailed court files and interviewing retired law-enforcement officials who knew how the system worked at the time. Bureau Chief Josh Goodman in Caracas, spoke at length to parents and staff there, unearthing details and anecdotes that allowed us to draw a detailed picture of Vahey’s time in Venezuela. Reporters in London, Minnesota, Jakarta, Dubai and Nicaragua all contributed further essential facts and color. A story like this would have been impossible without the ability to instantly activate the AP’s network of experienced reporters across the world.

How reporter produced revealing closeup of Gov. Brown’s prison plan

In a memo to Associated Press staffers, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano describes how a story spotted on a locally focused website prompted a high-impact investigation by AP of whether California Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison realignment plan is working as advertised. The story in the Turlock City News reported that Brown had visited officials in rural Stanislaus County. It caught the attention of AP Sacramento Correspondent Tom Verdin. Carovillano continues:

It seems Brown had been quietly dropping in on sheriffs and county officials around the state to gauge the effectiveness of one of the signature achievements of his latest tenure as governor: a law that reduces California’s prison population by sentencing lower-level offenders to county jails.

The governor’s office almost never announced the visits ahead of time, and he rarely spoke publicly afterward so reporters could assess how the visits went. Verdin contacted the governor’s office to find out why they hadn’t been listed on Brown’s official schedule. Brown’s spokesman told him it did not need to be because such visits with public officials were “private,” and that the official photographs distributed by the governor’s staff via Twitter would suffice for public disclosure.

Reporter Don Thompson has been aggressively covering prison realignment as part of his statehouse beat, resulting in a number of other newsbreaks and AP exclusives. In the seemingly innocuous local news item, Verdin and Thompson saw an opportunity for more accountability journalism.

Thompson began by requesting the list of counties Brown had visited. Not wanting the publicity of a formal public records request, the governor’s office complied, and Thompson began making calls to sheriff’s departments and county supervisors on the list. Over several weeks, he contacted half the counties Brown had visited, a representative sample that included urban and rural, coastal and inland.

Across the spectrum, the message was consistent: Local officials said they needed more money and that the governor had not yet followed through on his statements and promises. Two of them said Brown’s office had not gotten back to them on concerns they had raised: “I haven’t heard a thing,” said one local official.

Thompson’s reporting showed that the statements Brown was making in public  _ that “realignment is working”? _ contradicted what he was hearing from county officials.

Additionally, Thompson got an advance look at data showing the jail population for all of California’s 58 counties, before and after realignment, before they were released publicly. That chart moved in advance so members could localize the story if they wished.

Several major California dailies put Thompson’s story on their front pages, including The Fresno Bee and Santa Barbara News-Press. “The advance notice on that story was great,” said Santa Maria Times Editor Marga Cooley, whose newspaper ran it across the top of Sunday’s A1 with a localized sidebar. “The story was timely and of significant interest in our area.”

Photographer Rich Pedroncelli also was able to gain access to a jail in one of the counties Brown had visited, and the package ran with a chart showing the inmate population before and after the realignment law in all 58 counties.

Two days after the story ran, the moderator cited Thompson’s reporting during a public policy forum on prisons. One of the panelists, state Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, evoked Brown’s “it’s working” quote by saying “It depends on your definition of working, I guess.”

For striking a blow for transparency, holding the governor to account for his misleading statements on an an important accomplishment of his administration, and advancing AP’s efforts to share data with members so they can localize our state- and nation-level reporting, Thompson wins this week’s $300 Best of the States award.

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.