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.

Paddling in sludge to get the story

In an era of smartphones and social media, an AP team opted for a more rudimentary tool to get the story: a canoe. The following note to staff from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes describes how AP journalists paddled into the middle of a river to get a firsthand look at a coal-ash spill in North Carolina, determine the scope of the mishap and keep AP ahead of the competition:

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden N.C. on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

What’s the most important word in journalism? How about “go.” Sometimes, you just have to go there. Even when there is out in the middle of a dirty river best reached by canoe.

That’s just what Michael Biesecker, Raleigh newsman, and Gerry Broome, Raleigh photographer, did when they sensed that the impact of a big coal-ash spill at a Duke Energy power plant in Eden, N.C., could be much worse than anyone was letting on. Turned out they were right. They could see that plainly when they paddled out into the middle of the ash-choked Dan River.

Biesecker had hit upon the idea of using the canoe – his canoe, by the way – as he and Carolinas News Editor Tim Rogers talked over the best ways to examine exactly what the spill had done to the river. Biesecker loaded it onto his car, and they were off. While he and Broome were putting it in the river, a man affiliated with the Waterkeeper Alliance, the environmental group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., offered to go with them in his own canoe. They agreed and he showed them to some places along the river.

Back at the spill site, Duke Energy officials and state regulators were trying to downplay the effects even as the river turned a deathly looking grey. Biesecker and  Broome started to find the elements of a very different story when they hit the river, the only journalists to do so at that point.

From the canoe, Biesecker was able to report that downstream of the spill, gray sludge was several inches deep. That became evident when a paddle was pushed down into the muck. In addition, the AP team saw that the riverbank was coated for more than two miles. And when the Dan crested overnight, a distinctive gray line stood in contrast to the brown bank, “like a dirty ring on a bathtub.”

Their reporting put the AP ahead on the extent and immediate effects of the spill even as hundreds of Duke workers scrambled to plug a hole in a pipe at the bottom of the 27-acre pond where the toxic ash had been stored. Up to 82,000 tons of ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water had spilled into the river.

More would be revealed in test results and court filings over the next four days, as Biesecker and Mitch Weiss, Charlotte correspondent, kept the AP reporting well ahead. Biesecker followed with a comprehensive story on a dispute over arsenic levels in the river downstream from the spill. He and Weiss then provided with a look at how the state was acting to try and shield Duke from federal lawsuits over the coal ash sites the company long had insisted were safely engineered and maintained.

The eyewitness on-the-river story and Broome’s photos played well across the state and around the country, caught the attention of national environmental groups. The ensuing AP reporting on the spill was placed prominently even on the site of the Charlotte Observer, which has assigned a reporter to cover just the spill.

The AP scoops also spurred Duke to share their testing results with us. In addition, after not addressing the spill for much of a week, Gov. Pat McCrory went to the spill site the day after we asked him why he had not been there yet.

This week, federal authorities launched a criminal investigation into the spill, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh issuing subpoenas seeking records from both Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources related to the Dan River incident and the state’s oversight of the company’s 30 other coal ash dumps in North Carolina.

For paddling further than the competition to get their story, Biesecker, Broome and Weiss share this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Why AP is publishing story about missing American tied to CIA

The Associated Press today is publishing an article about serious blunders at the Central Intelligence Agency and an effort to cover them up. At the heart of the story is a retired FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who was recruited as a spy by a rogue group of analysts inside the CIA. Without any authority to do so, the analysts sent Levinson into Iran, where he disappeared in 2007.

His condition and whereabouts are not known and the Iranian government says it has no information.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains why AP decided to publish this story:

Publishing this article was a difficult decision. This story reveals serious mistakes and improper actions inside the U.S. government’s most important intelligence agency. Those actions, the investigation and consequences have all been kept secret from the public.

Publishing articles that help the public hold their government to account is part of what journalism is for, and especially so at The Associated Press, which pursues accountability journalism whenever it can. This seems particularly true on this subject at a time when the decisions of intelligence agencies are being extensively debated.

The AP has been seeking information on Levinson’s whereabouts from governments, agencies and any other source possible for several years. Government officials tell us that they, too, have hit a wall, though their efforts continue.

In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.

Backstory: Confirming information about secret US-Iran talks

AP’s Sunday story revealing that the U.S. and Iran had held secret talks before the announcement of a nuclear deal contained this paragraph:

The AP was tipped to the first U.S.-Iranian meeting in March shortly after it occurred, but the White House and State Department disputed elements of the account and the AP could not confirm the meeting. The AP learned of further indications of secret diplomacy in the fall and pressed the White House and other officials further. As the Geneva talks appeared to be reaching their conclusion, senior administration officials confirmed to the AP the details of the extensive outreach.

Contrary to a number of accounts since Sunday, AP did not sit on the story for several months. We aggressively pursued the story throughout that period, trying everything we could to get it to the wire. In fact, some of the information we were tipped to in March turned out to be inaccurate.

“A tip is not a story,” said AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee. “AP was attempting to confirm, to its standards, what had happened. We published the story when we had the vital details that we needed satisfactorily confirmed.”

To quote from AP’s News Values and Principles:

“The AP routinely seeks and requires more than one source. Stories should be held while attempts are made to reach additional sources for confirmation or elaboration. In rare cases, one source will be sufficient – when material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.”

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.