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.

Deep source network, experience underpin AP reporting in Gaza

The Associated Press team in Gaza is reporting the news as they live it, working quickly — under extremely difficult conditions — to verify and debunk information for AP’s customers around the world. Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes lauded their efforts in a recent memo to staff:

It was late Sunday afternoon [July 20] and a brief cease-fire had silenced a raging battle in the Gaza neighborhood of Shijaiyah. Dozens of Palestinians were dead, hundreds wounded and thousands fleeing. In a matter of minutes, the battle would resume.

AP Gaza photographer Hatem Moussa, touring the area, caught sight of someone he knew from Gaza’s Civil Defense who was searching for bodies and followed him into a badly damaged building. From under the rubble came the barely audible sound of a family trapped: A woman crying for help alongside her husband, 7-year-old niece and three dead relatives.

“I’m here under the shop,” the woman cried out. “God, please, I can’t breathe.”

Moussa called for AP backup. Visiting photographer Lefteris Pitarakis and video journalist Dalton Bennett were not far away; upon arrival, they first determined whether they might help the family, and then shot pictures and video. It was too dangerous for rescuers to bring in bulldozers. As the AP team rushed out, Moussa spotted a Red Cross team and passed on the exact location. Hours later, rescue workers returned and saved the family. The Civil Defense team made a point of calling AP, inviting the team back to the hospital for a follow-up story.

It was just one of several instances of AP being a step ahead of the competition in the most challenging of environments: war in a small, sealed-off territory where they both live and work. In this setting and under these circumstances, the Gaza staff performed brilliantly, advancing a story of global interest to earn the Beat of the Week award.

For the Gaza staff, this is more than a news story. It’s their life. Covering war is hard enough; worrying if your family will survive the day is simply impossible for most of us to imagine. Consider a few snapshots from recent days:

Moussa was having the pre-dawn Ramadan meal with his wife and four children when the airstrikes began. They fled, fearing death. Driver Said Jalis‘ family, his wife heavily pregnant, took refuge at a U.N. school, sleeping on the floor; his 10th child was born Monday [July 21]. Writer Ibrahim Barzak‘s family moved twice in less than a week before deciding home was safest; he turns the TV off when his children are near and sleeps less than four hours. Fares Elwan, the caretaker, sleeps on a mattress in the office hallway because it’s too dangerous to return to see his 11 children. Majed Hamdan, a photographer, fixer and driver, put his family in the room looking away from a built-up area in Shijaiyah. “If we die, we all die together,” he says.

And yet, routinely, the Gaza staffers put all this aside, mining their excellent network of sources and years of experience. Reporting into the Jerusalem bureau — and working closely with AP staff journalists in Israel who are themselves under siege from Hamas rockets – their professionalism puts AP consistently ahead on one of the world’s most competitive stories.

They know every inch of the strip, and are able to quickly verify or debunk reports. Besides covering and facilitating stories themselves, they’ve created a crucial foundation for the visiting team of Senior Producer Khaled Kazziha, writer Karin Laub, Pitarakis and Bennett.

Just ask Pitarakis, who has covered conflicts across the globe: Working with the experienced Gaza staff, he says, makes all the difference. “Without a doubt, this is the game-changing scenario,” he says. “These guys set up this amazing system. The drivers know everything. The local photographers know everyone. It’s a constant flow of information and I wouldn’t be able to operate without it. These guys tell me: go there, go here.”

This well-honed newsgathering system has been working throughout the conflict. On July 13, APTN producer Najib Abu Jobain put AP ahead with the first images of families fleeing the northern towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, which were coming under heavy attack from Israeli tank fire.

“I got a phone call from my daughter the moment she saw the donkey carts, trucks and cars arriving at the U.N. school (where the displaced where seeking shelter).” AP got the pictures at 2 a.m., about six hours ahead of Reuters.

And the staff has been working this way for years: Back in 2011, it was Barzak who broke the news that Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit had been handed back to Israeli forces.

For valiant and extraordinary efforts that helped make the AP the leading source for news on this crucial story, the Gaza-based staff wins this week’s $500 award.

They are: chief APTN producer Najib Abu Jobain, correspondent Ibrahim Barzak, photographer Adel Hana, cameraman Rashed Rasheed, photographer Hatem Moussa, photographer Khalil Hamra, APTN producer Wafa Shurafa, photographer-fixer Majed Hamdan, cameraman Tamer Ziara, camerman Yacoub Abu Galwa, driver Ismail Shurabasi, driver Said Jalis and caretaker Fares Elwan.

Poorly worded alert prompts clarification

This morning a poorly worded news alert moved on the AP wire and was also tweeted via @AP.

For the record, here’s the original alert:

EINDHOVEN, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash lands in Eindhoven.

Many readers understandably took it to mean the plane “crash-landed.”

We sought to clarify this as quickly as possible.

Here’s the clarified version:

EINDHOVEN, Netherlands (AP) — CLARIFIES: Dutch military plane carrying Malaysia Airlines bodies lands in Eindhoven.

@AP tweeted the clarification as follows:

CLARIFIES: Dutch military plane carrying Malaysia Airlines bodies lands in Eindhoven.

This was an especially regrettable lapse that drew wide attention as Dutch families awaited the return of their loved ones’ remains.

Piecing together the story of a girl, 10, left in an African forest

Her name is Hamamatou Harouna. She is 10 years old and unable to walk because she has polio.

Amid the sectarian violence in Central African Republic, she managed to survive a rampage by Christian fighters on her Muslim village by fleeing on the back of her 12-year-old brother.

In this April 16, 2014 photo, 10-year-old Hamamatou Harouna smiles as she sits in a tent with other Muslim refugees on the grounds of the Catholic Church in Carnot, Central African Republic. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

In this April 16, 2014 photo, 10-year-old Hamamatou Harouna smiles as she sits in a tent with other Muslim refugees on the grounds of the Catholic Church in Carnot, Central African Republic. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Her story – one of heartache and resilience — was pieced together by AP West Africa correspondent Krista Larson, who notes in her report that hundreds of thousands of children have been displaced by violence in the country and hundreds have become separated from their families..

Larson told The Definitive Source blog that she researched Hamamatou’s story with the help of a Sango translator over a two-week period.

“I was in Carnot, Central African Republic, to do a follow-up story about the Catholic church that was sheltering 900 Muslims,” she said. “AP Chief Africa Photographer Jerome Delay spotted Hamamatou crawling through the mud on her way back from the communal toilets and snapped her photo. She stole our hearts with her determination and bright eyes.”

Larson continued: “I went to her tent with my Sango translator and we did a first interview. I contacted my editor, Mary Rajkumar, who gave me more suggestions for questions to ask and people to talk to. We then interviewed her several times over the next day or so, and then we went to her home village of Guen, where we learned more about the attack her family had fled.

“It’s been touching to see how many people have reached out to help Hamamatou despite a lack of international interest in the conflict ravaging her country.”

Efforts to provide for her long-term needs are ongoing.