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.

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.

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.

Paul Cheung named director of interactive and digital news production

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Paul Cheung

The following promotion was announced today by AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara in an internal memo:

I’m pleased to announce that Paul Cheung is now AP’s director of interactive and digital news production.

Paul joined the AP newsroom in 2010 after roles at the Miami Herald and the Wall Street Journal. Most recently, he’s been serving as the president of the Asian American Journalists Association, where has received rave reviews from colleagues throughout the industry for his leadership and approach in building the organization.

Paul has been in the interim director role at the AP for the past several months, leading the team responsible for some of the company’s key products and innovation areas: interactives, data analysis and visualization, video explainers, mapping, GraphicsBank, news research, AP Overview and print graphics. The team — which includes staff at several AP offices around the world — also has been instrumental in the launch of the online products known as the digital news experiences, as well as parts of AP Mobile.

In this new role, Paul will oversee more of the production of those digital products, which had been part of the Nerve Center’s evolution the past few years. The digital news experiences, AP Mobile and a few other products related to specific customers will now roll up into the interactive and digital news production department. As part of this move, Jaime Holguin, who as the news development manager at the Nerve Center has played a pivotal role in the execution of many of these products, will report into Paul and the new department. Jaime, as he has been, will work with the business operations on products and be the point person between the rebooted, news-focused Nerve Center and the new department.

In the weeks ahead, Jaime and Paul will be working with Tamer Fakahany, the deputy managing editor overseeing the Nerve Center, on workflows and the location of products within the headquarters newsroom.

Please join me in offering congratulations, as these moves will allow us to continue to fine-tune our products and grow while refocusing the Nerve Center on the coordination of AP’s news report every day.

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.

Troy Thibodeaux named interactive newsroom technology editor

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Troy Thibodeaux

Troy Thibodeaux, an award-winning journalist and developer based in New Orleans, has been named interactive newsroom technology editor at the Associated Press. His appointment was outlined in a memo to staff on Thursday from Global Interactive Editor Paul Cheung:

 In his new role, Thibodeaux will lead a team of programmer-journalists to create groundbreaking journalism with a focus on newsroom tools, data-driven stories and interactive features. There will be a strong emphasis on working on global investigative stories, in alliance with news leaders and journalists across the company. 

Troy has a blend of editorial and programming skills, specifically focused around data journalism, which has been demonstrated since joining the AP in 2007 at the Washington Bureau. His technical and journalism skills have resulted in helping AP win a SABEW award for his work around the China’s Reach project in 2012.  He was also part of the award-winning Economic Stress Index in 2009, a seminal project for the AP.

Troy has been a teacher and mentor not only for AP journalists but also to the industry with his involvement in NICAR workshops. Most recently, thanks to Troy’s foresight around journalism tools, AP was awarded a second Knight grant for an idea he devised to build a tool to allow journalists to more easily mash up geographic data with other data sets.