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.

AP honored with First Amendment Award

The Radio Television Digital News Foundation (RTDNF) honored The Associated Press for defending a robust free press with its challenge to the U.S. Department of Justice for secretly seizing AP phone records.

Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of the Associated Press, receiving the First Amendment Award for The Associated Press from RTDNF Chair Vince Duffy, during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12,  2014. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Gary Pruitt, the president and CEO of The Associated Press, receiving the First Amendment Award for AP from RTDNF Chair Vince Duffy, during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt, a First Amendment attorney, accepted the award at a black-tie event Wednesday evening in Washington emceed by Chris Wallace of Fox News.

A video narrated by “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer recounted how AP’s industry leadership this past year resulted in greater protections for all journalists.

“Because of the AP-DOJ dispute the rules protecting journalists from the reach of federal prosecutors improved swiftly and substantially,” Pruitt said.

He added: “The Department of Justice made clear, for the very first time, that they will not prosecute a journalist for doing his or her job.”

Watch a video of Pruitt’s remarks and read the AP news story.

 Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of the Associated Press, with members of the Associated Press staff during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12,  2014. Posing from left to right Dave Gwizdowski, Sally Buzbee, Ivett Chicas, Sara White, Larry Price, John Turell, Pruitt, Karen Kaiser, Ted Bridis, Denise Vance and Julie Pace. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)


Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of The Associated Press, with members of the AP staff during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12, 2014. Posing from left to right Dave Gwizdowski, Sally Buzbee, Ivett Chicas, Sara White, Larry Price, John Turell, Pruitt, Karen Kaiser, Ted Bridis, Denise Vance and Julie Pace. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

A Q&A with AP’s health law expert

Viewers of C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” today got the chance to interact with Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, The Associated Press’ expert on the rollout of the nation’s new health insurance system. During the 45-minute segment, he took questions from callers and discussed trends in national health care spending and health law costs.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Among the key points he underscored:

  • Health care costs are rising, but not as fast as they used to. “It’s rising more or less in line with the overall growth of the economy, which is, if you think of it, a lot of money that the U.S. still spends for health care, but it becomes more affordable when that bill is rising more or less in line with the growth of the economy rather than galloping ahead,” he said.
  • The new law may leave some Americans who have a serious chronic illness “underinsured” because their annual out-of-pocket costs could still be high.
  • The law has varying effects across the states. For example, 25 states and the District of Columbia have decided to expand Medicaid, but the other 25 have not, which can impact health insurance affordability for low-income patients.

AP, which has reporters in all 50 states — a footprint unmatched by any other news organization — is providing comprehensive coverage and support for member news organizations in localizing stories as the law is being implemented across the states.

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.”

AP calls for greater White House access in New York Times op-ed

UPDATED: Dec. 11, 2013

Santiago Lyon, AP vice president and director of photography, wrote this opinion piece published in The New York Times: Obama’s Orwellian Image Control.
__

Nov. 21, 2013

The Associated Press today reiterated its call for greater access to President Barack Obama for photographers who cover the White House.

“Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties,” said a letter delivered today to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney that was signed by AP and many other news organizations. “As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government.”

The letter echoed concerns raised by AP since President Obama’s first days in office in 2009.

AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon underscored key points in the dispute:

AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon

AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon

What is The AP seeking?
The AP and other media organizations are seeking more regular photo access to the President in the Oval Office and elsewhere as he performs official duties or meets with staff. While photographers are granted some access to Oval Office meetings and other activities, it has decreased markedly under the Obama administration when compared to previous presidents. We believe we should have access to a wider selection of presidential events where we know access to be possible.

Don’t we already see photos of these occasions?
A small group of photographers and a videographer, collectively known as the “travel pool,” enjoys some access to the Oval Office and other presidential activities but increasingly the Obama administration labels events as “private” before then releasing official photos shot by White House photographers such as Pete Souza.

These images are posted on the White House Flickr page – http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse – where they are available for free.

This July 1, 2013, screen grab from the Twitter Page of the official White House photographer, Pete Souza, shows a tweet featuring an image of President Barack Obama and his family listening to a tour guide inside Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island on June 30, 2013, in Cape Town, South Africa. The White House barred press photographers from this portion of the tour saying it was private, but then released their own photos of from Mandela's cell. (AP Photo/The White House)

This July 1, 2013, screen grab from the Twitter Page of the official White House photographer, Pete Souza, shows a tweet featuring an image of President Barack Obama and his family listening to a tour guide inside Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island on June 30, 2013, in Cape Town, South Africa. The White House barred press photographers from this portion of the tour saying it was private, but then released their own photos of from Mandela’s cell. (AP Photo/The White House)

The photos on that page are visual press releases and are carefully vetted by administration employees before distribution. Such images are increasingly offered to the media by the White House in lieu of real journalistic access and we and other media organizations find this unacceptable. Media organizations generally do not reproduce written press releases verbatim, so why should we settle for these official images?

What sort of situations have the media been excluded from?
The media were prevented from documenting the President’s first day on the job – surely an historic occasion. In addition, we have been denied access to legislation being signed as well as notable foreign leaders and other visitors of interest, such as the Pakistani student activist Malala Yousafzai. In fact, since 2010 we have only been granted access to the President alone in the Oval Office on two occasions, once in 2009 and again in 2010. We have never been granted access to the President at work in the Oval Office accompanied by his staff. Previous administration regularly granted such access.

And AP isn’t the only news organization with this complaint?
The AP joined with numerous other news organizations, including all the major television networks, as well as media umbrella organizations such as APME, ASNE and the White House Correspondents’ Association to protest this diminished access in a letter to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. In that letter we also requested a meeting with Mr. Carney to discuss the issue.

Hasn’t the AP used White House photos in the past?
We recognize that certain areas of the White House are off-limits to the media because they are secure or private areas, such as the President’s living quarters. On those occasions where something newsworthy or notable happens in these areas we sometimes distribute the official photos. Each such scenario is considered on a case-by-case basis. To be clear – we are asking to be allowed consistent, independent access into the room when the President signs legislation, greets visitors of note, or otherwise discharges his public duties.

Read a PDF of the letter to Carney.

Reporter reveals disparity in state salaries

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

BRIAN BAKST

Brian Bakst

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A: Uncovering the dirty cost of green energy

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

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

Ted Bridis

Ted Bridis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP statement on CPJ report

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

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

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

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