AP investigative reporter offers tips for seeking public records

The Associated Press is committed to fighting for access to information the public has a right to know. AP journalists across the country routinely file Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover critical information that the government would have preferred to keep secret. Washington investigative reporter Jack Gillum recently broke the story that Hillary Clinton used a private email server at her home, and he mined information on Instagram to track Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock’s spending. Gillum frequently draws from records requests to report exclusives. Here, he explains why they should be part of every journalist’s toolkit:

Investigative reporter Jack Gillum (AP photo).

Investigative reporter Jack Gillum (AP photo).

How important to your work are the Freedom of Information Act and open records statutes in the states?
Public records requests have been invaluable in my reporting. FOIA requests to U.S. agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration recently uncovered that the government knew local police in Ferguson, Missouri, put in place flight restrictions to keep the news media away during demonstrations following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Other requests can illuminate how government officials conduct their affairs, such as when we found senior U.S. officials using alternative email accounts – raising questions about their obligations to turn over documents to lawmakers and the public.

My request for 911 tapes made during the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings — the subject of a lengthy legal fight — revealed how public safety officials responded to one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history. The records didn’t come easy, with one state prosecutor opposing their release and telling a judge that neither I nor the AP represented the public. The judge ultimately sided with the AP.

How often do you file FOIA requests?
I usually file at least one request a week. That doesn’t include the countless records requests other AP journalists file with governments in the United States and around the world.

What challenges do you encounter in the process?
The federal FOIA is chock full of delays, leaving journalists to wait for information long after the news value of those documents has passed. The U.S. State Department, the defendant in a new FOIA lawsuit by the AP seeking documents about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has an average wait time of nearly a year and a half for certain requests.

Public records laws can vary from state to state. Some laws are antiquated and don’t properly address electronic records, leading to excessive charges (25 cents per page) just to view a public official’s emails or her schedules. Other agencies — state, federal or municipal — simply can’t or won’t perform adequate searches, especially with regard to databases and other forms of digital communications.

What advice do you have for other journalists who are learning to navigate the system?
Even if you’re not a lawyer, become an expert on your state’s freedom-of-information laws. Be prepared to fight any denial; don’t “file and forget” the request. And file requests often — not just when you need information on a big, breaking story. After all, governments produce a lot of material that could be newsworthy and important for the public to see.

Become familiar with electronic records and how they’re stored, especially since documents in manila folders are becoming less commonplace. Ask for database “record layouts” – a virtual map of a database that can reveal what information is being kept – and request other forms of electronic communication besides email (like text messages, chat transcripts or Twitter direct messages).

A search of records reveals questionable ties of police chiefs

In this memo to staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how a statehouse reporter’s aggressive pursuit of public documents uncovered a story that had immediate impact in cities across the country:

Iowa City-based Ryan Foley, a member of the State Government Team, was working with Minnesota Statehouse reporter Brian Bakst on a story about the high cost of police body cameras and video storage fees when he spotted the outlines of an accountability thread.

In this Feb. 19, 2015 file photo, Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, demonstrates one of the company's body cameras for The Associated Press during a company-sponsored conference hosted by Taser at the California Highway Patrol Headquarters in Sacramento, Calif. Officials in Salt Lake City and Fort Worth, Texas, said they are reviewing their ethics policies after The Associated Press reported on how their police chiefs were closely linked to the company that won contracts to supply officers with body cameras. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this Feb. 19, 2015, file photo, Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, demonstrates one of the company’s body cameras for The Associated Press during a company-sponsored conference hosted by Taser at the California Highway Patrol Headquarters in Sacramento, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Taser, one of the biggest players in the fast-growing body camera market, had questionable financial ties to the police chiefs who held sway over their cities’ decision on whether to spend significant taxpayer dollars on such gear. Foley flagged it to the attention of his editors and outlined an initial coverage plan, then was given time to dig.

Through aggressive use of public records and persistence in following up, Foley broke the story that Taser, the stun-gun maker, was indeed forging financial ties with police chiefs as a way to win lucrative city contracts in the body camera market. Here’s how it works: Taser covers the expenses for police chiefs to pitch its products at company events across the country and has hired recently retired chiefs as consultants just months after they pushed for approval of Taser contracts.

Foley’s story quickly prompted officials in Fort Worth, Texas, and Salt Lake City to launch reviews of their ethics policies: “What you’re seeing is the Fourth Estate in action,” Salt Lake City spokesman Art Raymond told Foley for his follow-up story. Tom Cowan, chairman of the ethics committee for the Texas police chiefs association, told Foley that his story had prompted the group to examine the former Fort Worth chief’s actions as a likely violation of its ethics code: “It’s caused a lot of entities to rethink this,” he said.

Foley read company literature and financial documents to identify individuals, filed records requests in the cities where they served and pursued comments from his main subjects over several weeks. In Fort Worth, city officials resisted efforts to release some documents and even appealed to the Texas Attorney General’s office, an effort that remains ongoing. Foley did get some of what he requested and turned that into a sidebar that exposed an incriminating email exchange between the city’s former police chief and a Taser sales rep: “I have the votes,” the chief triumphantly declared after persuading the city to approve a rushed $2.7 million contract to help Taser meet a quarterly sales goal. The chief retired shortly afterward and is now in negotiations to get a consulting job with Taser that will take him to Australia and other overseas destinations to promote the company’s products.

Foley also revealed that the current Salt Lake City police chief, who had done extensive promotional work for Taser, had bypassed the normal city budgeting rules to buy 295 Taser body cameras without the City Council’s knowledge. Emphasizing the significance of the beat, a reporter for a Salt Lake City TV station emailed Ryan a congratulatory note after his story ran, saying, “I had heard rumors about this unhealthy relationship more than a year ago but couldn’t pin anything down; glad you busted this out.”

In addition to prompting immediate action in several cities, Foley’s story landed in the top 10 on AP Mobile on a heavy news day. It also made the front pages of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Salt Lake Tribune.

For spotting an important thread and aggressively pursuing public records for a story with immediate real-world impact, Foley wins this week’s $300 Best of the States award.

AP announces political team for 2016

U.S. Political Editor David Scott announced The Associated Press’ political reporting lineup in a memo to staff today:

Colleagues,

The past two weeks have been a strong marker, lest there be any doubt, that the campaign for president in 2016 is here, now. So today, Sally and I are thrilled to announce an addition to the U.S. political team, and some other changes, that will help us break the biggest news and report the sharpest enterprise from now until Election Day.

Lisa Lerer (Photo courtesy Lisa Lerer)

Lisa Lerer (Photo courtesy Lisa Lerer)

First, the addition: Lisa Lerer will join AP as a political reporter focused on Hillary Clinton. Lisa, now a correspondent at Bloomberg Politics, will be based in Washington, but will spend time in New York and on the trail with the presumptive Democratic front runner. It’s a place Lisa knows well, having covered Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012 and the Republican field in 2008. Since then, she has written primarily on domestic policy from the White House for Bloomberg News and BusinessWeek magazine, and appeared on Bloomberg television.

Lisa is a strong source reporter, knowledgeable about campaigns and donors — and also knowledgeable about governing. She has a good eye for fresh and interesting angles.

Next up, a shift we had planned for later this year, but are excited to make now: our White House correspondent, Julie Pace, will broaden her focus to include campaign coverage along with her normal White House coverage, bringing strong sourcing skills and political acumen to the team.

Julie Pace (AP photo).

Julie Pace (AP photo).

Lisa joins the AP early next month. Julie has already begun to split her time between the campaign and the White House. She will retain her title and a strong news portfolio at the White House.

It goes without saying: We do anticipate other reporters will be drawn into our political coverage as the campaign progresses.

Meanwhile, from his base in Iowa, Tom Beaumont is now responsible for our coverage of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Phil Elliott is focused on the Republicans in the Senate seeking the GOP’s 2016 nomination. For the next few months, Cal Woodward will also be working closely with me and the political team as an editor.

These changes make our already strong team stronger. Ken Thomas remains focused on national Democrats, and Steve Peoples on the national Republican Party. In New Jersey, Jill Colvin is on point for Chris Christie and all 2016 news in New York City. Nick Riccardi covers politics in the West and Bill Barrow in the South, as before.

Jesse Holland remains our lead voice on race, ethnicity and voters, and Emily Swanson on polling. The report benefits each day from the work of our team on Capitol Hill, led by Donna Cassata. And, of course, AP’s corps of statehouse reporters has already proved highly valuable on the trail.

In photos, we are pleased to have recently welcomed Andrew Harnik, an experienced campaign and political photographer, to AP’s team of Pulitzer Prize-winning campaign photographers who will cover the 2016 race both in Washington and on the trail.

And AP’s Washington-based U.S. video operation is already gearing up to produce the coverage of candidates and issues that will explain to television and digital video audiences — worldwide — where the race for the White House stands hour by hour.

Please join me in welcoming Lisa.

Best,

David

Persistence and source work pay on big political story

In a note to staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how a reporter who cultivated sources on the statehouse beat kept AP ahead on a story that resonated beyond state borders:

In early January, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber was sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term. Last week, he announced his resignation — a swift and spectacular fall that was adroitly chronicled by Salem, Oregon, correspondent Jonathan J. Cooper.

In this Jan. 12, 2015 file photo, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber escorts his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, onto the House floor before he is sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term as Governor in Salem, Ore. Kitzhaber announced his resignation Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, amid allegations Hayes used her relationship with him to enrich herself. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, file)

In this Jan. 12, 2015 file photo, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber escorts his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, onto the House floor before he is sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term as Governor in Salem, Ore. Kitzhaber announced his resignation Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, amid allegations Hayes used her relationship with him to enrich herself. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, file)

Allegations that Kitzhaber’s fiancee had used their relationship to win contracts for her consulting business had swirled around the governor for months. On Monday, the state attorney general announced a criminal investigation. On Tuesday, Kitzhaber asked Oregon’s secretary of state, Kate Brown, to return from a conference in Washington, D.C. That fueled rumors he might step down because, under the state’s constitution, she would succeed him. But after meeting with Brown, Kitzhaber said he had no intention of quitting. Brown then released a statement suggesting Kitzhaber was unstable.

On Thursday, Cooper got a scoop when he reported Kitzhaber had in fact decided to leave the state’s top job, but then changed his mind. Cooper’s sources were three people in the governor’s inner circle. Cooper, through his previous beat reporting on the disastrous rollout of Oregon’s health insurance website, had developed deep and reliable sources at the Capitol who trusted him to get his facts straight. As Kitzhaber faced growing pressure to step down, people within the administration turned to Cooper to let him know the governor had convened his aides on Sunday, Feb. 8, to say he planned to step down, but then he changed his mind.

On Friday, Cooper, again citing sources, reported that Kitzhaber had reversed course again and would indeed resign. About a half-hour later the governor announced he would leave. But Cooper’s long day and week wasn’t over. On Friday night, working yet another source, Cooper obtained a copy of a federal subpoena that confirmed federal agents were probing the influence peddling-scandal.

Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown is sworn in as Oregon Governor by Oregon Chief Justice Thomas A. Balmer in Salem, Ore., Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015.  John Kitzhaber, elected to an unprecedented fourth term last year, announced last week that he would step down amid allegations his fiancee used her relationship with him to enrich herself.  (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown is sworn in as Oregon Governor by Oregon Chief Justice Thomas A. Balmer in Salem, Ore., Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. John Kitzhaber, elected to an unprecedented fourth term last year, announced last week that he would step down amid allegations his fiancee used her relationship with him to enrich herself. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

Statehouse reporting is a cornerstone of our strategy for U.S. News and is one of the key things that sets AP apart from the competition. But just being in every statehouse isn’t enough. Cooper’s work shows how an enterprising and well-sourced reporter can help set the news agenda on even the most competitive and spectacular stories. His Friday story about the resignation and federal investigation was the lead story on Yahoo News and MSN, and The New York Times cited AP when it referred to the subpoenas. The biggest TV stations in the Northwest led their noon newscasts citing AP’s NewsAlert that Kitzhaber would announce his resignation.

For his persistence and source work on a huge political story that captured the nation’s attention, Cooper will receive this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

When news breaks, ‘everyone is a reporter’ at AP

In a memo to AP staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how quick-thinking and collaboration across states and formats led to definitive coverage of a tragic story that captured national attention:

Minutes after a rush-hour commuter train slammed into an SUV on the tracks north of New York City, killing six, two AP staffers more than 1,000 miles apart went immediately to work.

In the New York suburbs, breaking news staffer Kiley Armstrong was at home reading her Facebook feed when a message appeared about the collision on the busy Metro North line. Without hesitating, she grabbed her coat, her notebook and her camera, and headed out the door.

It wasn’t until she reached the snowy crash site two miles away that she called the New York City desk to say she was there, and began dictating the first details of smoke pouring from the train and rescuers trying to get survivors to safety.

Armstrong was the first AP staffer on the scene, and the only one of our text reporters to get anywhere near the site. Her reporting and photography (two of her photos made the wire) helped AP get out front on a story everyone in the nation’s biggest media market was covering.

Firefighters work at the scene of an accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. A packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle on the tracks and the front of the train and the vehicle burst into flames, authorities said. (AP Photo/Kiley Armstrong)

Firefighters work at the scene of an accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. A packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle on the tracks and the front of the train and the vehicle burst into flames, authorities said. (AP Photo/Kiley Armstrong)

Meanwhile, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. investigative team reporter Michael Kunzelman was at home reading his iPad when an alert moved about the New York crash. He immediately began scouring documents he received months before as part of a Freedom of Information request _ on railroad crossings that had received federal money for safety improvements.

He found this listing next to the New York crossing: “Commerce Street Crossing of Metro North Railroad for a crossing upgrade.” There was an amount of money allocated, $126,000 and a status code: “Active.” He quickly contacted his New York-based investigative team colleague, David Caruso, and together they started tracking down the details.

Armstrong, Kunzelman and Caruso demonstrated the essence of what it means to work for the AP in a breaking news situation: No matter your job title or your schedule, EVERYONE is a reporter, and speed is of the essence.

Armstrong’s dash to the scene captured the color and details that populated our breaking updates through the night. She would eventually be joined by at least four more AP staffers across formats, and two more making calls in the bureau.

Kunzelman and Caruso, meanwhile, found that the railroad crossing had undergone a number of upgrades in recent years to reduce the risk of accidents, including the installation of brighter LED lights and new traffic signal control equipment.

But the “active” item from the documents, a 2009 plan to install a third set of flashing lights 100 to 200 feet up the road to give motorists a few seconds’ extra warning, was never carried out. The $126,000 budgeted for the lights and other work was never spent. New York transportation officials were unable to explain why, though they cautioned it was too soon to say whether it would have made any difference in preventing the collision.

The APNewsBreak moved on Friday shortly before public officials held a news conference at the crossing where the crash occurred.

“I just saw that report, the AP report, that they said there should have been more work done, in 2009,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. “That’s something that we have to find out the answer to right away. Why wasn’t the work done? Would it have made a difference? Could it have made this preventable? It’s a looming question.”

For fast work and hustle that made AP stand out on one of the biggest national stories of the week, Armstrong, Kunzelman and Caruso share this week’s $300 Best of the States Prize.

AP’s top editor: ‘Is the story worth the risk?’

In a time of increasing threats to journalists worldwide, Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said that news organizations need to carefully weigh the risks of reporting against journalists’ passion for telling untold stories.

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Kathleen Carroll, executive editor for the Associated Press, Douglas Frantz, U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs and moderator Diane Woodruff take part in a discussion on the growing threats to journalists worldwide, the role of freelancers and local reporters, and the rise of hostage taking at the Newseum in Washington Feb. 4, 2015.   (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists,
Kathleen Carroll, executive editor for the Associated Press, Douglas Frantz, U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs and moderator Judy Woodruff take part in a discussion on the growing threats to journalists worldwide, at the Newseum in Washington Feb. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

During a wide-ranging discussion Feb. 4 at the Newseum in Washington, about the dangers of reporting in conflict zones, risks to freelance journalists and responsibilities for news organizations and governments, Carroll said: “I think the real question for all of us, as news consumers and as news employers, is: ‘Is the story worth the risk?’ And that’s a question we often ask ourselves both in the field and back at the home office. And the answer is sometimes, ‘no.’”

The panel, moderated by Judy Woodruff, co-anchor and managing editor of PBS “NewsHour,” also included Douglas Frantz, U.S. secretary of state for public affairs, and Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The panel followed a separate conversation with Diane Foley, mother of freelance journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by Islamic State militants in 2014, and Debra Tice, mother of missing freelance journalist Austin Tice.

A new set of safety guidelines for freelancers and news organizations that hire freelancers will be unveiled at Columbia University next week, Carroll said, adding that a number of organizations have been involved in their development, including CPJ, AP, Reuters, AFP and others.

In closing, Carroll called on news consumers to care: “This is work that people are doing at great risk to educate you, so give a damn. Read the paper, read on your tablet, engage in the news, be a citizen of the world. Make some effort to understand what it is that these people are taking great risks to bring you.”

Watch a video replay of the event.

What’s the deal with Davos?

DAVOS, Switzerland — It’s hard to think of any other event quite like the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting here in the Swiss Alps. The U.N. General Assembly draws more world leaders. The Oscars attract more celebrities. But nothing brings together quite this combination of corporate executives, academics, philanthropists and media.

Participants walk in the main entrance hall of the Congress Center the day before the opening of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. The world's financial and political elite will head this week to the Swiss Alps for 2015's gathering of the World Economic Forum at the Swiss ski resort of Davos. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Participants walk in the main entrance hall of the Congress Center the day before the opening of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

It began in 1971 as a two-week meeting designed to improve European management. Some 450 executives attended. It has grown to something both grander and broader, with 2,500 attendees and a sweeping motto: “Committed to improving the state of the world.” No small task.

To a considerable extent they all come because they all come. Some critics dismiss the meetings as a talk shop or a gathering of elites who fly pretty high above the world most people live in, the one they are committed to improving.

Yet, for all that, interesting things are often said here and occasionally news is broken here. One year, AP Chief Switzerland Correspondent John Heilprin scooped the world on a new security policy in which the United States said that protecting corporate supply chains was now as important as the longtime job of guarding shipping lanes. How did he get the scoop? The then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was sent to Davos with half a dozen copies of the new directive signed personally by President Barack Obama. They were intended for other world leaders. But it’s hard to actually catch up with a world leader here, even though there are usually about 40 at least passing through. So John seized the moment and cajoled one of those documents out of an aide.

Some news organizations send small armies to cover Davos. One, for example, takes over the town’s library for its operations. AP takes a different approach. A small but hearty band of journalists covers all formats. It’s a great place to snag newsmakers for video or text. Pan Pylas, an AP business reporter here from London, recalls standing feet from actor Matt Damon one moment and then being quick marched by his editors (well, me actually) to a private briefing with the president of Iran.

“It’s unusual to get so many newsmakers and thought leaders all together in a very small place, when they are unusually accessible and a little bit more relaxed than usual,” Heilprin said. “For a reporter, the first challenge is to recognize them all. The second is to quickly think of a good question when one passes by.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron and  rock star Bono speak during the panel discussion  "The Post-2015 Goals: Inspiring a New Generation to Act", the fifth annual Associated Press debate, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014.  (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

British Prime Minister David Cameron and rock star Bono speak during the panel discussion “The Post-2015 Goals: Inspiring a New Generation to Act,” the fifth annual Associated Press debate, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

The highlight of our Davos week is the annual AP Davos debate, the brainchild of Director of Global Video News Sandy MacIntyre and Senior Field Producer Masha McPherson. Working with the Davos organizers, we turn one of the panel discussions into a broadcast and send it to our 700 broadcast clients and hundreds of digital news outlets.

We’ve had some memorable moments. Like the time Prime Minister David Cameron asked Bono to help craft a message for the fight on global poverty. Or when the Italian finance minister got angry because we asked about a bank scandal in Siena instead of the high-minded global financial questions he was looking for. Our Italian customers were very happy.

But that’s Davos. If you remember why you’re here, as a journalist, you can always find a story.

AP CEO welcomes DOJ’s revised media guidelines

The Associated Press today welcomed revised guidelines on how the federal government could obtain records from the news media during leak investigations.

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press, delivers the keynote address at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting luncheon in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Pruitt spoke on the subject of "Free Press vs. National Security: The False Choice." (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press, delivers the keynote address at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting luncheon in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Pruitt spoke on the subject of “Free Press vs. National Security: The False Choice.” (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The guidelines, released by the Justice Department, revised steps announced last year in the wake of a public and media industry outcry over the secret seizure of AP phone records in May 2013.

“We are very pleased the Justice Department took our concerns seriously and implemented changes that will strengthen the protection of journalists for years to come,” said AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt.

AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser added: “These revisions advance the law significantly. In particular, the changes eliminate potential ambiguity of what constitutes newsgathering and help provide consistency in how the guidelines are interpreted across investigations and administrations.”

The AP, together with the Newspaper Association of America and the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, played a leading role in advocating for the changes on behalf of a coalition of news organizations.

In 2013, Pruitt had decried the DOJ’s seizure of the AP phone records during a leak investigation, calling the action  “unconstitutional” in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” and warning it would have a negative impact on journalism.

AP’s industry leadership in challenging the DOJ and calling for stronger protections for journalists was recognized last year with a First Amendment Award from the Radio Television Digital News Foundation (RTDNF) and the Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s memo spelling out the new guidelines is found on the DOJ’s website.

Doubling down on state government coverage

Building on The Associated Press’ unmatched presence in all 50 U.S. statehouses, we are adding to our competitive advantage by creating a team of state government specialists.

As announced today to the AP staff, the specialists will collaborate with statehouse reporters, as well as on their own projects and stories focused on government accountability and strong explanatory reporting. Their over-arching goal will be “to show how state government is impacting the lives of people across the country,” said Brian Carovillano, managing editor for U.S. news.

The California State Assembly met for an organizational session where lawmakers took the oath of office at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Dec.  1, 2014.  Both houses of the Legislature will reconvene after the new year. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The California State Assembly met for an organizational session where lawmakers took the oath of office at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. Both houses of the Legislature will reconvene after the new year. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Tom Verdin, AP’s administrative correspondent in Sacramento, will assume a new position leading the team of specialists full time. He’s supervised a number of high-impact projects, including AP’s coverage of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

Joining Verdin on the team will be National Writer David Crary, reporters David LiebRyan Foley and Christina Almeida Cassidy, as well as Central Enterprise Editor Tom McCarthy.

The New York-based Crary is an expert on many of the social issues state governments are tackling, from gay rights to abortion and adoption, and he’ll continue to focus on many of those issues. Lieb has owned the state government beat in Missouri. From Chicago, McCarthy has been Lieb’s editor and partner on some of his best recent work, and he will serve as editor for many of the stories the State Government Team produces.

Cassidy has been AP’s state government reporter in Georgia. And Foley, based in Iowa, is among AP’s strongest watchdog reporters.

Here, Carovillano answers a few key questions about today’s announcement:

Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano (AP Photo).

Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano (AP Photo).

How will the state government specialists differ from the AP reporters already assigned to all 50 statehouses and state bureaus?
The team will complement what our excellent state government correspondents do every day across the country and allow us to bring extra reporting firepower in on the most important stories. Let’s say there’s a trend emerging from several statehouses that our folks on the ground identify. The state government team will work with reporters in those states — and with the data team, if necessary — to bring depth and a national perspective to that issue and show how it’s playing out across the country.

They’ll be a resource to our statehouse reporters looking for help broadening the scope of their reporting, and a projects team that will partner with folks in the states to pursue bigger and more ambitious enterprise on the business of state government. And the focus really needs to be on how that impacts peoples’ lives. We don’t cover state government for the state government; we cover it for all the people of the state. The message here is that state government coverage is essential to AP and its members, and we are doubling down on that commitment, which should benefit the entire cooperative.

How else has AP expanded and strengthened state news coverage across the country?
We’ve hired 13 statehouse reporters over the past year. A few of those are new positions; a few filled positions that had been vacant. We are and will remain committed to staffing every statehouse. And we’ll add about 40 additional contract reporters to cover legislative sessions next year, in addition to the permanent staff.

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt has identified state news coverage as a companywide priority. What other steps are being taken to bolster AP’s state news franchise?
Well, we have made some hires in key locations. I mentioned the 13 statehouse reporters we’ve hired this year. We’ve also made hires on some essential beats, such as politics, immigration, courts/crime and education. Beyond that, we are really pushing our state bureaus to focus their time and effort on content that is exclusive to AP and that our members and subscribers can’t get anywhere else. That needs to be our guiding principle. We do that exactly as we always have: by developing sources and breaking stories, being fastest on big breaking news, and by providing explanation, analysis and depth on the stories that have the biggest impact on peoples’ lives.

To help the bureaus recommit to this kind of high-value content, we’re setting up centralized operations in each region to handle “shared” news from the cooperative. These are the stories and images we pick up from one member and redistribute to the other members in that state. We’re also going to be putting more resources into social media newsgathering, and especially user-generated content, in each of the four U.S. regions. This lets us be in a lot more places than ever before, but it’s critical that we do it without compromising at all on the AP’s reputation for accuracy and fairness.

Editorials criticize FBI’s impersonation

The FBI’s recent admission that it fabricated an Associated Press story and impersonated an AP reporter during an investigation of bomb threats in the Seattle area continues to generate criticism of the agency’s actions.

USAT1“Catching potential bombers obviously is a good thing, but there are ways to do it without making news operations look like government shills,” USA Today said in an editorial today. “When journalists contact potential sources — whether by phone, e-mail or in person — they need people to trust that they are in fact reporters, not undercover cops.”

WashingtonPost“What was wrong about the Seattle operation was the potential damage to the credibility of the Associated Press by the creation of a false news account by the government and by the impersonation of a reporter,” a Washington Post editorial argued. “The technique threatens to undermine all reporters — not just those from the AP — who seek information from sources and represent themselves truthfully as independent journalists.”

Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer wrote: “Whenever police officers masquerade as journalists, they introduce doubt into the public’s mind about whether the next person purporting to be a journalist is actually a police officer or the stories in the news are really bait set by police.”

In Pennsylvania, The Scranton Times-Tribune Editorial Board said this: “Democracy works only with an independent press that is not controlled by the government. The nation’s Founding Fathers knew that. That’s why, right there in the First Amendment, it says that Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, of the press.

“It doesn’t include a specific prohibition against government agencies impersonating reporters. Perhaps the founders believed that their successors would have the good sense not to jeopardize the independence of the press.

“Recently, however, the FBI has decided to impersonate the press, thus diminishing the press’ separation from the government.”

In an opposing view published by USA Today, former FBI Assistant Director Ronald T. Hosko, now president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, said the FBI “takes seriously its use of sensitive operations,” adding that in the Seattle investigation “no law was broken, no policy was avoided, nothing was traded away with an ‘ends justify the means’ calculus.”

Meanwhile, AP is awaiting a reply to President and CEO Gary Pruitt’s Nov. 10 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey in which he asked who authorized the investigative tactics in 2007 and sought “assurances that this won’t happen again.”

Editorials also have appeared in The New York Times, The Denver Post, The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, The Spokesman-Review (in Spokane, Washington), The Repository (in Canton, Ohio) and other newspapers.