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.

AP CEO demands answers from DOJ and FBI

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. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Protesting the FBI’s impersonation of an Associated Press reporter, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt today demanded answers from Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey.

In a letter addressed to both men, Pruitt likened the FBI’s impersonation during a 2007 investigation to identity theft and said the move seriously threatens the organization’s ability to gather news.

“In stealing our identity, the FBI tarnishes [AP’s] reputation, belittles the value of the free press rights enshrined in our Constitution and endangers AP journalists and other newsgatherers around the world,” Pruitt wrote. “This deception corrodes the most fundamental tenet of a free press – our independence from government control and corollary responsibility to hold government accountable.”

Pruitt added that the 2007 violation is another case of government overreach, as was the Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP phone records, which came to light last year.

Read the AP news story.

AP ‘outraged’ by FBI impersonation

One week after it was reported that the FBI had fabricated an Associated Press story during a 2007 investigation, the bureau’s director has revealed that the agency also impersonated an AP reporter during the probe.

In a letter published today in The New York Times, James B. Comey says: “That technique was proper and appropriate under Justice Department and F.B.I. guidelines at the time.”

As reported by AP, AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll reacted as follows:

“This latest revelation of how the FBI misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press doubles our concern and outrage, expressed earlier to Attorney General Eric Holder, about how the agency’s unacceptable tactics undermine AP and the vital distinction between the government and the press.”

In an earlier letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser had decried the FBI’s forging of the AP story.

Election Day effort continues into Wednesday

Though all the votes have been cast in the U.S. midterm elections, the importance of uncounted ballots looms large in some tight contests as AP journalists and race callers continued today to analyze Election Day results. Highlighting the remaining tasks, AP issued an advisory to its customers in the wee hours of this morning:

Hours later, only the Colorado and Connecticut gubernatorial races had additionally been called.

In all, AP tabulated results for more than 4,500 races last night, and our definitive race calls were cited by our members and customers around the world, from newspapers to major portals to national broadcasters. AP’s vote count also drove conversations on Twitter and Facebook.

U.S. Political Editor David Scott analyzes election results at AP's Washington bureau on Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Eric Carvin).

U.S. Political Editor David Scott analyzes election results at AP’s Washington bureau on Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Eric Carvin).

“I’m always awed to see the AP’s race-calling operation in action and last night was no exception,” said Sally Buzbee, AP’s Washington bureau chief. “The team spends election night watching the vote come in, discussing what the numbers mean and what’s yet to be determined. Our members and customers rely on us on election night to get it first, but first get it right, and we’re thrilled to have delivered for them.”

This mini-documentary produced in AP’s Washington bureau using 15-second Instagram videos gives a peek at how the night unfolded in the newsroom.

Election workers at AP headquarters in New York receive vote tallies from stringers across the U.S. (AP Photo/Emily Leshner)

Election workers at AP headquarters in New York receive vote tallies from stringers across the U.S. (AP Photo/Emily Leshner)

AP decries FBI fabrication of news story

Responding to the news this week that the FBI had fabricated an Associated Press story during a 2007 investigation, the AP expressed serious concern to Attorney General Eric Holder.

“In carrying out this scheme, the FBI both misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press and created a situation where our credibility could have been undermined on a large scale,” AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser said in a letter [PDF] delivered to Holder on Thursday.

“Any attempt by the government, whatever its motives, to falsely label its own messages as coming from the news media serves to undermine the vital distinction between the government and the press in society,” Kaiser added. “Such actions also compromise our ability to gather the news safely and effectively in parts of the world where our credibility rests on the basis of AP operating freely and independently.”

Read the AP news story.

Q&A: How AP counts the vote

As votes in the U.S. midterm elections roll in across the country on Nov. 4, it’s The Associated Press that will be counting the results through the evening. The news industry and the public turn to AP, a not-for-profit cooperative, to provide fast and reliable results on national, state and local races and key ballot measures.

Here, Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee, explains why AP plays such a critical role for both the public and the press.

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

How does AP count the vote?
On election night, AP assigns stringers in nearly every county in the U.S., and in towns and cities in New England, to gather vote tallies from county clerks and other officials. They phone in the results to AP vote tabulation centers, where an AP election worker enters the results. Web teams check for election results on county and state sites, and the AP also processes direct feeds of election results in some states from secretaries of state, and from some counties. The returns are filtered through myriad checks and verifications before being transmitted to AP members and customers, and ultimately the public. The results are updated throughout the evening.

AP’s vote count operation, headed by Director of Election Tabulations and Research Don Rehill, is considered by many news organizations to be the definitive source of race results. In fact, formal government announcements of results often don’t come for weeks after an election.

AP election workers count the vote on election night, Nov. 4, 2012 (AP Photo).

AP election workers count the vote on election night, Nov. 4, 2012 (AP Photo).

Who makes the call?
Experienced journalists in each state are responsible for calling races. They’ve got on-the-ground knowledge that no other national news organization can match, as well as detailed data on voting history and demographics. The race callers in each state are assisted by experts in AP’s Washington bureau who examine exit poll numbers and votes as they are counted. A “decision desk” in Washington, overseen by myself and Political Editor David Scott, and headed by David Pace, AP news editor for special projects and elections, has final signoff on all high-profile calls.

When do you make the call?
In states with exit polls, we call top-of-the ticket races at poll close only if we’re confident the leader’s margin is sufficient to overcome any potential error in the exit poll, which is conducted by Edison Research for AP and the broadcast members that make up the National Election Pool (NEP).

In races that we can’t call at poll close, we make the call when we’re convinced that the trailing candidate can’t catch the leader, given the size of the outstanding vote and the voting history of those counties. We never make a call if the margin between the top two candidates is less than the threshold when a state would require a recount.

This is a key detail: AP does not call any race until all the polls in that jurisdiction have closed.

Does speed trump accuracy in the social media age?
Speed has always been important in elections, but AP values accuracy above all else. We’re proud of our long history and well-earned reputation of being the gold standard for election calls. For example, in 2012, AP called 4,653 contested races with a remarkable accuracy rate of 99.9 percent.

Calling races, from the national level to state legislatures, is a vital function AP provides to members and customers. Being able to accurately and quickly call those statewide and state-level races is critical to their ability to provide strong election night coverage for their audiences around the world.

Where can I find AP’s election coverage?
Member newspapers, websites, national and local broadcasters and major portals all carry AP election results, as well as text stories, photos, videos and interactives. The AP Mobile news app features election coverage from AP as well as member newspapers. Our reporting and statistics also drive conversations on social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Does AP tweet results?
The AP and our individual journalists share information that’s already been reported on the wire on Twitter and Facebook, but we don’t break news there. We’re going to share our calls in all races for U.S. Senate and governor from @AP and @AP_Politics on Twitter, but in a way that ensures the calls reach our members and customers first.

8 ways the Obama administration is blocking information

The fight for access to public information has never been harder, Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee said recently at a joint meeting of the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors and the Associated Press Photo Managers. The problem extends across the entire federal government and is now trickling down to state and local governments.

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

Here is Buzbee’s list of eight ways the Obama administration is making it hard for journalists to find information and cover the news:

1) As the United States ramps up its fight against Islamic militants, the public can’t see any of it. News organizations can’t shoot photos or video of bombers as they take off — there are no embeds. In fact, the administration won’t even say what country the S. bombers fly from.

2) The White House once fought to get cameramen, photographers and reporters into meetings the president had with foreign leaders overseas. That access has become much rarer. Think about the message that sends other nations about how the world’s leading democracy deals with the media:  Keep them out and let them use handout photos.

3) Guantanamo: The big important 9/11 trial is finally coming up. But we aren’t allowed to see most court filings in real time — even of nonclassified material. So at hearings, we can’t follow what’s happening. We don’t know what prosecutors are asking for, or what defense attorneys are arguing.

4) Information about Guantanamo that was routinely released under President George W. Bush is now kept secret. The military won’t release the number of prisoners on hunger strike or the number of assaults on guards. Photo and video coverage is virtually nonexistent.

5) Day-to-day intimidation of sources is chilling. AP’s transportation reporter’s sources say that if they are caught talking to her, they will be fired. Even if they just give her facts, about safety, for example. Government press officials say their orders are to squelch anything controversial or that makes the administration look bad.

6) One of the media — and public’s — most important legal tools, the Freedom of Information Act, is under siege. Requests for information under FOIA have become slow and expensive. Many federal agencies simply don’t respond at all in a timely manner, forcing news organizations to sue each time to force action.

7) The administration uses FOIAs as a tip service to uncover what news organizations are pursuing. Requests are now routinely forwarded to political appointees. At the agency that oversees the new health care law, for example, political appointees now handle the FOIA requests.

8) The administration is trying to control the information that state and local officials can give out. The FBI has directed local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology the police departments use to sweep up cellphone data. In some cases, federal officials have formally intervened in state open records cases, arguing for secrecy.

AP announces new political reporting lineup

U.S. Political Editor David Scott announced the AP’s new political reporting lineup in a memo to staff today:

All,

Please join me in welcoming Steve Peoples as he joins the Washington bureau this month as a political reporter focused on the Republican Party and its candidates for president in 2016.

Steve Peoples (AP Photo).

Steve Peoples (AP Photo).

“Joining” might seem like the wrong verb, since Steve has been a part of the AP’s political team — covering this crucial beat — for some time. From his base in Boston, and his second home at the many Marriotts of New Hampshire, Peoples turned his role as our northeast political reporter into a job whose scope reached far beyond New England.

For months during the last presidential campaign, Peoples was a fixture in the living rooms and coffee shops where the New Hampshire primary is won and lost. He sat in diners with Jon Huntsman’s family and rode mountain bikes with Ron Paul. He turned those intimate moments into a depth of sourcing that allowed him to excel as our reporter on the Mitt Romney campaign.

In recent months, even as he continued covering GOP contenders, Steve took it upon himself to keep the AP’s political reporting team organized and on point, leading story discussion meetings and organizing coverage of key moments of the off-campaign year. His assistance has been invaluable to me as I get up to speed in Washington.

With this move, AP will now field quite the political reporting lineup — a team that’s ready for the upcoming presidential election, which as we all know is well underway.

Ken Thomas and Julie Pace (AP Photo).

Ken Thomas and Julie Pace (AP Photo).

Leading off are Steve and Ken Thomas, our reporter on the national Democratic Party and, therefore, Hillary Rodham Clinton. As the campaign gains momentum, they’ll increasingly be joined by Julie Pace and members of the White House team. There is no better place for AP’s White House Correspondent to prepare to lead AP’s coverage of the next president than out in the country as voters make the choice of who will next sit in the Oval Office.

Who might they be writing about this time next year? Still to be determined, although we have some clues. We know for certain the campaign will start in Iowa, where Tom Beaumont will tell the story, joined as the campaign moves along by political reporters Nick Riccardi in Denver, Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Mike Mishak in Miami and Jill Colvin in New Jersey. And they’re backed with Washington’s Phil Elliott on money and media, Jesse Holland on race, ethnicity and voters, and Chuck Babington on the intersection of politics, the campaign and Congress. All guided by the intel provided by polling chief Jenn Agiesta, and assisted by Donna Cassata, Dave Espo and all the member of our team on the Hill.

And then there are all the beat reporters in Washington whose expertise on policy so often makes the AP’s political report something truly distinct. And all the political reporters AP has in every statehouse, which gives AP — and therefore its members and customers — a reach that no one can match.

And that’s just the text team. We’re already working on exciting ideas on how we’ll carry out our political story telling in video for 2016. For now, I’m thrilled to welcome Steve to Washington and so excited to be working with him, this team and our staff in U.S. news to tell the story of another chapter in the grand American experiment.

From Washington,

David

Learn more about AP’s national politics team and follow @AP_Politics on Twitter.

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.