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.

Giarrusso to lead AP sports coverage

Michael Giarrusso

AP Global Sports Editor Michael Giarrusso (AP photo)

Today marks 100 days until the 2014 winter Olympics kick off in Sochi, Russia, and AP has named a new global sports editor to lead coverage of the games and other major events in the coming months, including the Super Bowl outside New York and the World Cup in Brazil.

Russia Sochi Olympics

In this Monday, Oct. 28, 2013 photo, workers are fixing the Olympic emblem at an entrance to the railway station of Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. Russia starts 100 day count down on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013 for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Lesya Polyakova)

In his new role, Michael Giarrusso, a former AP sports writer, news editor and state news executive, will oversee more than 100 journalists around the world and ensure that AP remains the leader in breaking sports news across formats.

What’s Giarrusso most looking forward to?

“People are consuming more sports news than they ever have before,” Giarrusso said, in newspapers and on television, smartphones and tablets. “AP sports is perfectly positioned to deliver any type of content to readers, members and customers at a moment’s notice.”

He added: “It’s so exciting to be leading this team of great journalists, and I’m honored.”

AP is already busy covering the countdown to the games, with stories on the athletes, the apparel, the politics and more.

Read more about Giarrusso and follow him on Twitter at @MichaelG1.

Paul Cheung named director of interactive and digital news production

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Paul Cheung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Troy Thibodeaux named interactive newsroom technology editor

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Troy Thibodeaux

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

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

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

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