How one Cuba scoop led to another

In a memo to staff, Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes hails the AP reporting team from around the world who worked together to break an important story about the U.S. government’s secret activities in Cuba:

It could be the makings of a James Bond movie: secure phones and encrypted emails used by AP reporters trying to penetrate a government program whose operatives were themselves using secret codes and trade craft. “I have a headache” really meant “They are watching me.” And “Your sister is ill” translated to “Time to get out.”

But it’s not fiction. It’s all part of this week’s Beat of the Week _ an accountability story furthering AP’s exclusive reporting on U.S. government efforts to stir political change in Cuba.

When does one scoop lead to another? When you’re the investigative team that this spring exposed a U.S. government program that created a secret “Cuban Twitter” text messaging service to encourage unrest on the communist island.

Cuba Secret Infiltration

In this July 11, 2014, photo, Cuban students exit Marta Abreu Central University in Santa Clara, Cuba. Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

Several weeks after that explosive piece hit the wire, reporter Desmond Butler‘s source gave him a new batch of documents. Tucked inside were details about security protocols with the secret codes and details of a story about an Obama administration program that secretly dispatched young Latin Americans to Cuba using the cover of health and civic programs to provoke political change.

The participants worked undercover, often posing as tourists, and traveled around the island scouting for people they could turn into political activists. But the clandestine operation _ which the AP found was continued even after the arrest of a U.S. contractor for smuggling technology into Cuba _ put those young operatives in danger.

Months in the making under the purview of international investigations editor Trish Wilson, the story reunited the original Cuban Twitter reporting team of Butler, the AP’s chief correspondent in Turkey; Washington investigative reporter Jack Gillum; Mexico-based Alberto Arce; and Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi in Havana. Andean bureau chief Frank Bajak chased Peruvians involved in the project, and Hannah Dreier reported from Venezuela.

Technology played a key role in the reporting efforts: Gillum dumped the source documents into AP’s internal document repository so everyone could pore over them. He and Butler set up a [mechanism], so that reporters could see one another’s notes and contributions _ including the travelers’ contact data and interview transcriptions. Gillum also obtained key USAID emails warning contractors from travel to Cuba.

Arce helped translate the source documents, many of which were in Spanish, and interviewed four Costa Ricans who took part in the program, including Fernando Murillo, who ran an HIV prevention workshop in Cuba.

In Cuba, Rodriguez and Orsi doggedly hunted down the Cuban participants, and Rodriguez persuaded them to speak to AP on camera, no small feat given the backlash they could have faced.

Dreier, like everyone else who joined the project, had to learn to use [a secure phone]. She also set up an account to receive encrypted email because communications in Venezuela, like Cuba, are not considered secure. Dreier found four of the Venezuelan travelers, and got the money quote from a woman who acknowledged they were trying to “stir rebellion.”

Orsi reviewed the Spanish documents to ensure all translations were accurate, working meticulously to check every detail and finding last-minute changes made just hours before the story was published.

Video got involved early on. First came the interviews with the young Cubans,  who said they did not know they were targets of the program.

Desmond Butler, AP's chief correspondent in Turkey, appears on Fox News to discuss the AP investigation into another secret U.S. government program in Cuba.

Desmond Butler, AP’s chief correspondent in Turkey, appears on Fox News to discuss the AP investigation into another secret U.S. government program in Cuba.

Then London-based correspondent Raphael Satter tracked down the main organizer of the young Venezuelans recruited to go to Cuba, living now in a small house in Dublin, Ireland. Satter, along with Belfast-based cameraman John Morrisey, tried repeatedly to contact the woman, but she wouldn’t talk and even hid in her bedroom when they came knocking on her door. Their doggedness paid off after several hours when she did come out. She still refused to talk, but Morrisey got a compelling piece of video as the woman ran back into the house, slamming the door behind her.

As the story came together, Washington video supervisor David Bruns donned many hats _ voicing and editing the video piece, as well as creating graphics. A gallery of photos by Franklin Reyes, Esteban Felix and James L. Berenthal also illustrated the story.

The story played widely in newspapers worldwide and on the Internet, showing up on front pages in Mexico and Miami. Several team members appeared on NPR, Fox News and Telemundo, among other media outlets.

For their multinational effort that broke news and kept the AP out front on American secret activities in Cuba, Butler, Gillum, Arce, Rodriguez, Bajak, Dreier, Orsi and Bruns win this week’s $500 prize.

How AP tapped its global resources to chronicle passengers’ final hours

When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 went down, major news organizations across the world rushed out profiles of the victims. In a memo to staff, Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes explores why one AP story resonated around the world:

Amid all of these who-were-they stories, how did Kristen Gelineau‘s narrative strike so deep, touching so many hearts, prompting so many reader tears and accolades? A typical tweet urged, “EVERYONE needs to read this!”

But why, exactly?

The answer may serve as guidance for any number of future AP narrative-behind-the-news pieces and explains why Gelineau’s story is the Beat of the Week.

Some 298 people perished when Flight 17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down as it passed through the airspace of strife-torn Ukraine.

Gelineau, AP’s Sydney-based bureau chief for Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, quickly went to work on “The Final Hours.” Its title reflected an organizing principle from the start: This would be a story showing how selected passengers happened to be on the doomed flight, how they’d spent the time before it took off. It would be a narrative, offering a glimpse of real lives, of scenes and characters, not just locations, names and occupations.

In this undated photo released by the Calehr family, Samira Calehr, left, poses with her son Shaka Panduwinata. Shaka Panduwinata and his brother Miguel Panduwinata, were killed aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/The Calehr family)

In this undated photo released by the Calehr family, Samira Calehr, left, poses with her son Shaka Panduwinata. Shaka Panduwinata and his brother Miguel Panduwinata, were killed aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/The Calehr family)

“We were looking for quality, not quantity,” said Mary Rajkumar, assistant international editor, referring to notes she and Gelineau sent to international regional editors and then individual reporters, requesting help.

One note said: “The quality of the tick-tock and whether we can pull it off will depend hugely on the contributions we get, especially on the details. We’re looking for the little things _ what they did that day, what their usual routine was, what they ate, their last conversation, the last person they saw, what they were like, etc.”

Gelineau requested further specifics, down to the time stamp on a last communication.

“Everyone really went the extra mile to get these details: putting in extra calls and having to ask grieving loved ones to look at emails from their dead relatives,” Gelineau said.

Supplementing her reporting were Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand; Jim Gomez in Pagbilao, Philippines; Firdia Lisnawati in Bali, Indonesia; Mike Corder in The Hauge, Netherlands, and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who jumped in to help while on maternity leave. Lisnawati, Gomez and Gary Chuah shot photos, which ran along with images contributed by families. Video was by Jakarta’s Fadlan Syam and Berlin’s DorotheeThiesing.

So it was that readers learned of Rob Ayley, a New Zealander who’d coped with Asperger’s syndrome from youth but who’d become a father and husband and successful dog breeder who was returning from a business trip touring European kennels; and of Willem Grootscholten, who happily boarded the flight to begin a new life after meeting Christine, a single mother in Bali whose children had come to call him “Daddy”; and of Irene Gunawan, the 53-year-old sparkplug of her Philippine family, who was headed for a reunion in a suburban Manila neighborhood called “Heaven.”

And there were others.

Gelineau pursued a profile that became the backbone of the story, that of Miguel Panduwinata, an 11-year-old who was traveling with his older brother to visit their grandmother _ and who had been raising ominous questions in the days before the flight.

“What would happen to my body if I was buried?” the normally cheerful boy asked his worried mother. “Would I not feel anything because our souls go back to God?”

Working from names on a flight manifest, Gelineau tracked down an uncle of the boy by phone as he arrived in Amsterdam. She interviewed him about his nephew (“He told me about Miguel’s eerie premonition and the hairs on my arms stood up.”) Then, over a couple of days, she gently persuaded him to put her in touch with his sister, the boy’s mother, for a 40-minute phone interview finally arranged at 2:30 a.m. Gelineau’s time.

“She kept saying, ‘I should have listened to him.’ I knew immediately that was the end of my story,” Gelineau said. “And I knew Miguel was going to be the beginning.”

Gelineau’s story was supplemented by an abridged version _ but not simply a truncating of the original. “There was no way to abridge six examples into 700 words and have any characters really come across,” Rajkumar said. “So we offered our single best anecdote instead as a shorter option, calling it The Boy Who Knew.

The response to the story — which was published around the world and shared widely on social media and mobile — was extraordinary.

Thousands of readers commented, many saying they were in tears as they wrote.

“The glimpses into the lives of these people, esp. Miguel, their loved ones, favorite foods, sports, made it all too real, almost as if I knew them,” said one.

Another offered thanks “for dedicating the time and space to this heart breaking, and yet heart warming glimpse into the photo albums of these precious lives.” This reader hoped that each family personally affected “has the chance to treasure this story.”

Many did, as notes from some victims’ loved ones made clear.

Rob Ayley’s mother wrote that she’d include the story in a “memory box” she was putting together for her son. The girlfriend of another victim wrote, “Thank you so so much from the deep deep deepest bottom of our hearts.” And the uncle of Miguel said talking about the boy and his brother for the story had been therapeutic for the family, a source of strength.

For combining exemplary craft and compassion to achieve a distinctive kind of world beat, Gelineau wins this week’s $500 prize.

Deep source network, experience underpin AP reporting in Gaza

The Associated Press team in Gaza is reporting the news as they live it, working quickly — under extremely difficult conditions — to verify and debunk information for AP’s customers around the world. Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes lauded their efforts in a recent memo to staff:

It was late Sunday afternoon [July 20] and a brief cease-fire had silenced a raging battle in the Gaza neighborhood of Shijaiyah. Dozens of Palestinians were dead, hundreds wounded and thousands fleeing. In a matter of minutes, the battle would resume.

AP Gaza photographer Hatem Moussa, touring the area, caught sight of someone he knew from Gaza’s Civil Defense who was searching for bodies and followed him into a badly damaged building. From under the rubble came the barely audible sound of a family trapped: A woman crying for help alongside her husband, 7-year-old niece and three dead relatives.

“I’m here under the shop,” the woman cried out. “God, please, I can’t breathe.”

Moussa called for AP backup. Visiting photographer Lefteris Pitarakis and video journalist Dalton Bennett were not far away; upon arrival, they first determined whether they might help the family, and then shot pictures and video. It was too dangerous for rescuers to bring in bulldozers. As the AP team rushed out, Moussa spotted a Red Cross team and passed on the exact location. Hours later, rescue workers returned and saved the family. The Civil Defense team made a point of calling AP, inviting the team back to the hospital for a follow-up story.

It was just one of several instances of AP being a step ahead of the competition in the most challenging of environments: war in a small, sealed-off territory where they both live and work. In this setting and under these circumstances, the Gaza staff performed brilliantly, advancing a story of global interest to earn the Beat of the Week award.

For the Gaza staff, this is more than a news story. It’s their life. Covering war is hard enough; worrying if your family will survive the day is simply impossible for most of us to imagine. Consider a few snapshots from recent days:

Moussa was having the pre-dawn Ramadan meal with his wife and four children when the airstrikes began. They fled, fearing death. Driver Said Jalis‘ family, his wife heavily pregnant, took refuge at a U.N. school, sleeping on the floor; his 10th child was born Monday [July 21]. Writer Ibrahim Barzak‘s family moved twice in less than a week before deciding home was safest; he turns the TV off when his children are near and sleeps less than four hours. Fares Elwan, the caretaker, sleeps on a mattress in the office hallway because it’s too dangerous to return to see his 11 children. Majed Hamdan, a photographer, fixer and driver, put his family in the room looking away from a built-up area in Shijaiyah. “If we die, we all die together,” he says.

And yet, routinely, the Gaza staffers put all this aside, mining their excellent network of sources and years of experience. Reporting into the Jerusalem bureau — and working closely with AP staff journalists in Israel who are themselves under siege from Hamas rockets – their professionalism puts AP consistently ahead on one of the world’s most competitive stories.

They know every inch of the strip, and are able to quickly verify or debunk reports. Besides covering and facilitating stories themselves, they’ve created a crucial foundation for the visiting team of Senior Producer Khaled Kazziha, writer Karin Laub, Pitarakis and Bennett.

Just ask Pitarakis, who has covered conflicts across the globe: Working with the experienced Gaza staff, he says, makes all the difference. “Without a doubt, this is the game-changing scenario,” he says. “These guys set up this amazing system. The drivers know everything. The local photographers know everyone. It’s a constant flow of information and I wouldn’t be able to operate without it. These guys tell me: go there, go here.”

This well-honed newsgathering system has been working throughout the conflict. On July 13, APTN producer Najib Abu Jobain put AP ahead with the first images of families fleeing the northern towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, which were coming under heavy attack from Israeli tank fire.

“I got a phone call from my daughter the moment she saw the donkey carts, trucks and cars arriving at the U.N. school (where the displaced where seeking shelter).” AP got the pictures at 2 a.m., about six hours ahead of Reuters.

And the staff has been working this way for years: Back in 2011, it was Barzak who broke the news that Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit had been handed back to Israeli forces.

For valiant and extraordinary efforts that helped make the AP the leading source for news on this crucial story, the Gaza-based staff wins this week’s $500 award.

They are: chief APTN producer Najib Abu Jobain, correspondent Ibrahim Barzak, photographer Adel Hana, cameraman Rashed Rasheed, photographer Hatem Moussa, photographer Khalil Hamra, APTN producer Wafa Shurafa, photographer-fixer Majed Hamdan, cameraman Tamer Ziara, camerman Yacoub Abu Galwa, driver Ismail Shurabasi, driver Said Jalis and caretaker Fares Elwan.

On the Brazil beat: AP covers the World Cup

As the excitement of the World Cup unfolds across Brazil, AP journalists are covering the action in text, video and photos for an array of customers around the world.

“The AP journalists and technicians on the ground have been unflagging in their mission to tell the whole story of this tournament,” said AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara. “Beyond our vibrant coverage of every match, they’ve been providing crucial context and unique perspectives on the political and cultural aspects of this global event.”

From street protests to rain-soaked press conferences to the stadium sidelines, here are a few highlights of the AP team at work on the Brazil beat.

For World Cup news, download the AP Mobile app or follow AP on Twitter and Facebook.

Pruitt: ‘Journalists today are targeted’

Three days after the killing of an Associated Press photojournalist and the wounding of an AP correspondent in Afghanistan, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt today decried attacks against journalists in remarks delivered at a press conference in New York:Gary Pruitt

A free press is the backbone of any country that calls itself a democracy. And yet around the world those whose mission it is to shine a light on power are increasingly under attack. Once regarded as the impartial eyes and ears of the world, journalists today are targeted in an attempt to influence and control the news.

Sometimes they are literally prevented from gathering news – deported, detained or even imprisoned. Other times, government officials and courts work in secrecy to block access to information that the public has a right – and need – to know. And, tragically, sometimes journalists are intentionally murdered in an effort to prevent news from being reported or to intimidate others who passionately believe in the mission of journalism.

As many of you surely know, AP suffered a tragic loss last Friday when photographer Anja Niedringhaus was targeted and killed while covering the run-up to the elections in Afghanistan. AP, and her legion of fans around the world, are mourning her loss. Kathy Gannon, her AP colleague, was seriously wounded.

Anja’s death, the detention of journalists worldwide and the growing secrecy of governments nearly everywhere make our responsibility to bear witness to history more challenging and more dangerous than ever. But also more important. AP abhors the trend of targeting journalists and will always champion the right for all journalists to work without fear in bringing vital information to light for all the world.

The press conference, involving Pruitt and leaders of other news organizations, preceded an evening symposium at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism — co-hosted by the Dart CenterColumbia Global Centers / Middle East and the Columbia Global Freedom of Expression and Information Project – focused on the imprisonment of four Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt.

Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed today marked their 100th day behind bars. Abdullah Al Shamy has been held more than six months. They are among 20 defendants being tried on charges of belonging to and aiding a terrorist organization for their coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood. They have pleaded not guilty.

Visit AP at SXSW Interactive

The Associated Press is joining thousands of digital and creative professionals from around the world converging at the 2014 SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, which runs March 7 through 11.  Here’s a rundown of where you’ll find AP:

David Guttenfelder and Eric Carvin

David Guttenfelder and Eric Carvin

Saturday, March 8

Sunday, March 9

  • AP Social Media Editor Eric Carvin (@EricCarvin) and Mandy Jenkins, managing editor for Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, will discuss the responsibilities news organizations have to citizen journalists. The session will cover topics such as credits and permissions for user-generated content and working with amateurs who may find themselves reporting in dangerous circumstances. Follow along on Twitter with hashtag: #UGCEthics.  12:30-1:30 p.m., Austin Convention Center, Room 18ABCD.
  • And AP is sponsoring the Film + Interactive Fusion Party, which brings together filmmakers, designers, social media experts, producers and more. Featuring a DJ, games, photo booth and more, the party is open to all Interactive, Film, Gold and Platinum badge holders. 7-10 p.m., Palm Door, 508 East 6th St.

The Oscar for best selfie goes to …

Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres granted The Associated Press the rights for the editorial use of her star-studded selfie by AP members and subscribers.

AP reported that the photo had been retweeted more than 2 million times, breaking a record set by President Barack Obama with the picture of him hugging First Lady Michelle Obama after his re-election in 2012.

An alternate view of Ellen DeGeneres' star-studded selfie: DeGeneres takes a photo with, from left, Kevin Spacey, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jared Leto during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Los Angeles.  (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)

An alternate view of Ellen DeGeneres’ star-studded selfie: DeGeneres takes a photo with, from left, Kevin Spacey, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jared Leto during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)

Recalling Vietnam’s ‘Real War’

Longtime Associated Press correspondent Peter Arnett remembered that journalists were “rarely unwelcomed” by the American soldiers fighting the Vietnam War. After all, AP stories were being clipped from hometown newspapers and mailed by family members to the men in the field.

AP journalist Kimberly Dozier, left, leads a discussion of Vietnam War photography and news coverage at New York's 92nd Street Y, with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett, center, and author Pete Hamill, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. Hamill wrote the foreword for AP's photo book "Vietnam: The Real War." (AP Photo)

AP journalist Kimberly Dozier, left, leads a discussion of Vietnam War photography at New York’s 92d Street Y, with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett, center, and author Pete Hamill, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. (AP Photo)

Panelists sign copies of the AP book "Vietnam: The Real War" after a forum at New York's 92nd Street Y on photography and media coverage of the war, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. From left are Pete Hamill, author of the book's foreword; AP national security journalist Kimberly Dozier and former AP Saigon journalist Peter Arnett, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam coverage. (AP Photo)

Panelists sign copies of the AP book “Vietnam: The Real War” after a forum at New York’s 92d Street Y on photography and media coverage of the war, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. From left are Pete Hamill, author of the book’s foreword; AP journalist Kimberly Dozier and former AP journalist Peter Arnett, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam coverage. (AP Photo)

As Arnett put it, “We made sure they would never be forgotten.”

Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his war reporting, was onstage Thursday evening at New York’s 92d Street Y in a discussion of the stories and images gathered in “Vietnam: The Real War,” the AP photographic history published in October by Abrams Books.

Arnett was joined by veteran journalist and author Pete Hamill, who reported from Vietnam as a columnist for the New York Post and wrote the book’s evocative introduction, and AP intelligence writer Kimberly Dozier, who served as moderator and drew on her own experiences working in combat zones.

“The photos became the verifying part of … what was in the story,” Hamill said. So much so, according to Arnett, that he once went to an antiwar rally in Central Park with AP colleague Horst Faas and they saw that some of Faas’ stark images from Vietnam had been enlarged for display by the protesters.

Dozier mentioned the challenges she’s had with the Pentagon’s practice of embedding reporters with combat troops, whereas in Vietnam a journalist could simply hop on a military helicopter to the front.

A video of Thursday’s program will be available on the 92d Street Y’s website sometime in the next few weeks.

Behind the Sochi scene with AP

As the excitement of the Winter Games unfolds, AP journalists are providing breaking news and images and crucial context for customers around the world.

“The AP team has been tireless,” AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara said from Sochi. “They aren’t just covering the games — they are telling stories that no one else has, with a global perspective and in video, text, audio and stunning photos. Credit goes to the AP journalists and the technology team.”

From laying cable on snowy mountains and testing remote cameras to securing exclusive interviews and capturing iconic moments, here are a few highlights of AP reporters, editors, visual journalists and technicians at work behind the Sochi scene:

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  • With the threat of terrorism looming over the games, authorities said they would clamp down on travelers being able to bring liquids into Russia. Karl Ritter, Stockholm bureau chief working at the Olympics, kept AP ahead of the competition with a story about how easy it was to bring banned carry-on items into Sochi.
  • Despite complaints of stray dogs and unfinished hotels, AP’s Jim Heintz, a Westerner who’s lived in Russia for 15 years, concluded that the games reveal “some promising signs for the country.”
  • When a glitch caused one of the Olympic rings not to open during the opening ceremony Moscow business reporter Nataliya Vasilyeva quickly confirmed that Russian TV viewers saw a rehearsal reel that showed all of the rings working – not the glitch witnessed by the stadium crowd.
  • And David Goldman, an AP photographer based in Atlanta, was a pool photographer in the VIP room with Russian President Vladimir Putin when it happened. What did Putin see? It turns out, he didn’t see the problem either, as AP was first to determine from Goldman’s images.

Follow AP staff at the Olympics in Sochi on this Twitter list and learn more about AP’s coverage in this video with Global Sports Editor Michael Giarrusso.

Paddling in sludge to get the story

In an era of smartphones and social media, an AP team opted for a more rudimentary tool to get the story: a canoe. The following note to staff from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes describes how AP journalists paddled into the middle of a river to get a firsthand look at a coal-ash spill in North Carolina, determine the scope of the mishap and keep AP ahead of the competition:

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden N.C. on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

What’s the most important word in journalism? How about “go.” Sometimes, you just have to go there. Even when there is out in the middle of a dirty river best reached by canoe.

That’s just what Michael Biesecker, Raleigh newsman, and Gerry Broome, Raleigh photographer, did when they sensed that the impact of a big coal-ash spill at a Duke Energy power plant in Eden, N.C., could be much worse than anyone was letting on. Turned out they were right. They could see that plainly when they paddled out into the middle of the ash-choked Dan River.

Biesecker had hit upon the idea of using the canoe – his canoe, by the way – as he and Carolinas News Editor Tim Rogers talked over the best ways to examine exactly what the spill had done to the river. Biesecker loaded it onto his car, and they were off. While he and Broome were putting it in the river, a man affiliated with the Waterkeeper Alliance, the environmental group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., offered to go with them in his own canoe. They agreed and he showed them to some places along the river.

Back at the spill site, Duke Energy officials and state regulators were trying to downplay the effects even as the river turned a deathly looking grey. Biesecker and  Broome started to find the elements of a very different story when they hit the river, the only journalists to do so at that point.

From the canoe, Biesecker was able to report that downstream of the spill, gray sludge was several inches deep. That became evident when a paddle was pushed down into the muck. In addition, the AP team saw that the riverbank was coated for more than two miles. And when the Dan crested overnight, a distinctive gray line stood in contrast to the brown bank, “like a dirty ring on a bathtub.”

Their reporting put the AP ahead on the extent and immediate effects of the spill even as hundreds of Duke workers scrambled to plug a hole in a pipe at the bottom of the 27-acre pond where the toxic ash had been stored. Up to 82,000 tons of ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water had spilled into the river.

More would be revealed in test results and court filings over the next four days, as Biesecker and Mitch Weiss, Charlotte correspondent, kept the AP reporting well ahead. Biesecker followed with a comprehensive story on a dispute over arsenic levels in the river downstream from the spill. He and Weiss then provided with a look at how the state was acting to try and shield Duke from federal lawsuits over the coal ash sites the company long had insisted were safely engineered and maintained.

The eyewitness on-the-river story and Broome’s photos played well across the state and around the country, caught the attention of national environmental groups. The ensuing AP reporting on the spill was placed prominently even on the site of the Charlotte Observer, which has assigned a reporter to cover just the spill.

The AP scoops also spurred Duke to share their testing results with us. In addition, after not addressing the spill for much of a week, Gov. Pat McCrory went to the spill site the day after we asked him why he had not been there yet.

This week, federal authorities launched a criminal investigation into the spill, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh issuing subpoenas seeking records from both Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources related to the Dan River incident and the state’s oversight of the company’s 30 other coal ash dumps in North Carolina.

For paddling further than the competition to get their story, Biesecker, Broome and Weiss share this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.