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.

New AP tool helps journalists manage data

troy_thibodeaux_headshot

Troy Thibodeaux (AP Photo)

The Associated Press’ data team and developers from civic technology company DataMade have created a new tool to make it easier for journalists to add context to a data set. Here, AP Editor for Interactive Technology Troy Thibodeaux, who conceived and launched the tool called Geomancer, explains its potential:

Why did AP create Geomancer?
AP has been a pioneer in data journalism and is committed to helping journalists use data more efficiently to find and tell important stories. We won a grant last year from the Knight Prototype Fund to build an open-source tool to help journalists make sense of data by mashing it up with other data sets about the same geographic location.

For reporters who work with data, it’s a common and laborious task to look up population or demographic data about the counties or ZIP codes represented in a given data set. Geomancer puts this data just a few clicks away. Our goal is to remove the drudgery from data so reporters can focus on finding the story.

How does it work?
Currently, the Geomancer prototype includes two data sources: the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey (via CensusReporter.org) and federal contracts from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s USASpending.org. It allows users to find data based on 10 geographic levels, including state, county and congressional district. There has already been some community interest in adding new data sets and geographical types.

The Geomancer team has created a working demo (geomancer.io) to show the tool’s potential and simple instructions that any newsroom can follow to install its own Geomancer and build its own warehouse of geography-based data sources. The Geomancer blog at geomancer.ap.org includes links to example data sets for getting started.

What’s next?
We’ll be working to help journalists inside and outside of the AP use Geomancer, and we are excited to see what stories it will help them produce. We’re looking forward to getting feedback from users and will be exploring ways to refine the tool, which is in a beta version.

Advisory on Ebola coverage

In an advisory to editors at member and customer news organizations, The Associated Press outlined the careful steps it is taking in covering the Ebola story.

EDITORS:

We’re increasingly hearing reports of “suspected” cases of Ebola in the United States and Europe. The AP has exercised caution in reporting these cases and will continue to do so.

Most of these suspected cases turn out to be negative. Our bureaus monitor them, but we have not been moving stories or imagery simply because a doctor suspects Ebola and routine precautions are taken while the patient is tested. To report such a case, we look for a solid source saying Ebola is suspected and some sense the case has caused serious disruption or reaction. Are buildings being closed and substantial numbers of people being evacuated or isolated? Is a plane being diverted? Is the suspected case closely related to another, confirmed Ebola case?

When we do report a suspected case, we will seek to keep our stories brief and in perspective.

The AP

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.

Uninspected wells: Finding local dangers in a sea of federal data

A team of Associated Press journalists across the states worked together to break an exclusive national story and help member news organizations leverage data to produce unique, local reports tied to AP’s findings. In this memo to staff, AP Vice President and Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains:

In this June 9, 2014 photo, a petroleum industry worker stands on an oil and gas rig on a well pad, in New Castle, a small farming and ranching settlement on the Western Slope of the Rockies, in Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In this June 9, 2014 photo, a petroleum industry worker stands on an oil and gas rig on a well pad, in New Castle, a small farming and ranching settlement on the Western Slope of the Rockies, in Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

The report from the Government Accountability Office was intriguing: The government had failed to inspect thousands of oil and gas wells on federal and Indian lands classified as potentially high risk for water contamination and other environmental damage.

But the details were missing. Where were these wells? And did the lack of inspections contribute to any environmental damage?

The Bureau of Land Management was reluctant to provide details, but Washington-based reporter Hope Yen, who broke the story on the GAO report, pressed the agency over the course of several weeks, citing the public’s right to know.

The GAO’s findings came as the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been increasing around the country. While fracking has produced major economic benefits, it also has raised fears among environmentalists that chemicals used in the process could spread to water supplies.

When BLM finally released the data to AP, it was in the form of nearly a dozen spreadsheets. Phoenix-based Interactive Editor Dan Kempton, a member of the data journalism team, consolidated them into two master files, allowing calculations to determine which wells on federal and tribal lands were considered higher risk for water contamination and other environmental problems, and whether or not they were inspected by BLM within the given time period, 2009-2012.

Kempton identified, and BLM later confirmed, that its data had duplicate entries and other inconsistencies. Kempton consolidated the duplicates and merged the missing entries to create the most complete and accurate list available of well inspection data. The consolidated spreadsheets were then distributed in advance to AP bureaus and members in states with drilling operations on public and Indian lands, so they could start working on localized stories to accompany Yen’s national overview.

But the data alone was dry. Absent was the human impact. What was the reaction of people living near these uninspected wells?  With Colorado among the top states with uninspected wells, Denver reporter Thomas Peipert and photographer Brennan Linsely literally knocked on door after door to gather reaction and get photos to illustrate the story.

The story was used on the front pages of more than a dozen newspapers from Denver to Akron, Ohio, to Williamsport, Pa., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. It was featured as a Yahoo showcase, and in the 24-hour period following its release, it was tweeted out nearly 600 times. It was also one on the most widely viewed stories on AP Mobile. About a dozen AP bureaus produced state separates, and many members did their own stories using data provided by AP (The Salt Lake Tribune, Times Leader).

It was yet another example of how data journalism offers AP an opportunity to work with its members to provide the tools for local, granular coverage of national issues.

For their enterprising and exclusive journalism, and for furthering AP’s efforts to help members localize our coverage, Yen, Kempton, Peipert and Linsely win this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Dogged source work yields scoops on bridge mess

In a note to staff, AP Vice President and Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how a reporter worked longtime sources to keep AP ahead on a significant state story:

When Delaware officials ordered the immediate shutdown of a bridge on Interstate 495 because its tilting columns presented a potential threat to drivers, correspondent Randall Chase and Mid-Atlantic News Editor Amanda Kell knew they had a major story on their hands. The route, which parallels busy I-95 between Philadelphia and Baltimore, was closed because columns supporting a bridge had tilted dramatically and an estimated 90,000 drivers a day were being diverted onto the busier highway.

AP correspondent Randall Chase walks on the damaged bridge in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

AP correspondent Randall Chase walks on the damaged bridge in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Chase and Kell, working in close concert with staff on the South Regional Desk, produced a week of insightful coverage that pushed authorities to justify their response to the crisis, pressed them to re-examine how the state inspects its infrastructure and beat the competition at the same time. The key to AP’s aggressive coverage across text, photo and video formats and its drumbeat of scoops was the stable of sources that Chase has accrued during his 13 years of coverage for AP in Delaware.

By often working late into each night and by arranging interviews with officials in advance of scheduled news conferences, Chase ensured AP was first to name the contractor responsible for dumping a massive pile of dirt under the bridge, which officials were blaming for the tilting columns. After days of pressing officials for their plans, Chase also broke the news that all bridges in Delaware would be inspected by the state and that Delaware will add examinations of the ground under bridges to its future inspections. His extensive interview with the engineer who discovered the tilting columns also led to a story that questioned the urgency of the state’s response and of its own official timeline, which until that point said the transportation department had been warned of the issue on a Friday, when in fact it had been warned a day earlier.  AP also was first with an acknowledgment from the state transportation agency chief that his department could have moved more quickly to examine the bridge after the engineer contacted officials.

Chase’s work landed in outlets including MSN and The Philadelphia Inquirer and AP was credited by The Washington Post, NPR and Tribune Co.

For aggressive coverage and working sources on a major story in his state, Randall Chase wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Taking measure of limited media access

In a note to staff, AP Vice President and Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano lauds New York City Hall reporter Jonathan Lemire for strengthening AP’s fight for access to public information:

AP New York City Hall reporter Jonathan Lemire discusses limited media access to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on WNBC's "The Debrief with David Ushery."

AP New York City Hall reporter Jonathan Lemire discusses limited media access to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on WNBC’s “The Debrief with David Ushery.”

On the campaign trail, Bill de Blasio promised to have the most transparent mayoral administration in New York City history. The cracks in that promise literally began forming on the day he took office, when his staff announced that the official midnight swearing-in would be “closed press.”

After hours of protests led by the AP, that restriction was eventually lifted. But the episode tipped [Lemire] that de Blasio may not be as media-friendly as he’d claimed. So Lemire began watching.

For months, he collected de Blasio’s official schedule, taking note each time his official events and meetings were either closed to the press or designated as pool only, with just one print reporter, photographer and video journalist allowed.

As the months wore on, Lemire noticed the frequency of de Blasio’s media restrictions was actually increasing. Several news organizations in New York also noticed and wrote op-eds. The time seemed ripe, at nearly five months into the new administration, for Lemire to tally up the de Blasio schedules he’d collected.

Here’s what he found: 260 total events, 53 of which were completely closed, amounting to 20 percent of de Blasio’s entire schedule. Add in the 30 more events that were pool only, and more than 30 percent of the mayor’s events were either closed or restricted to the media.

A mayor’s spokesman told Lemire that any restrictions on media access were due to logistics, not secrecy. But Lemire didn’t think it would be fair to run the story without de Blasio’s comment. When Lemire told him what the AP had found, de Blasio initially said transparency is often “in the eye of the beholder.” But he eventually acknowledged that “there is a whole swatch of information that needs to be available to the public and we need to continue to do a better job on that.”

His story was widely used in New York, with TV attributing to AP in their own reports, and several local reporters hammering de Blasio on the subject for days. [Time Warner Cable News] NY1’s Bob Hardt opined: “The mayor might want to realize that openness isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics.” And the [New York Post] said “if progressives are really acting — as they claim — on behalf of the people, why are they so keen on keeping a free press from seeing what they’re up to?” Capital New York interviewed Lemire on how he got the story. [Lemire also discussed his reporting on WNBC’s “The Debrief with David Ushery.”]

There was even some evidence that de Blasio was softening his stand two days after the story ran, adding “photo spray” access to a closed event, which had not been normal procedure before.

De Blasio’s tactics echo those of the Obama White House, which has routinely restricted access to the media and then released a photo from an “official photographer,” meaning an official image of the event is the only one that exists. AP and other news organizations have labeled these “visual news releases” and refused to distribute such handouts from the White House, and we are taking the same approach with City Hall.

Lemire’s disciplined beat reporting produced a nice accountability scoop and furthered AP’s leading role in fighting for media access in all the territories where we operate. For that, he wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

How reporter produced revealing closeup of Gov. Brown’s prison plan

In a memo to Associated Press staffers, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano describes how a story spotted on a locally focused website prompted a high-impact investigation by AP of whether California Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison realignment plan is working as advertised. The story in the Turlock City News reported that Brown had visited officials in rural Stanislaus County. It caught the attention of AP Sacramento Correspondent Tom Verdin. Carovillano continues:

It seems Brown had been quietly dropping in on sheriffs and county officials around the state to gauge the effectiveness of one of the signature achievements of his latest tenure as governor: a law that reduces California’s prison population by sentencing lower-level offenders to county jails.

The governor’s office almost never announced the visits ahead of time, and he rarely spoke publicly afterward so reporters could assess how the visits went. Verdin contacted the governor’s office to find out why they hadn’t been listed on Brown’s official schedule. Brown’s spokesman told him it did not need to be because such visits with public officials were “private,” and that the official photographs distributed by the governor’s staff via Twitter would suffice for public disclosure.

Reporter Don Thompson has been aggressively covering prison realignment as part of his statehouse beat, resulting in a number of other newsbreaks and AP exclusives. In the seemingly innocuous local news item, Verdin and Thompson saw an opportunity for more accountability journalism.

Thompson began by requesting the list of counties Brown had visited. Not wanting the publicity of a formal public records request, the governor’s office complied, and Thompson began making calls to sheriff’s departments and county supervisors on the list. Over several weeks, he contacted half the counties Brown had visited, a representative sample that included urban and rural, coastal and inland.

Across the spectrum, the message was consistent: Local officials said they needed more money and that the governor had not yet followed through on his statements and promises. Two of them said Brown’s office had not gotten back to them on concerns they had raised: “I haven’t heard a thing,” said one local official.

Thompson’s reporting showed that the statements Brown was making in public  _ that “realignment is working”? _ contradicted what he was hearing from county officials.

Additionally, Thompson got an advance look at data showing the jail population for all of California’s 58 counties, before and after realignment, before they were released publicly. That chart moved in advance so members could localize the story if they wished.

Several major California dailies put Thompson’s story on their front pages, including The Fresno Bee and Santa Barbara News-Press. “The advance notice on that story was great,” said Santa Maria Times Editor Marga Cooley, whose newspaper ran it across the top of Sunday’s A1 with a localized sidebar. “The story was timely and of significant interest in our area.”

Photographer Rich Pedroncelli also was able to gain access to a jail in one of the counties Brown had visited, and the package ran with a chart showing the inmate population before and after the realignment law in all 58 counties.

Two days after the story ran, the moderator cited Thompson’s reporting during a public policy forum on prisons. One of the panelists, state Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, evoked Brown’s “it’s working” quote by saying “It depends on your definition of working, I guess.”

For striking a blow for transparency, holding the governor to account for his misleading statements on an an important accomplishment of his administration, and advancing AP’s efforts to share data with members so they can localize our state- and nation-level reporting, Thompson wins this week’s $300 Best of the States award.

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.