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.

Deep source reporting pays off big

There are endless ways for politicians to hint about whether they will or won’t run for a particular office, but only a few ways to pin them down before they announce their plans.

Boston-based political reporter Steve Peoples (AP photo)

AP political reporter Steve Peoples (AP photo)

In a memo to staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano describes how Boston-based politics reporter Steve Peoples delivered an exclusive, deeply sourced story last week that former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who was defeated in 2012, was seeking to hire staff and launch an exploratory committee for a New Hampshire Senate campaign:

The key was finding operatives who had been offered positions, and Peoples did. Working more sources, Peoples was able to report that Brown had told state Republican leaders that he would be announcing a formal exploratory committee.

The developments, reported exclusively for hours by The Associated Press, have implications, both locally, for the 2014 Senate race, and nationally, in the battle for control of Congress. Brown’s bid puts New Hampshire in play as a state where Republicans could take a seat away from the Democrats and take control of the Senate and the entire Congress the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Brown’s camp did not want Peoples to break the news.

That didn’t stop Peoples from digging further.

He had been following Brown’s flirtations with office-seeking for three years since joining the AP, had interviewed several sources who told him about Brown seeking a campaign staff. He then tracked down people who were offered positions, even though Brown’s camp told him there had been no such outreach.

Broadening the circle with more calls and with help from Concord statehouse reporter Norma Love and correspondent Rik Stevens who contacted GOP legislative leaders, Peoples got high-level Republicans to confirm on background that Brown had told them he would form an exploratory committee.

Peoples continued reporting and seeking sources to confirm the information. Brown confirmed the AP report nearly 24 hours later, but by then, Carovillano noted, it was old news. He wrote:

Politico, ABC, CBS and Fox (where Brown was still working as a commentator) all credited AP with breaking the story. The New York Times and the Washington Post both posted Peoples’ story for hours.

For providing our customers with an only-from-AP newsbreak on a big state political story with likely ramifications for the national political scene, Peoples is awarded this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Follow Peoples on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sppeoples and learn more about how AP’s national politics team endeavors to break news, while providing clarity and crucial context.

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.

A Q&A with AP’s health law expert

Viewers of C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” today got the chance to interact with Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, The Associated Press’ expert on the rollout of the nation’s new health insurance system. During the 45-minute segment, he took questions from callers and discussed trends in national health care spending and health law costs.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Among the key points he underscored:

  • Health care costs are rising, but not as fast as they used to. “It’s rising more or less in line with the overall growth of the economy, which is, if you think of it, a lot of money that the U.S. still spends for health care, but it becomes more affordable when that bill is rising more or less in line with the growth of the economy rather than galloping ahead,” he said.
  • The new law may leave some Americans who have a serious chronic illness “underinsured” because their annual out-of-pocket costs could still be high.
  • The law has varying effects across the states. For example, 25 states and the District of Columbia have decided to expand Medicaid, but the other 25 have not, which can impact health insurance affordability for low-income patients.

AP, which has reporters in all 50 states — a footprint unmatched by any other news organization — is providing comprehensive coverage and support for member news organizations in localizing stories as the law is being implemented across the states.

‘Electronic shoe leather’: How AP found, verified images of train crash

The following note to staff from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes explains how AP sought and verified compelling visuals in the immediate aftermath of Sunday morning’s deadly train crash in New York:

The technology may be new but the goal is eternal: Get verifiable visuals and eyewitness accounts as quickly as possible when news breaks.

The AP accomplished just that after a Metro-North commuter train careened off the rails – thanks to fast and smart work by Caleb Jones of the Nerve Center, who harnessed social media to help AP tell the story of the deadly accident with photos, video, sound and text. Call it electronic shoe leather. Caleb tracked down sources and verified that they were who they said they were and had seen what they said they saw. He did it all with accuracy and speed.

Caleb Jones

Caleb Jones

First word of the Bronx derailment came shortly after the 7:20 a.m. incident, when Photos’ David Boe alerted the Nerve Center to a call from a former AP staffer who had heard scanner traffic. Jones first alerted the East Desk, then launched a search of social media.

He found that two nearby residents had posted pictures, and sent out Twitter messages to both: “Hello. Are you on the scene? Are you available to speak with The Associated Press?”

The first to respond, Rebecca Schwartz, did not have usable photos; Jones passed her along to the East Desk, and she provided the first eyewitness account of the derailment’s aftermath.

“You could see multiple train cars off of the rails, including one train car – I couldn’t tell from where I was whether it was right into the water or just out of the water,” she said.

Edwin Valero had posted a better photo, but the accident scene, as shot from his apartment window, was still largely obscured by trees. Jones asked him if he had more, and he did – from a better location on a nearby bridge.

Cars from a Metro-North passenger train are scattered after the train derailed in the Bronx neighborhood of New York, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Edwin Valero)

Cars from a Metro-North passenger train are scattered after the train derailed in the Bronx neighborhood of New York, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Edwin Valero)

The train, all of its eight cars knocked from the tracks, had stopped just short of the water. (Original eyewitness reports said cars appeared to be in the water, and that was corrected based in part on Valero’s photos). Strewn about like playthings, some of the cars were thrown on to their sides, trapping passengers until rescuers could pull them free.

Still, Jones wanted more. He asked Valero if he could safely return to his perch to shoot video, and he did. Valero’s subsequent interview with AP Radio also provided quotes for text and TV, and the video scenes he shot with his iPhone were used in the AP package.

Valero’s signature’s shot of the wreckage in the shape of a giant question mark led the AP coverage and was the most widely used image across online media from morning into the night, displayed prominently by The New York Times, the New York Post, The Boston Globe and The Guardian and other outlets even after news organizations had their own shooters in the Bronx.

And it provided the AP with crucial information before its reporters could get to the scene.

Said East Regional Editor Karen Testa: Caleb’s work “was extraordinary in securing compelling images that not only told the story visually but helped ensure we were accurate in describing the wreckage before we had boots on the ground.”

For his intrepid and determined use of social media, which put the AP ahead on a breaking story of wide interest, Caleb Jones wins this week’s $500 prize.

Reporter reveals disparity in state salaries

As the only news agency with reporters in all 50 statehouses across the country, The Associated Press is well-positioned to break important state government news. A recent report by an enterprising journalist in Minnesota revealed that 145 local officials earn more than the governor. A staff memo from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes explains:

BRIAN BAKST

Brian Bakst

The disparity jumped out at St. Paul newsman Brian Bakst. While reporting a routine story, he noticed the salary disclosure on a city/county website. A local official, according to the website, made substantially more in salary than the state’s governor.

That little nugget led him to research what had happened across the state since the legislature relaxed what had been a rigid salary cap for local officials. The cap had tied their salaries – and their raises – to the governor’s. He picked away at the story over the next six weeks as time allowed. Eventually, he had compiled salary data from 126 Minnesota cities and counties to report his overall findings: the salaries of city and county top employees had risen sharply since the law was relaxed. In some cases, the pay for a single position had shot up more than $40,000 in about eight years. This reporting emerged just as the state was considering pay raises for its top employees.

Bakst found that at least 145 city or county officials making more than the governor’s $120,303. And as he smartly pointed out in the story, that’s just their base pay. That doesn’t include car allowances and other benefits that add to the compensation package. In addition, he noted that the number of highly compensated workers might be higher than 145 because localities only have to list their top three earners.

After writing the story, Bakst emailed his spreadsheet with localization tips to members around the state as part of the package’s promotion three days ahead of publication. “This looks awesome … thanks,” wrote the editor of the Rochester Post-Bulletin, who used his own localized version on A1 and Bakst’s statewide story inside.

Bakst also earned front-page play across the state and those that didn’t run his story, ran their localized version using data Bakst had sent them – and credited the AP. The story ranked among the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s most-read.

For smart, enterprising reporting, and for going the extra mile to help members make the story their own, Brian Bakst wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.