May 03, 2019

Best of the States

‘Destined to Burn’: AP, media organizations join forces to expose California wildfire risks

A groundbreaking collaboration among California newspapers and The Associated Press started with a tweet.

Northern California News Editor Juliet Williams saw on Twitter that the editor of The Sacramento Bee, a McClatchy paper, was driving to meet with the editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record, a MediaNews paper, to talk about wildfire coverage. Williams reached out, offered the AP’s help, and a partnership was born, with the goal of illuminating problems and pointing to potential solutions to California’s increasingly deadly wildfires.

The results: nearly a dozen stories, including an analysis of data by McClatchy and AP Los Angeles-based data journalist Angeliki Kastanis revealing that more than 350,000 Californians live in towns and cities almost entirely within zones of very high wildfire risk. An analysis also found that a 2008 building code for California’s fire-prone regions can make the difference in whether homes burn or not, but there’s little retrofitting of older homes.

The partnership’s next installment was focused on evacuation planning, revealing that many communities wouldn’t share the information or didn’t have an adequate plan, or any plan at all. Data analysis by USA TODAY Network-California showed many communities had too few roads to get everyone out.

We heavily publicized the package and play was impressive, with hundreds of downloads of the first two installments. Many outlets used the data to report their own stories about local fire risks. And this isn’t the end of the partnership: The next phase will focus on legislative action on wildfire coverage.

When AP engages in collaborations like these we become more than just a content provider to our customers; we’re helping them produce high-impact local coverage that wouldn’t exist otherwise. In this case, the “Destined to Burn” partnership was managed at every level by West Deputy Director of Newsgathering Anna Jo Bratton, who worked for six months with people throughout the AP and the collaborators to make the partnership a success.

For putting the AP at the center of an important collaboration, driving important journalism in a state ravaged by wildfires, and forging a stronger relationship with members, Williams, Kastanis and Bratton win this AP’s Best of the States.

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Feb. 22, 2019

Best of the States

Victims of the Paradise wildfire; stunning portraits of how they lived and died

The wildfire that consumed Paradise, California, claimed 85 lives while virtually burning the town off the map. But beyond those facts lay a rich narrative of the individuals who perished while calling Paradise home.

AP San Francisco reporters Janie Har and Jocelyn Gecker set out to tell the stories of the victims of the deadly Paradise fire far more comprehensively than was possible in the immediate aftermath: Who were they? Where and when did they die? Did they even have a chance to flee?

To paint a picture of how the tragedy unfolded, the pair spent months tracking down family members – many of whom were wary – to talk about their loved ones, assuring them that AP’s coverage would be more than a recitation of the grim facts. Interviews with California fire officials, a newly available simulation of the fire’s movement on the fateful morning and public records requests enabled AP to produce an interactive graphic giving the exact locations where people died and their approximate times of death.

The result was a riveting package that coupled intimate portraits of the victims with the circumstances of their death. Most never had a chance to flee their homes as the fast-moving fire barreled through.

The moving package was well-received by members throughout California and from coast-to-coast.

For carrying the Paradise story forward with enterprising, sensitive work that focused on the victims’ narratives, Har and Gecker share this week’s Best of the States award.

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Nov. 23, 2018

Best of the States

Requiem for Paradise: Remembering the sweet life of a town wiped out by wildfire

It’s not often you have to write an obituary for a town. Yet that’s what Martha Mendoza and Jocelyn Gecker did, with Gillian Flaccus producing a compelling video component. Their tribute to Paradise, California – leveled by a devastating wildfire that killed so many residents – painted a picture of all that was lost. Paradise was a gold prospector’s town, then a lumber town, and until two weeks ago was the home of 27,000 people “who lived and loved here; they built homes and businesses, schools and houses of worship, parks and museums that proudly honored Paradise's place in American history.”

Mendoza worked from the field, in the ashes of the town, with Gecker in San Francisco tracking down leads, helping to write the finished piece and finding photographs to illustrate “the town’s history and spirit.” Their nuanced reporting, along with that of many colleagues, drew forth tales of town holidays, and residents ruminating whether those staples of small-town America would continue.

The accompanying video by Gillian Flaccus, recorded during a ride-along with a long-time resident, complemented the text piece by showing street after street of utter devastation over the man’s narration.

Paradise is gone, and until it rebuilds in some fashion, Mendoza, Gecker and Flaccus have given the world the definitive piece on what it represented. For their deft depiction of the town behind the headlines, the trio wins AP's Best of the States.

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Nov. 16, 2018

Best of the Week

Cataclysmic fires cap off week of momentous and devastating news in California

California’s news staff still was in the midst of reporting the tragic night-spot shooting in Thousand Oaks when news reached the AP that a wildfire in Northern California was spreading quickly, sending thousands fleeing.

Bay Area freelance photographer Noah Berger, as good a fire chaser as there is anywhere, tipped the office off that the Northern California fire looked explosive. By 11 a.m. Sacramento reporter Don Thompson was hitting the road, and a first AP NewsAlert moved saying people fleeing for their lives had abandoned vehicles as the fire swept in.

AP’s all-formats coverage went into high gear, with staffers pouring in from the region. In addition to Thompson, who stayed at the scene with fire crews for several days straight, Portland, Ore., all-formats reporter Gilly Flaccus arrived, producing unmatched interviews in text and video of survivors and of crews searching for the remains of those killed. San Francisco reporter Paul Elias gathered information on the dramatic rescues and chaotic evacuation, while Las Vegas photographer John Locher and Denver videographer Peter Banda provided gripping visuals from the scene.

AP was first to report thousands of homes destroyed, first to report a named victim, and we were alone in accompanying a search and recovery crew in all formats as they went to a victim’s home and found her remains.

The coverage was nuanced and emotional. California News Editor Frank Baker says there was no one on the California staff who didn’t contribute, working unrelentingly from last week’s elections and mass shooting straight into the wildfire.

For outstanding work, bolstered and supported by California’s all-formats reporting staff and editors, Thompson, Flaccus, Elias, Berger, Locher and Banda share this AP's Best of the Week.

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