It started with an email carrying the subject “balloon intel.”
Law enforcement editor Mike Balsamo wrote to Washington colleagues at 12:19 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4: “Source says they are currently discussing plans to shoot it down over the Atlantic once it leaves land. The tentative plan is to shoot it down in US waters and then retrieve it.” Three more Washington reporters — White House Correspondent Zeke Miller and White House reporters Colleen Long and Aamer Madhani — pried similar information from additional sources.
The first of seven news alerts hit the wire at 12:42 p.m. and AP commanded the lead for the remainder of the day.
When an Air Force fighter pierced the balloon with a missile, Miller had an alert, breaking news fast file and write thru published within minutes of the first puff of smoke and fighter contrail. Once the balloon was down, Pentagon reporters Lolita Baldor and Tara Copp added updates from military officials on how the operation was carried out and details on the intelligence implications.
Advance knowledge of how the day would play out helped reporters, photographers and editors along the Carolina coast and elsewhere in the U.S. get prepared for the downing so they could pursue reporting from eyewitnesses and collect visuals from members of the public. AP journalists jumped in from all over to help find people who saw the balloon, including White House reporter Chris Megerian, who was traveling with President Joe Biden over the weekend. He interviewed a woman that a source from another story connected him to who saw the balloon and gave this memorable quote: “I did not anticipate waking up to be in a ‘Top Gun’ movie today."
She also gave AP permission to use the video she shot.
The fast reporting helped the digital and audience team with multiple mobile alerts and social media. AP’s push alert on the downing of the balloon moved 14 minutes ahead of other media and Fox News, which was airing a live feed of the balloon, said it was “checking with the AP” on the latest developments, and attributed the news of the shootdown to AP. Bloomberg initially cited AP with the shooting down of the balloon until it could confirm on its own.
The story generated the strongest metrics of the year so far, more than 3.1 million page views, and of all the balloon stories, the previous night’s explainer saw the highest engagement score, which was given a major overhaul after the shootdown, getting 250,000 clicks and a 97-engagement score.
For one of the biggest AP news breaks of the year thanks to source reporting and fast filing, the Washington team of Miller, Long, Madhani, Balsamo, Baldor and Copp is this week’s Best of the Week — Second Winner.
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