A Florida charter-schools investigation highlights a more collaborative approach for the AP

A surprising triple byline appeared not long ago in The Miami Herald. Gary Fineout and Terry Spencer of The Associated Press shared credit with the Herald’s Christine Veiga for a story on the millions of dollars the state of Florida has doled out to charter schools that later closed.

As newspaper companies adapt to the new reality of smaller budgets and staffs, we’re seeing more and more examples of collaborations and networks that support enterprise reporting. A chain of small rural and suburban newspapers finds the resources to hire statewide reporters in 10 states and Washington, DC. A group of Gannett papers in Wisconsin shares investigative reporting from a common I-team. Here in the Sunshine State, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times roll out a major investigation that involves collaboration across company lines.

But The Associated Press, the largest news organization on earth, working together with its member papers? That surprised me. I’ve worked for the AP, and for two member papers in Florida. When I was with the Herald during the rebellion that toppled President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004, we saw the AP as our primary competition in Port-au- Prince. When I was with the AP in Bogotá, Colombia, the other foreign correspondents in town were all friends, but they were also competition.

The AP’s Florida news editor, Terry Spencer, said the Florida project—which was published far beyond the Herald—is indeed kind of a new thing. It’s also part of a national effort to get more out of the relationship between the AP and its members.

The idea is to use AP resources to dig up and digest data and then provide it to member news outlets several weeks before an actual story moves on the wire, giving them the opportunity to localize it for their readers. For the charter schools project in Florida, Spencer said, the AP also reached out to editors at other publications early on to gauge interest.

“The Associated Press Managing Editors asked all the states to do this,” he explained. “I thought it was a good idea and I think it’s going to be more and more of a trend. We need to find more ways to engage the members. They don’t have the bodies anymore to do the research, and we often don’t have enough bodies to do the on-the-ground reporting.”

The charter school project was conceived in the spring by Fineout, the AP’s Tallahassee reporter, Spencer told me, and the Florida Society of News Editors quickly signaled interest. Spencer crunched the data over the summer. When the project was finally ready to run this month, it saw wide distribution, in a few different ways. Some papers, like The Palm Beach Post, did their own stories using the data. Others, like the Orlando Sentinel, used the AP’s story while drawing attention to local numbers and adding some local reporting. Papers in Tampa, Naples, Citrus County, and on the Treasure Coast also used the data and/or the story.

This is all part of a bigger push by the AP to provide members with more data-driven reporting that can be adapted for local audiences. The focus on capital spending in Florida fits in to a national focus on infrastructure that has seen the AP roll out a series of projects this year on the state of the country’s bridges, highway funding, drinking water, and the power grid. The consortium also investigated wait times at VA hospitals and sexual assault within law enforcement. In each case, the members got access to the data ahead of time and could participate in a conference call to discuss ways to use it and what they were finding it meant locally.

“The idea is to write a story that is of national importance, but also provide a way for news outlets to create their own stories,” said Tom Verdin, the AP’s national enterprise editor for state government coverage. By providing the member papers “granular” data, getting down to county, city or school district level, the AP can spark lots of smaller local investigations around a topic, he said.

It’s a promising model—one that seems so obvious in retrospect you have to wonder why things didn’t work this way all along. And it’s nice to see it being extended to the state level. I’m looking forward to some more of those joint bylines. Next time, they won’t be so surprising.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.