When news breaks, ‘everyone is a reporter’ at AP

In a memo to AP staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how quick-thinking and collaboration across states and formats led to definitive coverage of a tragic story that captured national attention:

Minutes after a rush-hour commuter train slammed into an SUV on the tracks north of New York City, killing six, two AP staffers more than 1,000 miles apart went immediately to work.

In the New York suburbs, breaking news staffer Kiley Armstrong was at home reading her Facebook feed when a message appeared about the collision on the busy Metro North line. Without hesitating, she grabbed her coat, her notebook and her camera, and headed out the door.

It wasn’t until she reached the snowy crash site two miles away that she called the New York City desk to say she was there, and began dictating the first details of smoke pouring from the train and rescuers trying to get survivors to safety.

Armstrong was the first AP staffer on the scene, and the only one of our text reporters to get anywhere near the site. Her reporting and photography (two of her photos made the wire) helped AP get out front on a story everyone in the nation’s biggest media market was covering.

Firefighters work at the scene of an accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. A packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle on the tracks and the front of the train and the vehicle burst into flames, authorities said. (AP Photo/Kiley Armstrong)

Firefighters work at the scene of an accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. A packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle on the tracks and the front of the train and the vehicle burst into flames, authorities said. (AP Photo/Kiley Armstrong)

Meanwhile, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. investigative team reporter Michael Kunzelman was at home reading his iPad when an alert moved about the New York crash. He immediately began scouring documents he received months before as part of a Freedom of Information request _ on railroad crossings that had received federal money for safety improvements.

He found this listing next to the New York crossing: “Commerce Street Crossing of Metro North Railroad for a crossing upgrade.” There was an amount of money allocated, $126,000 and a status code: “Active.” He quickly contacted his New York-based investigative team colleague, David Caruso, and together they started tracking down the details.

Armstrong, Kunzelman and Caruso demonstrated the essence of what it means to work for the AP in a breaking news situation: No matter your job title or your schedule, EVERYONE is a reporter, and speed is of the essence.

Armstrong’s dash to the scene captured the color and details that populated our breaking updates through the night. She would eventually be joined by at least four more AP staffers across formats, and two more making calls in the bureau.

Kunzelman and Caruso, meanwhile, found that the railroad crossing had undergone a number of upgrades in recent years to reduce the risk of accidents, including the installation of brighter LED lights and new traffic signal control equipment.

But the “active” item from the documents, a 2009 plan to install a third set of flashing lights 100 to 200 feet up the road to give motorists a few seconds’ extra warning, was never carried out. The $126,000 budgeted for the lights and other work was never spent. New York transportation officials were unable to explain why, though they cautioned it was too soon to say whether it would have made any difference in preventing the collision.

The APNewsBreak moved on Friday shortly before public officials held a news conference at the crossing where the crash occurred.

“I just saw that report, the AP report, that they said there should have been more work done, in 2009,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. “That’s something that we have to find out the answer to right away. Why wasn’t the work done? Would it have made a difference? Could it have made this preventable? It’s a looming question.”

For fast work and hustle that made AP stand out on one of the biggest national stories of the week, Armstrong, Kunzelman and Caruso share this week’s $300 Best of the States Prize.