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AP Investigation: At least 1,680 aging US dams pose a risk to thousands

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The U.S. has tens of thousands of dams, many of them decades old and looming over neighborhoods, businesses and schools. Data showing what kind of shape those dams are in and what danger they might pose has for years been sealed off from public view by the federal agency that oversees the nation’s only comprehensive dam database. This inconvenient fact did not deter a group of persistent AP journalists.

Over a period of more than two years, AP reporters and data team journalists used public records filings to access essential information about the condition of the nation’s dams. The relevant data came to light only after multiple rounds of record requests in all 50 states, an effort led by data journalist Michelle Minkoff and Northern New England correspondent Michael Casey. The data analysis, aided by Justin Myers, Larry Fenn and Andrew Milligan, revealed at least 1,688 dams across the U.S. in poor or unsatisfactory condition and considered high hazard because people would likely die if they failed.

The result, “Dams — Legacy of Neglect,” was a masterpiece of multi-format data journalism and collaboration with AP’s customers. The reporting and data analysis produced a trove of distinctive data and documents that could be localized easily,and many AP customers took advantage of that to produce their own staff-reported packages of stories,graphics, charts and photos. Among them were the (Albany,N.Y.) Times Union,the NBC affiliate in Sacramento,California, and local newspaper chains in Connecticut and Michigan.

Newspaper Combo

The importance of the topic, the project’s visual appeal and the richness of the state-by-state data sets led to incredible play: The main story,anchored by state government team reporter David Lieb,had nearly 107,000 page views on AP News and some 450 digital downloads among AP customers. It was the third most viewed story on the day it moved and made the front pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Denver Post. AP reporters produced sidebars for 25 states — stories that were used on at least 470 of our customers’ digital sites. Many of the state stories ran on front pages,including with The Columbus Dispatch,the Hartford Courant,The Charlotte Observer,The (Raleigh) News & Observer and The (Jackson,Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. In all,the national story, AP state sidebars and localizations won play on at least 80 front pages. Newspapers elsewhere saw fit to editorialize on the topic, urging inspection standards and calling for more funding.

Alan Miller,editor of The Columbus Dispatch, praised the AP-member partnership in a letter to the newspaper’s readers: “The beauty of the collaboration that went into this story is that none of those newsrooms had to spend time analyzing data and reporting the entire story. It is another example of leveraging our assets to serve you best.” While the data was essential to the project,that alone didn’t sell it. AP visual journalists across the country,coordinated by video journalist Allen Breed,contributed stunning photos and videos,some of it shot by drone and some obtained from public agencies. Significant visual contributions came from John Bazemore,Rick Bowmer,Eric Gay,David Goldman,Cody Jackson,Charlie Krupa, Brady McCombs and Angie Wang.

At the same time, graphic artist Phil Holm worked with location intelligence company Esri to produce an interactive map giving readers access to state-level details about each of the dams in the core data set. All of this was drawn together by Samantha Shotzbarger and Alyssa Goodman in a compelling AP News presentation using the new feature template,and promoted through a lively,multiday social plan by Alina Hartounian. East desk editor Jeff McMillan and former investigations editor Rick Pienciak made important contributions to the project,as did top stories editor Mary Sedor. The result of this all-formats team effort was a factually persuasive,visually engaging illustration of how a critical piece of the nation’s infrastructure has fallen into neglect at a time when climate change-induced storms present a rising peril for the communities downstream.

For dogged public records work,complex data analysis and rich storytelling in all formats,Minkoff,Casey, Lieb and Breed earn this week’s Best of the States award.

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