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Source development leads to two sharply different beats – on Henderson’s death and truck safety

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The auto industry and Hollywood entertainment could hardly be more different worlds. But for AP reporters covering them, they have this in common: Building sources is essential.

Last week, Tom Krisher, a Detroit-based auto writer, and Lynn Elber, the TV writer in Los Angeles, demonstrated the value of great beat reporting. Both scored scoops that left competitors scrambling. Their stories also created a very unusual situation: A tie for Beat of the Week honors.

Krisher was the first to report the U.S. government was taking the unusual step of allowing General Motors to delay a large recall of potentially defective air bags, giving the automaker time to prove the devices are safe and possibly avoid a huge financial hit.

Elber broke the news of the death of Florence Henderson, “The Brady Bunch” star, about an hour after the beloved TV mom passed away in Los Angeles.

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The interior of a 2015 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 4WD LTZ Crew Cab pickup truck is shown at Miami Lakes AutoMall in Miami Lakes, Fla, Oct. 1, 2014 – AP Photo / Wilfredo Lee

In the auto story,Krisher,acting on a tip from a longtime industry source,discovered GM had made a deal with federal auto safety regulators to postpone the recall of 2.5 million pickup trucks and SUVs equipped with Takata air bag inflators that have been shown to rupture under certain conditions. GM contended the inflators it uses are safer than those linked to 11 deaths in the U.S. The regulators agreed to give GM about two months to prove that.

The origins of the story date back to May when the regulators informed GM it would have to recall about a million pickups and SUVs equipped with air bags that Takata had just declared defective. Soon after,the automaker filed a petition asking the regulators not to order further recalls of GM vehicles,contending its Takata air bags were,in fact,different and safer. On Friday evening,Nov. 18,Krisher received a call from his source,who’d heard GM had mysteriously withdrawn its petition.

Over that weekend, Krisher dug around in the Federal Register and found GM’s letter withdrawing the petition; it included a vague statement that the automaker would address the air bags “through an alternative procedure.” The next day,the company declined to elaborate. Krisher then called the chief spokesman at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; the official has only been on his job for a year,but Krisher has earned his trust by,among other things,meeting with him whenever he traveled to Michigan.

The spokesman told Krisher he was onto something, but encouraged him to wait to write a story because “another piece” of the puzzle would make things clearer. He promised Krisher not to tell other reporters and to provide him the details first if another reporter inquired. Later that day, the spokesman delivered documents revealing NHTSA had agreed to the delay. This effectively meant the government was allowing potentially dangerous air bags to remain on the road. The spokesman didn’t disclose the agreement to other reporters until Krisher filed his story the next morning. http://apne.ws/2gB9Oxe

Krisher’s story was played widely, including on the Detroit Free Press website. It was matched about an hour after publication by the Detroit News. The scoop was even more impressive given that Krisher faces fierce competition from a large press corps covering the industry; some outlets have seven or eight people covering automakers.

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Actress Farrah Fawcett-Majors, right, joins her husband Lee Majors in a rare television appearance together in the sit-com “The Brady Bunch,” Jan 20, 1977. At left are actors Florence Henderson and Robert Reed, with Geri Reischl at left. – AP Photo / George Brich

The payoff on the Henderson beat was tremendous. The story set a record for social interaction,with NewsWhip showing more than 1.1 million likes,shares, comments or retweets on the AP story as it appeared on customer websites.

In the Henderson death,Elber got her exclusive as a result of having a long-term relationship with a publicist who’d been given the statement to distribute as he chose. He said he knew that AP and Elber always treated his clients fairly,in good times and bad. AP,he said,was the best way to get the story out accurately and widely.

Getting a beat on a major story in Hollywood is difficult. The celebrity space is packed with competition – notably from TMZ and others who openly pay sources for information. The AP has long staked its claim on its credibility,its reach and relationships that individual reporters have cultivated.

The payoff on the Henderson beat was tremendous. The story set a record for social interaction,with NewsWhip showing more than 1.1 million likes,shares,comments or retweets on the AP story as it appeared on customer websites. That was more than twice that of the confirmation of Prince’s death. The Henderson obituary itself appeared on 1,087 client websites,according to NewsWhip. It was the top story of the day on AP’s Facebook page,reaching 172,000 people.

For source cultivation and resulting stories that put AP way ahead of the competition, Krisher and Elber share this week’s $500 prize

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