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Tip unleashes blizzard of AP coverage on Breyer’s SCOTUS retirement

Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer holds up a copy of the United States Constitution as he announces his retirement in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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AP’s Washington team met the moment, delivering fast, sweeping coverage on the retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

A single tip that Breyer might retire within the week launched an all-hands,multiformat collaboration that would deliver some of the most comprehensive work of the day and the week on the highly competitive story.

AP Supreme Court reporter Mark Sherman had been in regular contact with people both inside and outside the court regarding Breyer’s status. Finally,one of his sources gave him an off-the-record heads-up: The court’s oldest justice — one of the three members of the liberal wing of the court — was ready to announce within days that he was stepping down.

That tip Tuesday morning raced through AP’s staff,all focused on providing the most complete all-formats package when the news broke. Editors and colleagues in audio,video,photo,graphics,Congress,the White House, social media and throughout the Washington bureau readied their content.

First word on Breyer’s announcement came the following day from Mike Balsamo,AP’s well-sourced chief federal law enforcement reporter,whose tip was confirmed by Sherman,triggering AP’s alert. Thanks to the advance notice provided by Sherman,colleagues were not scrambling to do analysis and video,find the best photos or start setting up interviews for text pieces. Instead,a burst of AP content hit the wires, heading out to customers with that initial alert and the subsequent story.

Sherman and Balsamo had the most complete story out to the public in minutes,accompanied by video,photos,audio,graphics and a social media plan.

And for good measure,AP had a significant eight-minute competitive advantage over major national news outlets that had a fraction of the content.

Washington photo editor Jennifer Kane had photos loaded for that first story, while video journalist Nathan Ellgren had prepped analysis that moved with the alert. Washington reporter Lynn Berry and desk editors Tom Strong and Bob Furlow were central to the coverage as well.

Video journalist Hilary Powell had a biographical and career background piece that moved the same afternoon; Padma Rama delivered visuals and an analysis of potential replacements,and fellow journalist Rick Gentilo camped outside the Supreme Court within minutes of the alert.

Executive producer Ron Vample’s audio team went to work as well,with radio correspondent Sagar Meghani putting together a preview package of Breyer’s retirement that hit the wire with the first text story. Meghani edited pieces throughout the developing story.

Multimedia editor Kevin Vineys,working with images,graphics and interactives on the court,supplied a wealth of options to accompany the stories going out,including a piece on the potential replacements.

The new Digital News Audiences and Platforms team worked with deputy political editor Ashley Thomas,who kept a social media presence and plan moving constantly. Photographer Andrew Harnik snapped a photo of Justice Breyer holding a copy of the Constitution,an image that was picked up and widely used across the country, including the hometown Washington Post among other outlets large and small.

SCOTUS 2000

In addition to Sherman and Balsamo’s mainbar,stories explored every facet of Breyer’s decision to step down:

— White House reporters Colleen Long and Zeke Miller joined Balsamo and Supreme Court reporter Jessica Gresko in breaking news on the frontrunners to replace Breyer.
— Congressional reporters Mary Clare Jalonick and Lisa Mascaro laid out a story on how quickly the Democrats planned to move,with the 2020 confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as the new standard for speed.
— Congressional reporter Kevin Freking provided a “What’s Next” explainer.
— Sherman examined Breyer’s legacy.
— Gresko did an analysis of how the court had changed during Breyer’s tenure and she joined Long in revisiting the leading candidates story.
— Long,Miller and White House colleague Darlene Superville added President Biden’s perspective to the mix.
— Polling reporter Hannah Fingerhut revealed the marked decline in the public’s opinion of the court.
— National political reporter Steve Peoples considered how the vacancy might energize the Democrats’ 2022 election prospects.
— Jalonick and Mascaro reported on how this confirmation process would likely avoid the toxicity of the most recent court nominees.

Subsequent coverage included:

— Denver-based Nick Riccardi looked at Biden’s campaign promise to the Black community,and South Carolina’s Meg Kinnard reported on how South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn,whose support reinvigorated Biden’s primary candidacy,was lobbying for his favored candidate.
— Reporters Jonathan Drew and Jamie Stengle,from the South and Central regions respectively,talked to law students from two historical black colleges on what it might mean to see a Black woman on the court. Hilary Powell managed to produce video for that story as well.

Nearly every text piece was packaged with all-formats content. That coordinated effort,harnessing all of AP’s resources, produced blanket coverage rivaling the weekend’s northeastern snowstorm.

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