“Why It Matters” -- to voters and AP member news organizations

Nov. 2, 2012
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AP's 2012 election guide seen on AP Mobile.
In this memo to AP staff, Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes salutes the team behind “Why It Matters” -- AP’s issues-focused preamble to the presidential election. A total of 26 reporters and editors produced a 33-part series -- 20,000 words in all -- covering virtually every issue of the 2012 campaign.

Amid the noise of the political campaign, the AP faced a challenge: How could we make issues coverage interesting and accessible _ and get it used _ rather than producing a series of long, dry, wonky stories that would read like term papers and get little play. How could this coverage be less dutiful and more distinctive?

The market was there. Newspaper editors, online editors and broadcasters said they were desperate for issues coverage. They weren’t getting it anywhere, and  readers were hungry for substance.

So reporters around the company, 26 in all, answered the call from reporter/writer Calvin Woodward to write a series of stories that could become a model for future issues reporting: Explain why each issue matters to the average reader in a concise, reader-friendly, conversational way. Each story would answer the basic question, “Why does this matter to me?” And thus the series’ name, Why It Matters, was born.

The goal from the start was to keep the pieces easy to understand, as if the reporter were talking to a mom, a dad or an uncle at a kitchen table. Keep the conversation short. Make it as punchy as possible, and think about ways to also make it visual.

With that in mind, Woodward and accountability editor Jim Drinkard assigned the stories to experts around the AP, including beat reporters in Washington, business writers across the country and anyone with expertise on a particular topic. All responded enthusiastically to the chance to step back and write conversationally about topics they cover. Over time, as the list of issues grew, reporters were enlisted in bureaus from New York to Chicago, Detroit to Philadelphia.

In several cases, reporters across the AP, noticing the series, volunteered to write a piece on a subject they knew deeply.

The team:

From Washington: Nancy Benac, Seth Borenstein, Robert Burns, Desmond Butler, Alicia A. Caldwell, Matthew Daly, Carole Feldman, Suzanne Gamboa, Jack Gillum, Sam Hananel, Bradley Klapper, Richard Lardner, Matthew Lee, Stephen Ohlemacher, Matthew Pennington, Chris Rugaber, Tom Raum, Mark Sherman, Eileen Sullivan, Daniel Wagner, Paul Wiseman, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar.

From New York: David Crary.

From Philadelphia: Jesse Washington.

From Detroit: Tom Krisher.

From Chicago: Jason Keyser.

The end result (http://bit.ly/RxKiXT) was a 33-part series – 20,000 words in all – covering virtually every issue of the 2012 campaign.
Abortion, Afghanistan, auto bailout, campaign finance, China, civil rights, climate change, cybersecurity, debt, defense spending, economy, education, energy, environment, European economic crisis, gay marriage, guns, health care, immigration, income inequality, infrastructure, Iran, Israel, labor, missile defense, outsourcing, race, Social Security, Supreme Court appointments, Syria, taxes, terrorism, Wall Street regulation.

It was given voice, cohesion and elegance under the editing hand of Woodward, who also wrote two essays to bracket the series.

The lead of his final essay (http://bit.ly/RxKyGu):

“WASHINGTON (AP) _ Election Day could well determine how much you end up paying in taxes. It could move the bar for fighting future wars. On energy, it could shape the balance between drill-baby-drill (and mine-baby-mine) and some big pollution controls. If you care about Obamacare, this may be your last, best chance to save it or unravel it _ with your vote. Long after the fuss fades over President Barack Obama's snoozy debate opener and Mitt Romney's weird flub or two, one of them will be hard at work trying to make good on his agenda.”

Members and customers said they wanted the series – and they made good on their promise to use it. The Syracuse Post-Standard devoted most of its front page to the stories for several days. The Washington Post put them on its website with photos, as did the Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News and many others. The Huffington Post posted them as well, along with Google News and U.S. News & World Report. CBS News used the abridged compilation of the series that had been transmitted for mobile and interactives.  And even in the midst of Hurricane Sandy, it was featured in the No. 2 pane (after the storm) on MSN (http://news.msn.com).

Other installments in the series:

Gun control: http://hrld.us/RxKAhF

Creaky infrastructure: http://wapo.st/RxKDtJ

And it wasn’t just a text series. The stories all moved with photos. AP Video produced 10 companion issue pieces that are on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/user/AssociatedPress). The stories also became the basis for a voters’ guide on the AP Mobile app; they were posted on the Big Story microsite (http://bit.ly/RxKiXT), and became part of the Election 2012 interactive package.

For producing important issues content in a digestible way that members ate up, Woodward and his team win this week’s $500 prize.


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