Tracking the Names  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March & april 2011

Tracking the Names   

How California Watch put together its powerful series on earthquake safety concerns at thousands of state schools, and how it distributed its findings across a wide array of platforms. Friday, April 29, 2011

By Andrew Damstedt
Andrew Damstedt (adamstedt@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


The assignment was supposed to be simple: Write a story about the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco and seismic safety in schools.

Fresh from North Carolina, where he had reported for the Daily Reflector and the Fayetteville Observer, Corey Johnson, the new education reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch, started looking into the subject. He found online a state Department of General Services report that concluded 7,600 schools in California were potentially unsafe in the event of an earthquake.

"That report didn't have any names of any schools, so I said, 'Huh, wow, that'd be great to get some names of some schools,'" the 36-year-old Johnson says. "We would want to know that."

He says he asked a state legislative committee staffer about the issue and was told that he couldn't get that information because the committee hadn't been able to obtain the names. Then he asked the same staffer about the Field Act, a state law designed to make sure schools are built to resist earthquakes.

"So I asked, 'Are there any schools that don't comply?' The staffer kind of hemmed and hawed and said, 'Well, there's only a handful, but it's no big deal,'" Johnson recalls. "I came away from that saying, 'Hmm, I need to get this list the staffer said she couldn't get.' "

That was the start of what was ultimately a 19-month investigation. The end result was a powerful three-part series called "On Shaky Ground" that uncovered massive failure in the enforcement of California earthquake safety laws in connection with school construction, meaning that thousands of students and teachers each day are learning and working in buildings with structural flaws.

The series was widely distributed over an array of platforms, and has spurred concern at the state Legislature, which is following up on the California Watch findings.

"The fact that there's been a lot of reaction around the state, both at the local level and the state level―it feels like we did the right thing," says Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

About a month after filing a public information request, Johnson received a list of schools that didn't comply with the Field Act from the Division of the State Architect, which is part of the Department of General Services, whose report had triggered the reporter's interest.

"They gave me a spreadsheet of a little over 9,000 projects that didn't comply with this Field Act," Johnson says. "And I said, 'Whoa, Over 9,000. Hell, that's more than a few.' So it was at that point that I knew that I was on to something potentially important and potentially big. The next process was trying to get more records and more documentation and more insight into how could this happen."

About a year after Johnson jumped in, California Watch higher education reporter Erica Perez joined him on the project. Her mission was to follow up on leads Johnson had acquired about lax oversight by state inspectors.

Soon more reporters were assigned, and both reporters and editors began thinking of the best ways to disseminate the information.

To make sure its alarming findings attracted as large an audience as possible, California Watch didn't just post the articles on its Web site and call it a day. It made the report available to a variety of news organizations around the state so that they could localize the material for their home bases.

It disseminated the information in many ways: via newspaper and online, radio reports, television, video footage, social media, an interactive map, an iPhone app and, to get the word out to a truly young demographic, a coloring book.

"We are very into being innovative in how we engage readers, especially readers who don't traditionally read newspapers or other mainstream media outlets," says Mark Katches, California Watch editorial director. "We're always looking for ways to broaden the audience reach. There are not a lot of good resources in California, in earthquake country; there are not a lot of great resources for kids in California to prepare for an earthquake."

"I don't think there's a lot of news organizations that spend a lot of time thinking about kids ages 5 to 10 as consumers of information," Katches says. "In that sense, this was a unique and exciting new way to deliver information in a public service sort of way. It's very important information for kids to have that they might not otherwise have."

The original thought was to publish 2,000 copies of the coloring book, but the print order has jumped to 32,000, Katches says.

Ashley Alvarado, California Watch's public engagement manager, came up with the coloring book idea during an editorial meeting as she was thinking of ways to get the information to children.

To accompany each of its major pieces, California Watch includes a section called "React and Act" to help people gain a better understanding of the article. In the case of "On Shaky Ground," the section contained a glossary of earthquake terms, a parent's checklist for earthquake safety and contact information for key players and school district information. Alvarado says for this particular series, she felt it was crucial to provide something special for kids.

The coloring book, "Ready to Rumble," features a dog named Sunny who teaches earthquake safety. The coloring book was translated into Spanish, simplified and traditional Chinese and Vietnamese, Alvarado says. She says the response to the coloring book has been extraordinary; she recalls a woman telling her that because the book was translated into Vietnamese, it was the first time her mother could access information about earthquake safety.

Making important information available on numerous platforms was one of Rosenthal's goals when he became executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008.

"One of the things I really wanted to do was sort of create a new model, not so much for the story, but for storytelling," says Rosenthal, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. "In other words, as technology keeps evolving and changing, how do you take what in my background would've been a newspaper story, because I came out of newspapers, and tell it for audiences for radio, for mobile, for video, and using multimedia."

In 2009, the 34-year-old center established California Watch to carry our investigative projects in the state and set up collaborative relationships with local and regional news organizations in all mediums. The "On Shaky Ground" series was aired on KQED Public Radio in Northern California, which was involved in the reporting for months; distributed via ABC affiliates throughout the state; and run by newspapers in every major media region in California.

Katches says the partnership model varied. Some news outlets, like KQED, become involved early on, localizing the investigation, while others took the finished package after it was edited by California Watch.

"I haven't heard a tremendous amount of feedback other than they appreciate it and love it and like having the options of being able to run the content on different platforms," Katches says. "We even provided the flexibility of allowing partners to choose which story they wanted to be the main centerpiece for day three of the story. I think they appreciate the flexibility and appreciate having the work well in advance to shape it and do their own local reporting on it."

A year ago, Rosenthal says, no one was thinking about teaming up with hyperlocal news Web sites on a major investigation. By contrast, "On Shaky Ground" ran on 125 Patch.com hyperlocal sites after California Watch gave Patch reporters a primer on how to tailor the issue for their communities. California Watch also paid New American Media, a national advocate for ethnic news organizations, to translate the stories for distribution by ethnic news outlets.

Chase Davis, California Watch's money and politics reporter, developed an iPhone app, myFault, about a year into the story's preparation. He says the app was created to help readers understand how the data affected their lives. MyFault includes a map of seismic hazards, a quake preparation list and a flashlight.

"It's something a lot of newsrooms haven't done―they don't have the time and expertise," Davis says. "I was interested in learning how" to create an app. "I sat down and figured it out as I went and it took an off-and-on process for a few months."

Johnson says starting to add all of these bells and whistles about a year after he started reporting the story was a challenge because he had to get others up to speed on the information he had collected.

"People say dealing with reporters is like herding cats," Johnson says. "It's true. Reporters all have a bunch of different things they're working on, different priorities, different questions, different viewpoints and understanding. In order to make sure everyone is operating on the same page, communication has to be good and consistent and clear. Other people could misunderstand or not get a briefing on something. All these little logistical challenges that could arise that if you're just a solo print reporter, you don't really bump into as much as when you start working across mediums."

While the entire package was published in early April, Johnson says reporting on the issue is far from over. He and fellow reporter Perez continue to monitor the issue; they covered a state Senate hearing April 27 convened to focus on the problems uncovered by the investigative report.

The duo reported that state legislators plan to relax the criteria for schools to be eligible for millions in unspent seismic repair funds and require state inspectors to report whether they've ever been convicted of a crime before taking a state certification test.

"It's been a tremendous blessing and opportunity to be able to be involved in a project that could really, truly impact all people's lives," Johnson says. "Most people don't get an opportunity to do things that matter... There's still work to be done, plenty of work to be done."

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