April 16, 2012

The California Watch project “On Shaky Ground” was supposed to be a “quick hit” assignment, not a massive 19-month award-winning, state policy-changing investigation that could be honored with a Pulitzer Prize this afternoon.

It was never imagined as a story that would find thousands of schools that had not been built to state code to withstand earthquakes. Inspections that would have caught the problems were falsified or not done at all. The worst inspectors were often rewarded with more contracts. The state had the money to fix the problems but made it so difficult to get the money from them that nobody did.

New job, new assignment

Investigative reporter Corey Johnson had just arrived from Fayetteville, North Carolina, having never stepped foot in the state of California before he took his job at California Watch. He was supposed to cover the K-12 education beat. “I didn’t even sit down at a desk when I got my first assignment,” Johnson told me.

Corey Johnson exposed email abuse at the University of North Carolina system before moving to California.

Johnson’s editors wanted him to write a school safety story keyed to the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which killed 63 people. (You may remember it as the quake that happened live on TV during Game 3 of the World Series, at about 4:30 in the video.)

After a quake in 1933 that destroyed newly built schools there, California legislators passed a bill called The Field Act, named for lawmaker Don C. Field who rammed it through when he learned that newly constructed schools collapsed while older schools did not. The Field Act demanded high construction and inspection standards to keep schoolchildren safe when the next big one hit.

“I asked the state for a list of all of the 7,500 schools that did not comply with the Field Act,” Johnson said. He was stunned when the list showed more than 9,000 California schools out of compliance. There were more surprises ahead when he found the real number was closer to 20,000 schools statewide.

Johnson’s bosses like to tell people that he examined more than 30,000 documents. But he told me “I stopped counting at 30,000. There was no point in counting further, my bosses would not have believed me.” Johnson spent so much time in the office of the State Architect that workers gave him his own vacant office to work in week after week. California Watch built a timeline showing a “document count” that illustrated how long it took to get through the piles of paper.

Over the course of a year, Johnson took three vacation days off from the project, mostly to sleep, he said. He spent so much time digging through the documents that insiders began to notice his diligence and leaked him information. One source sent him a hard-drive brimming with internal e-mails and data. But he began to also notice that as he asked for documents, some government records were being changed. His investigation had touched a nerve and everyone, it seemed, knew this was going to be an explosive story.

Nonprofit, non-competitive

California Watch is a nonprofit journalism center that partners with newspapers, TV stations, bloggers, websites and radio stations.

Newspapers and TV stations pay for packages of print, online, video and audio stories that California Watch produces. “The partners buy packages of stories sight unseen,” said Mark Katches, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, which created California Watch. “We produce 40 to 50 stories a year and they can buy packages, sort of like buying baseball tickets. They can buy five, 10 or 15 stories a year, for example, and know that they will be getting the kind of significant investigations that we are known for,” Katches told me. (See a video on how California Watch distributes content.)

Mark Katches led investigative teams at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Orange County Register before moving to CIR and California Watch.

“We produce about five fully-produced video projects for the TV stations a year,” Katches says. “The partners are free to run the pieces as is, or add to the projects with their own reporting.”

California Watch estimates that the “On Shaky Ground” project cost about a half-million dollars to produce. Katches said, “If we were a for-profit organization we would have to charge a lot more for this work. The reality is there are very few newsrooms that can do this on their own anymore.”

As the project came into focus, Johnson and his colleagues had to develop a “primer” that they would use to explain their investigation to their dozens of journalism partners around the state, from Patch.com editors to reporters at The Sacramento Bee and The San Francisco Chronicle. The papers, along with ABC affiliated TV stations in every major California market plus KQED public radio and PBS’s “NewsHour,” all wanted to get market specific data to localize the story and press local authorities for answers.

The California Watch journalists found themselves sharing all they knew with other journalists even before the first word was published.

Johnson told me that while it is a very difficult way of reporting compared to the competitive way he had always reported in the past, “Every investigator worth their salt really wants to see impact. You have to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if all of these other reporters were asking questions and digging into it?’ ” He said it would have been easy for lawmakers to shrug off California Watch’s investigations but when every major newspaper and TV market is saturated with a story, the legislature acted quickly to public concerns. (See the follow-up stories since the series aired.)

Multimedia partnerships

Johnson is a “print guy” who came to understand the power of great video and radio reporting. He partnered with experienced and nationally recognized TV reporter Anna Werner and KQED’s Krissy Clark and Michael Montgomery.

There were times when four reporters would participate in a single interview. Far from feeling overwhelmed, Johnson said he enjoyed the experience of working with colleagues who had different skills. “It made it fun when it could have been nerve wracking,” he said.

Johnson said the TV and radio reports were vital to the project’s success. He says many more people heard or saw the story than ever read it top to bottom. “I can count on one or two fingers the number of people who have read all of that type cover to cover. I don’t even think my mother has read all of that stuff. But I know many, many people who saw Anna’s clips and listened to Michael and Krissy’s story and got the story and made them want to read the story,” Johnson told me.

The team even produced a coloring book to teach children about quake safety. Because California’s population is so diverse, the investigation was translated into Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese.

The importance of data mapping

The California Watch team was stunned at how confusing and messy the state’s data was. Some of the data was flat-out wrong. “Some of the schools were mislabeled, some of the maps were wrong. It was just messy,” Katches said. The California Watch researchers had to clean up the data to make it readable, relevant and right.

From the beginning of the project, Johnson started conversations with California Watch data analyst Agustin Armendariz about how to use graphics and interactive charts and maps to help tell the story. The graphics became a key way that readers zero in on their local schools.

The team discovered that political pressure changed seismic maps. The changes meant that schools which once were considered to be in high probability quake zones suddenly found themselves outside the zones, and outside the building codes that would make them safer when the ground shakes.

The data visualization team built maps that allow the reader to slide a bar across a screen, showing how the seismic area used to be defined and how it stands today. It is easy to see how, in some cases, mappers redrew seismic areas to make it possible to quickly build a school in a quake zone without including the cumbersome safeguards that would have to be installed if it was in a high impact area.

Here are two maps of the same seismic area where you can see the new map simply cut Pescadero High School right out of the danger zone.


Within weeks of the California Watch reports, the state set new standards, making it possible for thousands of schools to tap the $200 million repair fund to fix seismic safety problems.

Some local school superintendents shut down buildings that the investigation identified as potentially unsafe.

Follow-up stories revealed even more problems in some schools, including hidden safety flaws that were buried under concrete or beneath drywall by contractors who were behind schedule on their work and could not incur the delays that would come with addressing the issues.

Reporting before disaster happened

“On Shaky Ground” is distinctive for its magnitude, multimedia and statewide partnerships, but there is another key quality to this project. The team launched an investigation before anybody was harmed by the problem. It is reminiscent of the Times-Picayune’s warnings about New Orleans’ substandard levee system years before Hurricane Katrina. Only this time, the journalists’ warnings led to big changes before disaster hit.

“News organizations are great at doing the retrospective story. We tell the stories of all of the red flags missed and the stories generate a lot more outrage because now you have victims,” Katches said. “We looked at the disaster before the disaster occurs. It is not something the media does well. We found the serious issues that will lead to changes and make schools safer before the quake hits.”

When he started reporting the story, Corey Johnson, a Georgia native, knew almost nothing about earthquakes. In the time he investigated this story, quakes hit Haiti and Chile before the devastating quake and tsunami struck Japan. As the tsunami waves washed toward California, a source called Johnson and told him that a tsunami warning had been issued for parts of California. The evacuation center, his source said, was a public school. A building that was on the list of uncertified, unprotected schools that Johnson uncovered.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly referred to the Loma Prieta earthquake as California’s biggest since 1902.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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