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California Watch examines seismic oversight at public schools

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Tonight, 19 months after joining our staff, Corey G. Johnson finally gets his first byline at California Watch.

I hope you will agree that it was worth the wait.

At 9 p.m. Pacific Standard Time we will begin rolling out a three-part series on seismic safety in public schools called "On Shaky Ground." It’s a project that Johnson began working on almost immediately after we gave him his laptop and a desk back in September 2009.

His first assignment was supposed to be a quick-turn anniversary piece about safety issues for the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Johnson had just arrived from North Carolina, and we figured it would be a good, easy way to get his feet wet – and to get him that first early byline. Johnson had never been to California. But his fresh eyes began to see things that other reporters had overlooked. The project became virtually all consuming for Johnson – and ultimately for us.

His desk soon became cluttered with reams of documents, forming a fortress growing higher and higher. Tens of thousands of PDF files about earthquake safety in California’s public schools soon taxed his laptop hard drive. The documents painted a disturbing picture of a system of oversight in disarray.

For months, Johnson worked on the story alone in our Sacramento bureau under the supervision of his editor, Robert Salladay. He became a virtual embed at the Division of the State Architect. Routinely, Johnson hauled our 30-pound copy machine several blocks to make copies – cutting down on copying costs. He filed regular blog posts for us, but his first real story would need more time.

He became so well sourced that officials inside the state architect’s office began feeding him more and more documents. Johnson obtained incredible access to records. Sources handed him files of internal e-mails, memos and confidential records that had never before been made public. A treasure trove.

In the meantime, California Watch began building unique databases from scratch – cleaning up filthy data that had incomplete information, wrong school names or even mismatched schools and cities. We converted PDF records into lines of data and hand-entered thousands of individual rows and columns. Through our data initiative we were able to track and analyze more than 20,000 school building projects that failed to receive a final state safety certification. We also built a separate database for our internal use on inspection evaluations – mining documents that the state had previously kept confidential until we fought for their release. 

As we get ready to hit the publish button on the first part of a three-part series, "On Shaky Ground" has evolved from a solitary reporter sorting page by page through a mountain of documents into a major staff-wide production. Nearly four dozen staff members and freelance contributors – as well as our partners over at KQED Public Radio – are involved.  

Our higher education reporter, Erica Perez, took the lead writing the second part of our series, which will go live on Saturday. Johnson wrote most of the rest of our package with big assists from reporters Kendall Taggart, Agustin Armendariz, Anna Werner, Michael Montgomery and KQED's Krissy Clark – along with incomparable editing by Salladay. Carrie Ching and Michael Corey created amazing multimedia components.

The package will feature an interactive database that allows parents to see if their child attends school near a fault or in a liquefaction zone – or if a school has buildings that have been deemed potentially dangerous in the event of an earthquake. It includes our first-ever iPhone app, called "myFault," built by data whiz Chase Davis, that maps faults in California, and a special coloring book aimed at helping children ages 5 to 10 prepare for an earthquake.

Yup, a coloring book.

When we realized there was an opportunity to produce a new resource to help young children prepare for an earthquake, California Watch set out to create one. The initial response has been overwhelming. We’ve already taken orders for 28,000 copies of the book that we are giving away for free during our initial release. The coloring book, written and produced by Public Engagement Manager Ashley Alvarado, represents the debut for "Sunny," our watchdog mascot.  

We’ve delivered all the stories, sidebars, photos, links and graphics, as well as video pieces, to our partners and news outlets that are planning to publish all or some of this ambitious work. In all, we’ve produced roughly 20,000 words of text and more than a half dozen videos.

The story marks our first major undertaking with our new video unit at the Center for Investigative Reporting. With Werner, an award-winning Bay Area investigative broadcast journalist, now on our team, we’ve produced pieces for ABC affiliates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and Fresno. Video editors Marjorie McAfee and David Ritsher also created a magazine-length video segment for KQED Public Television and a separate segment for PBS’s NewsHour that will air over the next week.

California Watch has pioneered a new distribution network for nonprofit journalism centers, partnering with more than 80 news outlets across the state. Our motto: broad reach, not exclusivity. With this series we have taken it to a whole new level. 

In the Bay Area alone, parts of our series are scheduled to appear in the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, on KQED Public Radio and on KGO TV-San Francisco, in addition to Patch.com sites around the region. This marks our first effort to distribute stories through Patch.com. We are hoping upwards of 100 Patch sites will take our series. We made our database available weeks ago to Patch reporters and other partners so they could mine the data for local sidebars and breakouts. In Southern California and the Central Valley, the Orange County Register and Bakersfield Californian are planning to run parts of our series. Meghann Farnsworth, our distribution manager, is still adding partners. 

Although fears of the “Big One” are part of the psyche of every Californian, the state hasn’t felt a major earthquake in an urban area since the Northridge quake toppled freeways and killed dozens of people in Southern California in 1994. Ominously, that may make us overdue. And it may underscore the importance of our initiative – especially in the wake of the chilling images out of Japan.

Major media outlets do a fine job jumping on big disasters once they occur – helping to understand what went wrong, how emergency crews responded or how preparedness efforts fell short. In that sense our series “On Shaky Ground” is different. We’re detailing a regulatory failure in advance. We hope it’s the kind of journalism that will help focus debate and lead to changes that can make California better prepared for the inevitable Big One.

The series has already prompted results before a word has been published. One lawmaker pledged to review why more seismically unsafe school buildings haven’t been fixed. The main regulator of school construction, the state architect's office, has changed some of its policies as a result of our reporting. One Los Angeles County school had been under the mistaken impression that its campus was safe – until our reporters arrived with documents showing otherwise. The school has since launched its own review of seismic safety.

Please let us know what you think.

 

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