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California Watch staff named Pulitzer finalists

Erica Perez/California Watch Reporter Corey G. Johnson and his colleagues at California Watch spent months sifting through tens of thousands of pages of state records. 

The staff of California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting was named today as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the local reporting category for exposing regulatory breakdowns in the way seismic safety standards are met at public schools.

The local reporting prize went to Sara Ganim and members of The Patriot-News staff in Harrisburg, Pa., for their coverage of the Penn State sex scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky. It was one of 14 journalism awards announced today by Columbia University, which administers journalism’s most prestigious awards.

The other local reporting finalists were A.M. Sheehan and Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling of the Advertiser Democrat in Norway, Maine, a weekly newspaper that exposed problems with a federally supported housing program.

At California Watch, roughly 50 staff members and contributors helped produce an initial 19-month series “On Shaky Ground” and follow-up reporting in 2011. “Being part of the Pulitzer conversation is a great honor, considering we haven’t been around that long,” said Editorial Director Mark Katches.

Corey G. Johnson was the lead reporter on the project. He began work on it shortly after arriving at California Watch in September 2009. Johnson was assigned by his editors to write an update on seismic safety at schools pegged to the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. But he soon began to untangle issues with the way regulators had overseen billions of dollars in public school construction.

With his colleagues at California Watch, Johnson went on to find that thousands of school buildings were being occupied even though they did not meet seismic safety requirements. Bad inspectors missed major defects or falsified reports – while being rewarded with more work. And the state made it practically impossible for schools to get much-needed seismic repair money.

Johnson became a virtual embed inside the state architect’s offices, spending months sifting through long-forgotten documents and using a hand truck to move around 30 boxes of case files. As The Poynter Institute said in a story this week about the series:

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.

Johnson identified schools with missing wall anchors, dangerous lights poised above children, poor welding, slipshod emergency exits and malfunctioning fire alarms. All these problems had been red-flagged by regulators and then lost in a swamp of paperwork. In many cases, local school officials overlooked warning signs in a race to complete new facilities during an unprecedented school building boom.  

The initial “On Shaky Ground” series published in April 2011 and appeared in more than 150 news outlets across the state, including many of California’s largest daily newspapers. Last month, the series also was named the winner of the national Scripps Howard Award in public service.

“Media outlets typically jump all over disasters after the fact – to understand what went wrong,” said CIR Executive Director Robert J. Rosenthal. “Our staff detailed systemic regulatory shortcomings before the next big quake, leading to swift and far-reaching reforms that may help California avert future tragedies.”

Johnson, Erica Perez, Kendall Taggart and Agustin Armendariz obtained and reviewed more than 30,000 documents. The staff compiled a first-of-its-kind interactive database featuring every public K-12 school in the state. Parents have been able to use that database to see if their child attends school near seismic hazards or if schools have seismically unsafe buildings. Robert Salladay, CIR’s senior editor, and Katches served as primary editors on the project.

Forging unique partnerships to broaden distribution of “On Shaky Ground,” California Watch contacted news outlets across the state about a month before publication and provided data we compiled. Major newspapers and hyper-local websites were encouraged to pursue local angles with the data provided by California Watch. Many did.

CIR’s in-house broadcast team produced segments that that aired in every major California media market. The main text stories were translated into Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese. With KQED Public Radio, which helped report the series, the project was broadcast on public radio.

The staff also went to great lengths to raise awareness about the importance of earthquake preparedness. For young schoolchildren, a coloring book was created and produced in five languages with help from KQED, Patch and American Public Media’s Public Insight Network.

More than 36,000 books were distributed at no charge to schools and nonprofits. Safety packets with whistles and ID cards were handed out at community events across the state. An iPhone app enabled users to pinpoint quake faults near them. The app, which is available for free through the iTunes store, includes preparation checklists and a flashlight. 

After the initial series ran last April, reporters continued to mine records. In December, Taggart and Johnson exposed problems at two school districts that served as case studies of a broken system. In both places, serious structural flaws were identified by inspectors and then buried under concrete or behind drywall by contractors who had fallen behind schedule and didn’t want to incur more delays.

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