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California Watch wins IRE award for innovation

Investigative Reporters and Editors

The staff of California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting today won the Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism administered by Investigative Reporters and Editors.

The honor, which comes with a $5,000 prize, was awarded for "On Shaky Ground," a series of stories detailing systemic breakdowns in the way the state ensures that California public schools are seismically safe.

The award recognizes the use of digital innovation in the gathering and/or delivery of watchdog and investigative news to its audience. It honors work that stands out for its creative use of digital tools to further a news organization’s ability to serve as a watchdog in its community.

In announcing the award, Kate Marymont, vice president of news for Gannett's community publishing division, described the multiplatform series as "platform perfect."

The California Watch series included a coloring book that helped children prepare for an earthquake, an iPhone app and a searchable database of an estimated 10,000 public schools showing their potential seismic safety hazards.

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KQED, which contributed radio pieces to the seismic safety series, was part of the team honored with the award. 

The award, which is kept secret until the IRE conference, was announced at the awards luncheon during IRE’s annual conference in Boston. The “On Shaky Ground” team also picked up an IRE medal at the luncheon in the multiplatform reporting category. The medal, one of only two awarded by IRE this year, was announced in April.

“This is an incredible honor and a big boost for our entire staff,” said Editorial Director Mark Katches.  “When you think of all the amazing investigative journalism done in the United States last year, it’s extremely gratifying to be singled out for this work.”

At California Watch, roughly 50 staff members and contributors helped produce the initial 19-month series and follow-up reporting in 2011. 

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 asked by Katches 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.

He 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. The series also was named the winner of the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award in public service and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting.

As a result of California Watch’s reporting, regulators vowed to adopt every safety recommendation contained in a December audit that confirmed that weak state oversight had put children in harm’s way. State lawmakers ordered the audit days after the series appeared last April. Among other reforms, new state standards were created making it possible for 7,000 schools with known seismic hazards to tap a $200 million repair fund.

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 managing editor, and Katches served as primary editors on the project.

Several of the team members who worked on the project were in Boston attending the IRE conference, including Johnson, Perez, Taggart, Salladay, Katches, Senior Distribution and Online Engagement Manager Meghann Farnsworth, TV producer David Ritsher, Director of Technology Chase Davis and Executive Director Robert J. Rosenthal. TV investigative journalist Anna Werner, who worked on the project before joining CBS News, also was in Boston. 

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

CIR’s in-house broadcast team produced segments 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 in April 2011, 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.

The names on the Gannett award were: Johnson, Perez, Taggart, Armendariz, Werner, Davis, Ashley Alvarado, Michael Montgomery, Carrie Ching, Michael Corey and KQED's Krissy Clark.

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