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California Watch wins Scripps Howard public service award for seismic series

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It is an honor and privilege to announce that the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch today won a Scripps Howard Award in the public service category for our 19-month series “On Shaky Ground,” detailing a breakdown in the way the state protects children and teachers from the threat of a major earthquake.

The Roy W. Howard Award for Public Service honors news organizations whose journalism makes a difference. It’s terrific national recognition, especially considering that the reporting for the series actually began just days after California Watch opened for business. It started with one determined reporter asking the right questions. Ultimately, the project mushroomed to include contributions from just about everyone on our staff.

Reporter Corey G. Johnson was given a simple assignment soon after becoming one of the first reporters to arrive at our offices in Berkeley in August 2009. We asked him to write about seismic safety at schools – pegged to an upcoming quake anniversary. New to California, Johnson saw what scores of reporters had overlooked for decades.

With his colleagues at California Watch, he went on to detail a staggering regulatory failure. We found that thousands of school buildings were being occupied even though they did not meet seismic safety requirements. Reporter Erica Perez and Johnson found that 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.

Erica Perez/California WatchReporter Corey G. Johnson, shown at the office of the Division of the State Architect, and his colleagues at California Watch spent months sifting through tens of thousands of pages of state files. 

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. It paid off. We 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. It was a dangerous roll of the dice.

“Who loses here?” said Roger Smith, an inspector who urged construction be shut down on projects at one Central Coast school district. “The people who lose are between 6 and 12 years old.”

Nineteen months after we began our probe, “On Shaky Ground” appeared in more than 150 news outlets across the state, including many of California’s largest daily newspapers.

Media outlets typically jump all over disasters after the fact – to understand what went wrong. We detailed systemic regulatory shortcomings before the next big quake, leading to swift and far-reaching reforms that might help California avert future tragedies. Among the changes:

  • Regulators vowed to adopt every safety recommendation contained in a December audit that confirmed weak state oversight had put children in harm’s way. State lawmakers had ordered the audit days after our series appeared last April.
  • Within weeks of publication, new state standards were created making it possible for 7,000 schools with known seismic hazards to tap a $200 million repair fund.
  • Regulators and building officials launched an immediate review of the safety status of tens of thousands of school buildings that had previously fallen through the cracks.
  • A series of policy changes ensured more safety oversight of school projects and created more accountability measures for safety inspectors. 
  • School officials in at least two districts took matters into their own hands. Superintendents began to shut down buildings after learning about potential dangers as a result of our reporting.

The series stands as a testament to relentless shoe-leather reporting. Our reporters won the release of previously confidential inspector evaluations. Reporters Johnson, Perez, Kendall Taggart and Agustin Armendariz reviewed more than 30,000 documents. We 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.

Forging unique partnerships to broaden distribution of “On Shaky Ground,” Distribution Manager Meghann Farnsworth contacted news outlets about a month before publication, handed over our embargoed data and distributed a reporting primer. Major newspapers, hyper-local websites and network-affiliated TV stations jumped on conference calls with our reporters and editors. We encouraged partners to pursue local angles with data provided by California Watch. Many did. Our senior editor, Robert Salladay, served as the primary editor of "On Shaky Ground."

We published on every platform. Our in-house broadcast team, led by reporter Anna Werner and producer David Ritsher, produced segments that ran on our website and in every major California media market. The main text stories were translated into Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese. We produced stories for public radio, too, with our partners at KQED Public Radio.

We also went to great lengths to engage the public, reach new audiences and raise awareness about the importance of earthquake preparedness. For young schoolchildren, Public Engagement Manager Ashley Alvarado created and produced a coloring book in five languages. More than 36,000 books were distributed at no charge to schools and nonprofits. We assembled safety packets with whistles and ID cards and handed them out at community events across the state. Our tech gurus Chase Davis and Michael Corey built an iPhone app enabling users to pinpoint quake faults near them. The app includes preparation checklists and a flashlight. 

And we didn’t stop reporting. 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.

We are deeply proud that our series will better prepare California’s schoolchildren, teachers and staff for the next big quake – and that schools will be made safer because of our work.

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