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Looking forward to another year of life outside the comfort zone

A year ago today, California Watch published its first story online – a piece about questionable homeland security grant spending. It was written by G.W. Schulz, who covers homeland security for the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The story ran on the front page of 25 newspapers the following day and reached more than 1.8 million newspaper subscribers. We produced the story at three different lengths and edited custom versions for several news organizations across the state. As a new startup, we didn’t know what to expect when we started contacting newsrooms about the story. We honestly would have been happy if just a few news outlets decided to take it. The broad reach blew us away.

In terms of sheer size, we've increased our staff from six full-time reporters. Today we’ve nearly doubled the reporting muscle with a team that stands at 11 full-time reporters, by far the largest investigative team operating in the state. Among them are winners of the prestigious George Polk Award, the National Journalism Award and the Pulitzer Prize. On this blog, over the next three months, you'll get a closer look at our reporting and editing team. Each week, we will post a new video bio of a California Watch staffer, starting with Lance Williams, one of our senior reporters, this coming Monday.Since then, we’ve developed as an organization. The mission here is to deliver rigorous, credible journalism that meets the highest possible standards and touches the lives of Californians. To that end, we have published 34 stories on topics spanning from early childhood education to elder care. We've identified tens of millions of dollars of questionable government spending. And we've exposed injustices – all without a single request for a correction. While experimenting with the new model of journalism, we've occasionally failed, flopped and floundered. And thank goodness for that. Because if we're not taking chances and pushing boundaries, leaving our comfort zones, we're not trying hard enough. When I look around at all the creative, energetic people who work here, I can't wait to see what the next year brings.

Most of our stories run on the front pages of our partner newspapers or in featured spots on local TV and public radio broadcasts as well as on all partner websites.

Our 35th story is coming this weekend, exploring why some hospitals in California are more likely to perform cesarean sections. More than a dozen media outlets are on board to run our package.

Over the last year, we've produced stories about stimulus recipients with a troublesome history as polluters and law breakers. And we’ve detailed an alarming rise in maternal death rates. We’ve brought to your attention serious seismic hazards at public universities and a lack of accountability at nursing homes that got huge pay increases to hire more workers – but actually cut staff.

Our formula appears to be working. We hired terrific investigative reporters and attached them to specialty beats – topic areas that Californians care deeply about but aren’t typically covered from a statewide view. 

Our investigative beats include health and welfare, public safety, money and politics, K-12 schools, higher education and the environment. We’ve relied on a strong group of freelance journalists to round out our reporting, and we’ve tapped the resources of our parent Center for Investigative Reporting to boost coverage of law enforcement, immigration and the environment. Our collaboration with KQED has allowed California Watch to broadcast most of our stories on public radio.

We’ve also added a public engagement manager and a distribution and community manager who have helped push our content out to the public and to news outlets.

We’ve built a unique distribution model that enables us to produce custom-edited drafts in collaboration with our partners. In many instances, we’ll deliver finished stories that editors can seamlessly plug into their news pages. In other cases, we’ve delivered stories that are 95 percent done. Our partners are invited to finish the work by adding local inserts and examples. Throughout this reporting and editing process, we've received terrific editing suggestions from some of the state's top newspeople at our partner news organizations. 

In some instances, we are teaming early in the reporting process with news organizations to report side-by-side. All of these approaches have worked for us. And, with the help of our partners at New America Media, our stories have been translated and published in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean.

Reflecting on our first year, the numbers are noteworthy. As of yesterday:

Stories produced: 34

Blog posts published: 933

Distribution partners: 72

Facebook friends: 2,619

Twitter followers: 3,182

Total print audience reach: 19,441,817

On top of that, our stories are played prominently on established California websites like SFGate.com, Sacbee.com, OCRegister.com and InsideBayArea.com, increasing the visibility of our work.

We’ve had our share of startup growing pains. It can be a little chaotic inside our newsroom. We’ve seen a couple of talented multimedia journalists leave for larger news organizations. And we’ve had to gingerly navigate some of our relationships with partners. At times it feels like we’re crossing a river barefoot – knee deep and trying to avoid the jagged and slippery rocks. We haven’t always hit the right stones. When we do step wrong, we try to learn and adjust.

The past year has proven that there is a willingness among news organizations to work with California Watch. Barriers that may have made collaboration improbable in years past seem mostly to have melted away. We still encounter occasional resistance from editors. And these are the types of things we hear: Some are nervous about working with outside nonprofits. Some worry that outsourcing their investigative reporting to us will cost jobs inside their own newsrooms. Some think our statewide approach is too broad. Some are miffed when our stories are published by their competitors. But we hope the last year has proven that we come in peace. Our mission is to offer great stories and added value to news organizations that have shed hundreds of jobs in the past few years and may need our help.

By no means have we figured it all out. But that’s part of the fun of the new model. We’re trying new things. We’re falling down once in a while, but we get right back up – a little wet maybe – but ready to see what the next step will bring.

 

Filed under: Inside the Newsroom

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