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Inside the Newsroom

Precision journalism reveals patterns in government data

December 16, 2011, 12:08 AM | Stephen K. Doig

Journalists find stories in all sorts of places. I have spent much of my journalism career, both in newsrooms and classrooms, finding stories in data.

That’s how I found myself crunching data for California Watch, a nonprofit investigative news operation that is part of the Center for Investigative Reporting.


Reporters Lance Williams and Christina Jewett have spent more than a year investigating the billing practices of Prime Healthcare Services. I was drafted to analyze millions of rows of Medicare patient data to look for patterns and trends that might emerge.

In the fall of 2010, I was living in Lisbon on a four-month Fulbright professorship, lecturing to students and journalism professionals all over Portugal. One day, I got an e-mail from Mark Katches, the editorial director of California Watch, asking if I could be persuaded to help the reporters with the Prime investigation and a couple of other investigative projects.

Mark and I had known each other since our days on the board of directors of the Investigative Reporters & Editors organization. He knew I had done some heavy-lifting data projects during my 20 years with The Miami Herald, before I started teaching at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University in 1996. And I certainly respected his stellar track record as the leader of numerous prize-winning newspaper investigative projects before he joined California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting...

Beyond the story: Impact

December 12, 2011, 5:37 PM | Robert J. Rosenthal

Since 1977, CIR has been on the forefront of nonprofit investigative reporting, telling thousands of stories on all platforms and through prominent outlets, reaching millions.

Over the years, these stories have sparked federal legislation, policy at all levels of government, United Nations resolutions, public interest lawsuits and changes in corporate practices.

Here are a few examples from the past year:

A Senate committee launches a probe after a CIR investigation found that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has done little to improve the nation’s intelligence data.

A police chief resigns amid an FBI investigation and murderers are convicted following dogged reporting by The Chauncey Bailey Project, a collaboration of dozens of news organizations, including CIR, into the murder of Oakland Post editor Bailey by a corrupt group about which he was reporting.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signs two new bills following California Watch stories. One prevents unfair seizures of vehicles from immigrants, and the other removes lead-tainted products – many marketed to children – from store shelves...

In a sea of news aggregators, CIR creates hard-hitting work

December 12, 2011, 5:37 PM | Robert J. Rosenthal

In an age of aggregators, the Center for Investigative Reporting is a multimedia content creator. We invest our resources in covering underreported stories that traditional media can no longer afford to pursue.

While newspapers have continued to shrink, CIR’s staff has more than quadrupled since 2008, from seven to 32 people. Our highly skilled journalists have expertise that is increasingly rare in budget-strapped newsrooms. They cultivate deep sources, find hidden documents, make sense of complicated issues and develop this information into compelling stories delivered to the outlets you rely on for news.

Our data and digital teams plumb this research and create sophisticated data visualizations, interactive maps and tools that help you understand issues from the macro to the micro level. Our radio, video and digital producers work with our reporters to create engaging documentaries, web videos and even animations that demystify complex topics. Our distribution staff places the work and promotes it across hundreds of outlets. Our community engagement and social media team then works to actively engage the public and make sure our reporting gets to those most affected by it...

Maywood residents facing pollution outline community goals

December 1, 2011, 1:41 PM | Ashley Alvarado

Ashley Alvarado/California WatchBottles hold water samples taken from Maywood residents' faucets.

The invite was a pleasant surprise. Janet Wilson’s excellent report on the severe health struggles of one Maywood family and the polluted conditions that envelop them had run recently, and I was doing research for “A Field Guide to Maywood Pollution Issues,” a downloadable directory of key players. I reached out to Héctor Alvarado (no relation), an activist with Padres Unidos de Maywood. And he invited to me to one of the weekly Comité Cívico del Agua meetings. 

That I was the guest of honor came as a complete shock. One night this week, I walked into the Unión de Vecinos office space on East Slauson Avenue a few minutes before 6:30. I was early, and yet 20 people sat in a circle, waiting for me. Handwritten posters outlined goals for the community; two bookshelves stood crammed with bottles of polluted water. Héctor introduced me, and then, one by one, Maywood residents stood to introduce themselves...

Conversation in Coachella sheds light on how to help communities

November 18, 2011, 4:54 PM | Ashley Alvarado

In “On edge of paradise, Coachella workers live in grim conditions,” California Watch contributor Patricia Leigh Brown details the hardships of Eastern Coachella Valley mobile home residents. Trailers are in shambles, parks unkempt. Water is contaminated with arsenic. Basic human needs – reliable electricity, sanitary conditions, clean air – too often go unmet.

On Tuesday night, a few dozen people joined me at the Mecca Library for a conversation on solutions and a screening of an original California Watch video about the issue.

Those who filled the room were strikingly diverse. There was Ana Sánchez, who had candidly discussed her living situation in our video and now sat alongside her family. Across from her, mobile home park owners prepared their case; they have done all they can, they said, to improve conditions at their parks but struggle in the face of county regulations, broken promises and lack of funds. Stakeholders continued to pour in: community organizer Sergio Carranza, representatives from California Rural Legal Assistance and a senior adviser to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer among them.

We began with a screening of the original video by Carrie Ching, senior multimedia producer for the Center for Investigative Reporting. Then, over coffee and pan dulce, we began to...

CIR adds technology leadership to its board

November 10, 2011, 11:32 AM | Christa Scharfenberg

We are proud and delighted to announce today that Gabriel Stricker, director of global communications and public affairs at Google, and Joaquin Alvarado, senior vice president for digital innovation at American Public Media, have been elected to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Board of Directors. Stricker and Alvarado bring exceptional experience in strategic communications and technology and a firsthand understanding of how technology is revolutionizing the journalism world.

CIR is the nation’s oldest, independent nonprofit investigative reporting organization. It is at the forefront of the reinvention of journalism and is a leader in the nonprofit investigative reporting field, which is filling the gaps left by the decline of traditional media. 

“Stricker and Alvarado will be invaluable to CIR as we continue to build an innovative digital newsroom and work toward a sustainable future,” said board Chairman Phil Bronstein.

At Google, Stricker addresses everything from web search and other search properties to issues pertaining to partnerships, content, and the use of intellectual property. Stricker refined his expertise in strategic communications through his work in the electoral arena, having played an important role on campaigns for political and governmental clients around the world. Stricker is the author of the bestselling book on guerrilla marketing, “Mao in the Boardroom,” published by St. Martin's Press...

New data tool creates visual model of information from readers

November 10, 2011, 12:05 AM | Ashley Alvarado

How would you change marijuana laws? 

That is a question the Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED posed to readers following the Obama administration’s letter to U.S. attorneys reminding them that the cultivation and distribution of marijuana is illegal under federal law. The answers we received were thoughtful and thought-provoking, but we struggled with the best way to present them. Then our partners at the Public Insight Network announced they’d created Skyline, an interactive visualization of responses from sources in the network, and were looking for a way to unveil it. I jumped at the opportunity.

To properly explain what Skyline is and why it is so cool, I asked its creator, Barrett Fox, to share a few words with you. Fox is a data visualization designer at American Public Media working on the Public Insight Network. He has worked throughout his career at the odd but thrilling intersection of video games, animation and information visualization...

Join California Watch, CIR for coffee and conversation

November 2, 2011, 12:05 AM | Ashley Alvarado

As the year slowly winds down, things are revving up at California Watch and its parent organization, the Center for Investigative Reporting. In recent weeks, we’ve released stories on issues ranging from the Latino achievement gap to aggressive billing at one California hospital chain. We debuted a new landing page for our California Lost series. And, alongside the San Francisco Film Society, we launched Behind the Story, a new quarterly event that will give audiences an insider's look at the backstory of some of our major reports.

On Monday, we host our biggest and most geographically diverse Open Newsroom to date. From 9 a.m. until noon, California Watch and CIR reporters will spread out at coffeehouses across California – and even in Texas – to meet one on one with our readers (and potential readers) and hear about the issues that matter most in your community. Got tips, complaints or questions? We are here to listen and learn.

Please stop by and say hello at any of the locations listed below, or follow our tweets with the hashtag #opennews.

To find out where each reporter will be, check out the list and map below. We’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the participating coffee shops:


Twitter chat transcripts: How do we close the Latino learning gap?

November 1, 2011, 12:05 AM | Ashley Alvarado and Meghann Farnsworth

Last week, California Watch and The Hechinger Report produced two articles focused on the Latino achievement gap in California schools. To continue the conversation – and with an eye toward closing that gap – California Watch invited parents and educators to chat with and ask questions of reporter Sarah Garland and David Valladolid, president of the Parent Institute for Quality Education, via Twitter. Below, you will find some highlights. For more information on Garland's articles as well as our React & Act, go to http://californiawatch.org.

CIR, California Watch win 2 Society of Professional Journalists awards

October 19, 2011, 1:50 PM | Christa Scharfenberg

The Center for Investigative Reporting today received two Excellence in Journalism Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter.

California Watch, the largest investigative team in the state, won for Journalism Innovation, "for deftly combining traditional journalism with new ways to connect to communities."

"The Price of Gas," produced by CIR’s Carrie Ching and Sarah Terry-Cobo and animated by Arthur Jones, won in the Explanatory Journalism category for a multimedia daily. The animated feature explains why a $4 gallon of gasoline in the U.S. may cost more like $15, when the carbon footprint and other “external costs” enter the equation.

In 2010, CIR won two SPJ Northern California Chapter awards: California Watch received Journalist of the Year, and reporter G.W. Schulz won in the Online category for "Homeland Security marked by waste, lack of oversight," his investigation detailing waste of federal homeland security funds.

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