In an effort to break the impasse, Johnson contacted someone whom he knew to be a friend of an official in the state architect’s office that he wanted to reach. Bluffing to a certain extent about already having some damning evidence in hand, he asked that person to arrange a meeting, pointing out that “going through the front door would set off an awful lot of alarms and bells.” The intermediary complied and the official in the state architect’s office agreed to talk to Johnson, who laid his request on the line.

“Over a couple lunches, I said, ‘I need to know what I don’t know because as it stands right now, you all are really screwing children.’ I said it just like that, and I said, ‘I don’t know of anybody that’s going to take that, especially when voters approved all this money for seismic safety and you turn around and give them a bad building.’ I just told him: ‘Now, with what we have, regular media would’ve already run this story, but I’m trying to get the other side, so if you’ve got something, you need to quit playing games and give me something.’ And that appeal worked. It worked. And he said, ‘Okay, I’ve got something,’ and this something proved our suspicions [about lax oversight], because when we looked through the documents, it was worse than what I could have ever imagined.”

The records showed that for years, various officials had complained that the state was neglecting its statutory responsibilities with regard to earthquake safety, that inspectors and field engineers did not have enough support, and that some projects had been completed with dangerous construction flaws.

“You name it, the hard drive had it,” Johnson said. “I mean, we got a lot of breaks along the way, but that was huge.”

Around the same time, he received a vastly expanded list of uncertified projects at schools based on the request he’d made more than year before. Originally, the state had provided a list of some 9,000 projects. When the updated version arrived, it had more than twice that number (and would’ve been even larger had the state had not cleared thousands of other project violations in the intervening months).

The result of all this probative toil was California Watch’s ironclad series, which prompted state and school district officials to begin changing their ways even before it was published. In addition to its three main articles, the package features a variety of shorter pieces, including one revealing that, pressed by real estate agents, the state shrank its earthquake hazards zones on geological maps. There is also a searchable map and database that lays out schools located in those hazard zones and identifies more than 2,000 uncertified building projects (the data and methods California Watch used to create the map are explained in a separate post and useful FAQ). There are also photos and videos, an interactive map of major California quakes since 1861, safety and action guidelines for parents, an earthquake safety coloring book, and a myFault iPhone/iPad app that identifies seismic risks in a user’s area.

“We believe this is an important series of stories because it reveals problems and issues before a school is badly damaged in a quake and a child or teacher is hurt or killed,” the Center for Investigative Reporting’s executive director, Robert Rosenthal, wrote in a blog post discussing the value of proactive, gumshoe reporting:

Johnson and the rest of the team of reporters have been asking the types of questions that other news organizations would be asking, after the fact, if a school had been damaged or collapsed in a quake.

What we have done here is ask those questions and investigate before the potentially catastrophic event.

We are not saying disasters are imminent. What we are saying is that now is the time to check and look at issues that might exist in schools and other buildings throughout California.

Without appearing to be shrill or alarmist, these stories say, “take action.” They say to the public and officials this is the time to engage and understand what is safe and not in good shape or certified in your communities’ schools.

Through a wide, varied and multi-platform distribution partnership this package of stories should reach millions of people.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.