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.

So far, the series, or parts of it, have run in almost a dozen newspapers. In addition, it has been translated into Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, and two forms of Chinese and is being distributed to foreign language papers via New American Media. It has run in at least five of the state’s major television and radio markets. KQED, a public broadcaster in Northern California, worked with California Watch to produce a series of radio reports based on the “On Shaky Ground” package. The two outlets also collaborated on an eight-minute video that was distributed to ABC affiliates. The PBS NewsHour ran a version of the story April 11, which will be repurposed for a half-hour special airing on KQED public television on April 15.

California Watch provided its stories and data to its distribution partners in all media two to three weeks ahead of publication in order to allow those that wished to do their own, locally oriented stories and to solicit feedback from their editors, which both Rosenthal and Katches called very helpful.

In an impressive extension of the investigative process, over one hundred websites throughout the state have produced localized stories based on California Watch’s data. Marcia Parker, the organization’s West Coast editorial director, pointed to stories from Rancho Palos Verdes, Rosemont, Venice, Pinole, and Echo Park that have homed in on seismic risks in their area. Below stories from the Patch sites in Highland Park and Arcadia, readers have left comments saying they intend to bring the information provided to the attention of local officials.

“Patch is doing what it does best: Telling readers in the towns we cover what this story means for their schools,” Parker wrote in a post discussing the benefits of collaboration. “California Watch discovered a mess, and Patch is working to make sense of it school by school.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.