California Watch has already received almost 30,000 orders for its earthquake-safety coloring book, including a large order from the school district in Chula Vista, near San Diego, which plans to give them to all its students from kindergarten through fourth grade, Rosenthal said. Its iPhone/iPad app, which costs ninety-nine cents, has been downloaded a couple hundred times. And the organization is organizing a series of community events throughout the state related to earthquake and emergency preparedness.

California Watch charges all of its partners for its content and data, either through its membership network, which provides access to a handful of stories each year, or on an individual basis. Prices vary based on circulation. “The revenue doesn’t come close to covering the cost of the project,” said Rosenthal. “Conservatively, if you lay in salary, benefits, editing time, and all the things you would if you were an accountant, you’re probably looking at half a million dollars,” of which partner fees probably covered only about 5 percent.

Performing a valuable journalistic service that could protect thousands of schoolchildren across the state, however, is priceless. Following in the footsteps of venerable reporting projects such as USA Today’s “The Smokestack Effect—Toxic Air and America’s Schools,” California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground” has “Journalism Award” written all over it. According to Rosenthal, Katches, and Johnson, the response to the series has already been overwhelmingly positive. Even officials in the state architect’s office have written to say that while they didn’t like the stories, they could find no fault with them. California Watch’s work is not done, however.

“The catch phrase we’re hearing from just about everybody is, ‘You’ve only scratched the surface, young man. You’ve only scratched the surface,’” said Johnson. Thankfully, Rosenthal and Katches plan to keep him on the story for the foreseeable future, with more investigations to come.

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