California Watch’s Corey Johnson was scanning the website of the state architect’s office one evening in December 2009 when he noticed something strange. The state was changing the status of schools with building projects lacking seismic safety certification, downgrading the severity of the violations “in bunches” without ever visiting the schools, as Johnson tells it.

It didn’t take long to connect the dots. Johnson was three months into an investigation of earthquake safety at California schools and had recently asked for a previously undisclosed list of those with potentially unsafe buildings. A couple days after noticing the changes taking place at the state architect’s website, Johnson obtained minutes of an internal meeting in which state managers warned, “Sensitivity has increased as to reporters digging deep into government business. People need to be mindful of what they put into emails.” Elsewhere they urged, “We need to figure out why Los Angeles has so many Type 4 letters,” referring to the most serious violation of the Field Act, a 1933 law mandating strict oversight of earthquake resistant construction at K-12 schools and community colleges.

Discovering the changes was an “a-ha moment” for Johnson, and just one of many breakthroughs in an meticulously documented investigation that revealed at least 20,000 projects, “from minor fire alarm upgrades to major construction of new classrooms,” that were completed without Field Act certification. What began for him as a “quick turnaround” story about the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco Bay Area ultimately turned into a nineteen-month project that involved nearly four dozen staff members and freelance contributors, as well as California Watch’s partners at KQED Public Radio.

California Watch—a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting launched in the summer of 2009—began releasing the multimedia series, titled “On Shaky Ground,” on April 8 in coordination with a suite of newspapers, public radio and television stations, ABC news affiliates, Patch.com sites, and foreign-language newspapers statewide. Three articles form the backbone. Part 1 describes the lax oversight of seismic safety at schools, the history of the regulatory system and how it broke down over time, and cases of specific schools lacking safety certification. Part 2 reveals that many special seismic safety inspectors, hired by school districts and trained in the Field Act, are still reviewing building projects despite histories of poor performance. And Part 3 explains how restrictive rules have kept California schools from accessing a $200 million fund approved by voters in 2006 to shore up seismically unsafe buildings.

“It’s been a bear,” Johnson said in an interview describing the effort. “It’s an incredibly complicated story with a lot of moving parts and technical details, and the government was not that interested in talking straight or clear, so there was a lot of work—a lot of historical work, even—that went into figuring out what the procedures and policies were, and what they really meant, so that I could appropriately interpret what was being said by state officials and school district people, because there’s a lot of spinning that goes on in a story like this.

“I’m trying to avoid the clichés you hear when reporters tell these kinds of stories, but it really was brick-and-mortar. Somebody tells you a piece of information, you try to verify it, and it goes from there. Ultimately, I started to work on multiple fronts, trying to pull together all of this information, understand it, and deal with the various agencies who, once it became apparent to them that they were the focus of an investigation, got really difficult to deal with. They started saying that things didn’t exist, and I found that they did, and they started telling employees not to talk. It was just the whole gamut of things that happen in America when people think they’re under investigation, which they were.”

California Watch produced an excellent, step-by-step timeline of Johnson’s investigation, complete with a rolling document counter that rises to over 30,000 by early 2010, but it is even more interesting to hear Johnson tell the story in his own words. After he learned of the state’s list of schools lacking seismic safety certification, which hadn’t been released publically, a staffer on the state legislature’s education committee said it would be hard to get details, but pointed him to the Division of the State Architect, which oversees compliance.

“Those two bits of information—that there is a list that the state doesn’t want anybody to have and that some schools might not comply with the Field Act—were the two things that got my juices flowing,” Johnson said.

That’s when the heavy lifting began, literally. In a blog post describing the evolution of the project, California Watch’s editorial director, Mark Katches, explained that:

[Johnson’s] desk soon became cluttered with reams of documents, forming a fortress growing higher and higher. Tens of thousands of PDF files about earthquake safety in California’s public schools soon taxed his laptop hard drive. The documents painted a disturbing picture of a system of oversight in disarray.

For months, Johnson worked on the story alone in our Sacramento bureau under the supervision of his editor, Robert Salladay. He became a virtual embed at the Division of the State Architect. Routinely, Johnson hauled our 30-pound copy machine several blocks to make copies - cutting down on copying costs. He filed regular blog posts for us, but his first real story would need more time.

The extra time would pay off. By early 2010 Johnson had revealed that the regulatory apparatus governing seismic safety in schools had clearly broken down, but that alone was not enough to satisfy him. He wanted to know why it had broken down, so he kept digging.

In June 2010 Johnson was working in the library of the Division of the State Architect when he noticed a binder marked “policies and procedures.” In it he discovered that California keeps confidential evaluation records for a network of 1,500 specially trained seismic safety inspectors hired by school districts to vet building projects. Johnson had to fight for months to get them, going back and forth with state officials and their lawyers, eventually convincing them that they had no right to keep the ratings confidential since the inspectors are not state employees. Once in hand, the records showed that nearly 300 inspectors had been cited by the state for work-related deficiencies, even though at least two-thirds were allowed to keep monitoring school construction jobs. Multiple inspectors had been accused of filing false reports with regulators and failing to show up at critical moments during construction jobs, yet the state had done little to nothing to reprimand them.

“These records had been very tightly held, and finding them was a result of being at the library, looking over my shoulder, and just happening to spot this dusty binder,” said Johnson. But the discovery had consequences.

“Naturally, the day I asked to copy those policy documents was the last day they let me in the library. Once they saw that I’d grabbed that off the shelf they said, ‘We have to renovate the library,’ and ended up putting me right around the corner from a bathroom, totally away from anybody and anything. And that’s when they assigned a person to watch me every day.”

Indeed, Johnson says the state’s minder was tasked with not letting him out of her sight, and officials at the Division of State Architect began making him jump through other hoops as well. They insisted, for instance, that he travel to its Los Angeles offices to view records that should have been easy to send north, and that the minder accompany him along the way. “That’s kind of how it went for months, those kinds of games,” Johnson said.

Things really came to a head in the late summer and fall of 2010. In July, Johnson obtained names of state employees that were members of a lobbying group, the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, which had repeatedly pushed for less regulation and oversight of school construction. State officials denied that any employees belonged to the group, but were forced to “backpedal” when Johnson pulled out a list at a meeting showing that several top managers at the Division of the State Architect were indeed members (other records showed that regulators were even told that taxpayers would reimburse their membership dues).

Johnson pulled off his most impressive feat of reportorial prowess in November, however, when he convinced a source in the Division of the State Architect to give him a hard drive with years of e-mails, memos, reports, surveys, policy drafts and directions, and other confidential records relating to the regulation of seismic safety across various agencies. Katches, California Watch’s editorial director, called it a “treasure trove,” which revealed that for years officials across state government had been aware of school construction problems, but failed to address them.

Johnson had to follow a circuitous route to get the hard drive. By that point in his investigation the state and basically clammed up on him. “They were aware that I was this bugaboo burrowing down for information,” he said.

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.

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 Patch.com 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.”

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.