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The Muckraker

Mark Katches's Blog
Mark Katches | Update: California Watch | January 10, 2012

Media partners pool resources to fund bullet train trip

When Fresno Bee business reporter Tim Sheehan boarded a plane for Spain in November, his trip signaled a new chapter of collaboration for a growing group of California news organizations.

Sheehan spent eight days abroad, gathering string for a package of stories about Spain's 20-year-old bullet trains. Of all the high-speed rail lines in the world, experts say the Spanish system has the most in common with the one California officials envision. Sheehan wanted to find out what lessons we can learn from Spain's experience.

The reporting trip cost about $4,000. At a mid-sized regional newspaper like The Fresno Bee, that type of price tag might have put an international trip out of reach – especially in this economy. But The Bee wasn’t going it alone.

Twelve news outlets across the state pooled resources to fund the trip – most pitching in about $400. (The smallest organizations with less than 40,000 circulation chipped in half that amount.) Joining The Fresno Bee and California Watch were The Bakersfield Californian, The Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, U-T San Diego (formerly The San Diego Union-Tribune), The Orange County Register, The Modesto Bee, The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise, KQED Public RadioThe Tribune of San Luis Obispo and the Merced Sun-Star

All of these partners will publish or broadcast Sheehan’s stories starting Jan. 15. California Watch, which is part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, produced a video with footage taken by Sheehan. We also created graphics for the group.

The trip was a major step forward in a growing collaborative effort by California news organizations to cover high-speed rail in a way that makes good business sense.

Three or four years ago, a collaboration such as this probably wouldn’t have happened – in large part because newsrooms had enough resources to do what they wanted. Those days are a thing of the past.

In the new media ecosystem, more pragmatic news leaders increasingly are looking for ways to maximize the talents of smaller staffs. And that means forming partnerships to accomplish objectives that might otherwise be out of reach.

No single news outlet from our group likely would have sent a reporter to Spain if we hadn’t joined forces. But when you divide by 12, it doesn’t look so daunting.

What makes the Spain collaboration even more unique is that the news organizations got involved in the early planning process and then trusted a small team from two newsrooms to execute. The Bee produced the text stories, photos and video. California Watch produced the multimedia and graphics and split the editing duties with Fresno. There was no meddling or micromanaging from other partners.

How did we get to this point?

The seeds for the high-speed rail collaboration were planted a year ago, when we launched the new California Watch Media Network. Members of the network subscribe to a set number of stories produced by the state’s largest investigative reporting team. Members also get our story lists so they know what we have in the works. The first members of the network included The Fresno Bee, The Sacramento Bee, The Orange County Register, The Bakersfield Californian and the San Francisco Chronicle.

But when we created the network, we hoped it would be much more than just a way to get our stories into news outlets across the state. We envisioned it as a way to bring newsrooms together to collaborate.

Fresno Bee Executive Editor Betsy Lumbye wondered if high-speed rail would be a project best tackled by the larger network. The Central Valley is ground zero for the nearly $100 billion rail project, which would connect the Bay Area to Los Angeles in 2.5 hours on trains traveling up to 200 mph. Construction is supposed to start later this year on the first leg between Fresno and Bakersfield. Such an endeavor, if it actually occurs, would be the biggest undertaking here since construction started on the California Aqueduct nearly 50 years ago.

With an idea to rally behind, editors and reporters from about a half-dozen news outlets began jumping on conference calls and finding ways to share tips, ideas and finished stories about the planned rail system. It was a little bumpy at first. But we’ve doubled the number of participating newsrooms.

The news organizations in our rail group still work independently, unleashing their own reporters to find scoops and break news about the nation’s largest public works project. But we’re sharing those scoops and trying to limit duplication of routine daily news stories. We’ve also teamed up some reporters with complementary skills to tackle stories together. And we’ve found opportunities, such as the trip to Spain, to coordinate and plan story packages in a way that makes sense for all of us.

The result has been broader coverage than any one of us could probably produce on the topic. Our group has shared 38 stories since late May – written by 12 different reporters.

"I look back at the state of high-speed rail coverage in California a year ago, and I'm amazed and proud of what we as a network have accomplished since then,” Lumbye said. “The issue has gotten the scrutiny it deserves, thanks to all our efforts. None of our organizations could have done so much to raise the public awareness of this so quickly and so effectively on our own."

The idea of an international trip was first raised last summer. The group had been covering rail developments from every angle in California. But we hadn’t really done much to compare the planned California system with existing services abroad. If California is going to learn about high-speed rail’s challenges and possibilities, Spain's system might offer the most relevant lessons. Like California’s planned system, it connects major urban centers and cuts through verdant farmland. The system has completely transformed the travel patterns in Spain, as Sheehan’s stories will highlight.

The first paper to commit to helping fund the trip was The Bakersfield Californian.

Within 10 days, we had 12 partners agreeing to write a check.

"We thought this would be a worthwhile expense because the project was designed from the start to get behind the headlines and provide a real-world look at a bullet train system that operates in an environment that has many similarities to California," said Bakersfield Californian Executive Editor John Arthur.

It made sense that Sheehan would be the reporter to represent our group. He has covered high-speed rail since 2010 for The Fresno Bee. He also has photography and multimedia experience, which would help bring more depth to his reporting and allow the group to keep costs down by sending just one reporter instead of a reporter and a photographer.

Knowing that Sheehan had to produce work that satisfied a dozen newsrooms added a fair bit of pressure. But he was up to the task.

“I wasn’t so much in fear of screwing this up, but it was always at the back of my mind that these stories would be for a much bigger audience than just Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley,” Sheehan said. “Writing so much over the last year and a half on California’s plans helped me approach this from a broader perspective, both in my advance research and my interviews on the ground.

“One big thing I wanted to accomplish is giving readers a sense of what it’s like aboard the trains, to let people know what all the fuss is about,” Sheehan added.

Sheehan’s stories are free to the participating members, of course. But news organizations that are not part of the collaborative can buy the package. Proceeds will be split among our network members. Meghann Farnsworth, our distribution manager, is handling the content sales.

"The idea of other news organizations helping pay for our reporter's trip to Spain would have been unfathomable before California Watch put this together,” Fresno editor Lumbye said. “A lot of walls have come down. But it's about more than the overseas trip, although that's a very big deal. It's also the way we editors have made a routine of talking about what our newsrooms are working on, offering our work to each other and letting one take the point on one story while another works on something else. It's a terrific mix of generosity and practicality, and the people of California are the winners." 

Later this month, the top editors from all our network news organizations will gather at the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Berkeley offices to discuss more ways we can help each other and serve our audiences. We hope our rail collaboration will endure. If the system goes forward, it will generate an endless supply of stories. But sharing rail stories may be just the first step of larger collaborative efforts to better serve readers, viewers and listeners across the state.


Mark Katches | Update: California Watch | August 11, 2011

Newsrooms combine forces to cover high-speed rail

In January, we launched the California Watch Media Network and announced that a group of major news organizations had joined as charter members.

These news partners signed up to receive a set number of stories produced by our award-winning watchdog team. But we hoped the network would be more than just a way to deliver California Watch content. We wanted to bring media outlets together as collaborators – to pursue big stories as a team.

And we are seeing this vision take shape as a group of news outlets joined forces to cover high-speed rail.

The topic merits attention. The estimated $45 billion rail system would be the most expensive public works project undertaken in California – if it ever gets built. The goal is to link Anaheim and San Francisco in 2.5 hours via trains rushing at 220 mph through the state’s verdant, unglamorous central valleys.

The proposed first leg would connect Fresno and Bakersfield, reducing cow pastures, almond groves and onion fields to impressionistic blurs.

The idea for our reporting initiative came up during a phone call with Fresno Bee Executive Editor Betsy Lumbye, who expressed interest in tackling the topic with California Watch and other partners that had joined our network.

We invited all of our print network partners to join. And almost all of them did. The collaborative project now includes The Fresno Bee, The Bakersfield Californian, The Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee and The Press-Enterprise in Riverside participating with California Watch.

The group has produced several enterprise and investigative stories – stories all members of the group are welcome to run.

In late May, we rolled out the first enterprise story by John Cox of The Bakersfield Californian. He wrote about the momentum behind a new route alignment that would connect Kern and Los Angeles counties via the Grapevine. Tim Sheehan of The Fresno Bee, David Siders of The Sacramento Bee and Carolyn Lochhead of the San Francisco Chronicle have since pitched in stories that looked at costs, politics and land acquisition. Our own Lance Williams teamed with The Orange County Register’s Ronald Campbell to detail the growing challenges to building the rail line. We have featured all of these stories on our site.

This collaboration and content sharing makes a lot of sense for pragmatic news organizations exploring new ways to cover big stories with smaller staffs and tight travel budgets.

As each news organization chips in enterprise coverage, they know that they will have access to anything the rest of the group produces. It’s a good return on investment in today’s news economy. And it has led to ongoing conversations about collaboration among our partners.

Stay tuned for much more.

Mark Katches | Update: California Watch | July 14, 2011

On eve of 2nd birthday, California Watch set to open Southern California bureau

Almost two years ago, we launched our new investigative team at California Watch, the largest investigative reporting team operating in the state.

We started with an office in the Bay Area, inside our mother ship at the Center for Investigative Reporting, and soon opened a Sacramento office across the street from the state Capitol. We always planned to open a Southern California bureau, believing we couldn’t really be California Watch if we were only “watching” the upper parts of the state.

The state has 58 counties and one county alone, Los Angeles, accounts for roughly 10 million people, about 25 percent of the state’s population. More than half of the state’s residents can be found in just six Southland counties – Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

Today, we are happy to announce that California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting will open a Southern California bureau next month.

Joanna Lin, one of our two health and welfare reporters, and Ashley Alvarado, our public engagement manager, will christen the new bureau inside the newsroom of The Orange County Register. To start, Lin and Alvarado will be based in Southern California. But we have room for visiting staffers and an intern, and we hope to expand our presence in Southern California at some point, perhaps as early as next year, with more reporting resources.

As traditional newsrooms have cut back, they have been left with vast stretches of open space inside their newsrooms or buildings. We are able to capitalize in a way that benefits our organization and our hosts.

We explored opportunities at the Los Angeles Times, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and The Register. But The Register offered a deal that made sense financially. Just as important, our presence in the middle of The Register’s newsroom, near its investigative and social media teams, will provide more opportunities for collaboration. The Register already is a member of our California Watch Media Network. And I have good relationships with many of the people who remain there, having worked at The Register for 10 years – longer than any other newsroom during my 25-year career.

I also am a big fan of the location in Santa Ana, one of the largest concentrations of Latino residents in the state. Situated right on the Golden State and Costa Mesa freeways, our staff in Southern California will be able to head into the Inland Empire, down to the border or into downtown Los Angeles. Granted, it won’t be easy access. Anyone who has lived or worked in Southern California knows there is really no such thing. But it will give our staff flexibility to move about the region to report stories and find new ways to engage readers and reach out to communities affected by our stories.

Our location dead center inside The Register’s newsroom also tells you something about how the media landscape is evolving. Rather than viewing us as competitors or a foreign species, The Register is welcoming us with open arms, treating us like we are part of the staff. And that’s how we prefer to be viewed by anyone who partners with us. The California Watch mission is to help news outlets around the state to generate high-impact investigative journalism. In an ideal world, our partners view us an extension of themselves.

Our new office at 625 N. Grand Ave. in Santa Ana opens for business officially on Aug 3. We’ll let you know the phone number when we arrive.

Stop by or give us a shout.

Mark Katches | April 7, 2011

California Watch examines seismic oversight at public schools

Tonight, 19 months after joining our staff, Corey G. Johnson finally gets his first byline at California Watch.

I hope you will agree that it was worth the wait.

At 9 p.m. Pacific Standard Time we will begin rolling out a three-part series on seismic safety in public schools called "On Shaky Ground." It’s a project that Johnson began working on almost immediately after we gave him his laptop and a desk back in September 2009.

His first assignment was supposed to be a quick-turn anniversary piece about safety issues for the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Johnson had just arrived from North Carolina, and we figured it would be a good, easy way to get his feet wet – and to get him that first early byline. Johnson had never been to California. But his fresh eyes began to see things that other reporters had overlooked. The project became virtually all consuming for Johnson – and ultimately for us.

His 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.

He became so well sourced that officials inside the state architect’s office began feeding him more and more documents. Johnson obtained incredible access to records. Sources handed him files of internal e-mails, memos and confidential records that had never before been made public. A treasure trove.

In the meantime, California Watch began building unique databases from scratch – cleaning up filthy data that had incomplete information, wrong school names or even mismatched schools and cities. We converted PDF records into lines of data and hand-entered thousands of individual rows and columns. Through our data initiative we were able to track and analyze more than 20,000 school building projects that failed to receive a final state safety certification. We also built a separate database for our internal use on inspection evaluations – mining documents that the state had previously kept confidential until we fought for their release. 

As we get ready to hit the publish button on the first part of a three-part series, "On Shaky Ground" has evolved from a solitary reporter sorting page by page through a mountain of documents into a major staff-wide production. Nearly four dozen staff members and freelance contributors – as well as our partners over at KQED Public Radio – are involved.  

Our higher education reporter, Erica Perez, took the lead writing the second part of our series, which will go live on Saturday. Johnson wrote most of the rest of our package with big assists from reporters Kendall Taggart, Agustin Armendariz, Anna Werner, Michael Montgomery and KQED's Krissy Clark – along with incomparable editing by Salladay. Carrie Ching and Michael Corey created amazing multimedia components.

The package will feature an interactive database that allows parents to see if their child attends school near a fault or in a liquefaction zone – or if a school has buildings that have been deemed potentially dangerous in the event of an earthquake. It includes our first-ever iPhone app, called "myFault," built by data whiz Chase Davis, that maps faults in California, and a special coloring book aimed at helping children ages 5 to 10 prepare for an earthquake.

Yup, a coloring book.

When we realized there was an opportunity to produce a new resource to help young children prepare for an earthquake, California Watch set out to create one. The initial response has been overwhelming. We’ve already taken orders for 28,000 copies of the book that we are giving away for free during our initial release. The coloring book, written and produced by Public Engagement Manager Ashley Alvarado, represents the debut for "Sunny," our watchdog mascot.  

We’ve delivered all the stories, sidebars, photos, links and graphics, as well as video pieces, to our partners and news outlets that are planning to publish all or some of this ambitious work. In all, we’ve produced roughly 20,000 words of text and more than a half dozen videos.

The story marks our first major undertaking with our new video unit at the Center for Investigative Reporting. With Werner, an award-winning Bay Area investigative broadcast journalist, now on our team, we’ve produced pieces for ABC affiliates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and Fresno. Video editors Marjorie McAfee and David Ritsher also created a magazine-length video segment for KQED Public Television and a separate segment for PBS’s NewsHour that will air over the next week.

California Watch has pioneered a new distribution network for nonprofit journalism centers, partnering with more than 80 news outlets across the state. Our motto: broad reach, not exclusivity. With this series we have taken it to a whole new level. 

In the Bay Area alone, parts of our series are scheduled to appear in the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, on KQED Public Radio and on KGO TV-San Francisco, in addition to Patch.com sites around the region. This marks our first effort to distribute stories through Patch.com. We are hoping upwards of 100 Patch sites will take our series. We made our database available weeks ago to Patch reporters and other partners so they could mine the data for local sidebars and breakouts. In Southern California and the Central Valley, the Orange County Register and Bakersfield Californian are planning to run parts of our series. Meghann Farnsworth, our distribution manager, is still adding partners. 

Although fears of the “Big One” are part of the psyche of every Californian, the state hasn’t felt a major earthquake in an urban area since the Northridge quake toppled freeways and killed dozens of people in Southern California in 1994. Ominously, that may make us overdue. And it may underscore the importance of our initiative – especially in the wake of the chilling images out of Japan.

Major media outlets do a fine job jumping on big disasters once they occur – helping to understand what went wrong, how emergency crews responded or how preparedness efforts fell short. In that sense our series “On Shaky Ground” is different. We’re detailing a regulatory failure in advance. We hope it’s the kind of journalism that will help focus debate and lead to changes that can make California better prepared for the inevitable Big One.

The series has already prompted results before a word has been published. One lawmaker pledged to review why more seismically unsafe school buildings haven’t been fixed. The main regulator of school construction, the state architect's office, has changed some of its policies as a result of our reporting. One Los Angeles County school had been under the mistaken impression that its campus was safe – until our reporters arrived with documents showing otherwise. The school has since launched its own review of seismic safety.

Please let us know what you think.


Mark Katches | Update: California Watch | October 6, 2010

California Watch tests new way to engage readers with lead-jewelry project

Make a difference. Innovate. Engage communities.

That’s what we’re trying to do at California Watch. Our ultimate goal is to produce high-impact stories that prompt change, serve the public and reach audiences in new ways.  

So we are especially proud of our story this past weekend on lead threats in jewelry. We think it meets the goals we have set internally for our biggest projects.

Reporters Joanna Lin and Mandy Hofmockel detailed how California regulators have hit a national retailer with five violation notices in a span of 16 months for repeatedly selling jewelry containing illegal levels of lead.

The dangers of lead in jewelry may not sound like a new story. But if you think the problem has been eliminated, you’d be sadly mistaken. 

The toxic metal is especially harmful to young children and women who are pregnant. Prolonged exposure to lead can cause developmental issues, including stunted growth and brain damage. High levels of lead can still be found in all kinds of consumer products, such as toys, children's lunch boxes and even candy.

The case of Rainbow Apparel, with 35 stores throughout California, illustrates the persistent threat of lead. As Lin and Hofmockel wrote, “Just as tainted items are removed, a new wave of dangerous necklaces, pendants and bracelets takes their place.”

After state regulators issued a fourth violation notice in June, Lin and Hofmockel went shopping. They bought 30 jewelry items at Rainbow stores in the Bay Area and sent them off for testing. Six of the jewelry pieces, or 20 percent of the items purchased, contained unlawful levels of lead.  

Our reporting produced results before a single word was published. When we told Rainbow about our testing results, the chain ordered all of its stores across the country – more than 1,100 stores in all – to pull the lead-tainted items off shelves.

That’s good news for consumers. And it’s the kind of results we hope to attain via our best journalism.

But we felt we could do more with this story to engage consumers.

To that end, California Watch is sponsoring three lead screening events over the next 10 days – one in Oakland, one in Richmond and one in Los Angeles. Our public engagement manager, Ashley Alvarado, organized these events. The first will be tomorrow in Oakland.

Consumers who have bought jewelry from any retailer – whether it’s a big chain, a sidewalk vendor or at a flea market – are welcome to bring jewelry to any of our screening locations for tests that will yield results in a matter of minutes. If you’re a parent worried about the bracelet your toddler has been putting in his or her mouth, this is a chance to get some answers.

California Watch staff have been trained to use an X-ray fluorescence device, the same equipment that state regulators rely upon to perform initial lead screening exams. We are renting the device from QuickShot XRF. Buying one would cost $24,000, roughly the price of a new Prius. The equipment is not terribly complicated to use – but the price tag puts these tests out of reach for most Californians.

State regulators and the Center for Environmental Health, which performed the initial lead screens on the items we bought at Rainbow, also perform free lead screenings. But we thought it would be a good idea to hold our own screening events in conjunction with the publication of our story. We hope the heightened awareness around our reporting will boost participation.

The tests are very reliable but may not yield conclusive results. For our story, we sent items that screened positive for lead to a separate laboratory, Forensics Analytical in Hayward, to confirm the findings. In every case, the results from the initial screening stood up.

We’re counting on our news partners that have published or broadcast our story to help get the word out about the lead screenings in their area.

Our screening events will be held in culturally diverse neighborhoods where risks for elevated blood-lead levels tend to be higher. It’s a prime opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to solution-oriented reporting while raising awareness about California Watch and our public service mission. We will be gathering information from these events that may yield more stories.

Is this unusual for a media organization? You bet. I spent nearly a quarter century working in newspapers. And I’m not sure many traditional media outlets would attempt such an event. But in our small, new media shop, we see it as another way to operate outside the box.

Is this advocacy? Not at all. With these screenings, we are not pushing any sort of agenda. Rather, we’ll be alerting consumers and parents to potential hazards and arming them with the basics they need in order to protect themselves and their children, address and identify the associated health risks, and search out more information independently. That’s what any media organization, new or old, ought to be doing.

Here’s the schedule for our upcoming screening events. Hope to see you at one of them.

Wednesday, Oct. 6
De Colores Head Start at Fruitvale Village
1155 35th Ave., Oakland
8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Sunday, Oct. 10
Richmond Flea Market
716 W. Gertrude Ave., Richmond
9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 14
Nahui Ohlin
1511 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles
Noon to 6 p.m.

California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, is supported by major grants from the California Endowment, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


Mark Katches | Backstory: California Watch | September 10, 2010

Looking forward to another year of life outside the comfort zone

A year ago today, California Watch published its first story online – a piece about questionable homeland security grant spending. It was written by G.W. Schulz, who covers homeland security for the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The story ran on the front page of 25 newspapers the following day and reached more than 1.8 million newspaper subscribers. We produced the story at three different lengths and edited custom versions for several news organizations across the state. As a new startup, we didn’t know what to expect when we started contacting newsrooms about the story. We honestly would have been happy if just a few news outlets decided to take it. The broad reach blew us away.

Since then, we’ve developed as an organization. The mission here is to deliver rigorous, credible journalism that meets the highest possible standards and touches the lives of Californians. To that end, we have published 34 stories on topics spanning from early childhood education to elder care. We've identified tens of millions of dollars of questionable government spending. And we've exposed injustices – all without a single request for a correction. While experimenting with the new model of journalism, we've occasionally failed, flopped and floundered. And thank goodness for that. Because if we're not taking chances and pushing boundaries, leaving our comfort zones, we're not trying hard enough. When I look around at all the creative, energetic people who work here, I can't wait to see what the next year brings.

In terms of sheer size, we've increased our staff from six full-time reporters. Today we’ve nearly doubled the reporting muscle with a team that stands at 11 full-time reporters, by far the largest investigative team operating in the state. Among them are winners of the prestigious George Polk Award, the National Journalism Award and the Pulitzer Prize. On this blog, over the next three months, you'll get a closer look at our reporting and editing team. Each week, we will post a new video bio of a California Watch staffer, starting with Lance Williams, one of our senior reporters, this coming Monday.

Most of our stories run on the front pages of our partner newspapers or in featured spots on local TV and public radio broadcasts as well as on all partner websites.

Our 35th story is coming this weekend, exploring why some hospitals in California are more likely to perform cesarean sections. More than a dozen media outlets are on board to run our package.

Over the last year, we've produced stories about stimulus recipients with a troublesome history as polluters and law breakers. And we’ve detailed an alarming rise in maternal death rates. We’ve brought to your attention serious seismic hazards at public universities and a lack of accountability at nursing homes that got huge pay increases to hire more workers – but actually cut staff.

Our formula appears to be working. We hired terrific investigative reporters and attached them to specialty beats – topic areas that Californians care deeply about but aren’t typically covered from a statewide view. 

Our investigative beats include health and welfare, public safety, money and politics, K-12 schools, higher education and the environment. We’ve relied on a strong group of freelance journalists to round out our reporting, and we’ve tapped the resources of our parent Center for Investigative Reporting to boost coverage of law enforcement, immigration and the environment. Our collaboration with KQED has allowed California Watch to broadcast most of our stories on public radio.

We’ve also added a public engagement manager and a distribution and community manager who have helped push our content out to the public and to news outlets.

We’ve built a unique distribution model that enables us to produce custom-edited drafts in collaboration with our partners. In many instances, we’ll deliver finished stories that editors can seamlessly plug into their news pages. In other cases, we’ve delivered stories that are 95 percent done. Our partners are invited to finish the work by adding local inserts and examples. Throughout this reporting and editing process, we've received terrific editing suggestions from some of the state's top newspeople at our partner news organizations. 

In some instances, we are teaming early in the reporting process with news organizations to report side-by-side. All of these approaches have worked for us. And, with the help of our partners at New America Media, our stories have been translated and published in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean.

Reflecting on our first year, the numbers are noteworthy. As of yesterday:

Stories produced: 34

Blog posts published: 933

Distribution partners: 72

Facebook friends: 2,619

Twitter followers: 3,182

Total print audience reach: 19,441,817

On top of that, our stories are played prominently on established California websites like SFGate.com, Sacbee.com, OCRegister.com and InsideBayArea.com, increasing the visibility of our work.

We’ve had our share of startup growing pains. It can be a little chaotic inside our newsroom. We’ve seen a couple of talented multimedia journalists leave for larger news organizations. And we’ve had to gingerly navigate some of our relationships with partners. At times it feels like we’re crossing a river barefoot – knee deep and trying to avoid the jagged and slippery rocks. We haven’t always hit the right stones. When we do step wrong, we try to learn and adjust.

The past year has proven that there is a willingness among news organizations to work with California Watch. Barriers that may have made collaboration improbable in years past seem mostly to have melted away. We still encounter occasional resistance from editors. And these are the types of things we hear: Some are nervous about working with outside nonprofits. Some worry that outsourcing their investigative reporting to us will cost jobs inside their own newsrooms. Some think our statewide approach is too broad. Some are miffed when our stories are published by their competitors. But we hope the last year has proven that we come in peace. Our mission is to offer great stories and added value to news organizations that have shed hundreds of jobs in the past few years and may need our help.

By no means have we figured it all out. But that’s part of the fun of the new model. We’re trying new things. We’re falling down once in a while, but we get right back up – a little wet maybe – but ready to see what the next step will bring.


Interns bring new blood to the newsroom

It’s intern season at California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting. We’ve been fortunate to have interns year-round. But summer is a special time. New intern blood transfuses our newsroom. Exuberant, wide-eyed youngsters strive to make their mark during short stints as reporters, web producers and copy editors.

Ah, the internship.

My first came 26 years ago at the now-defunct Peninsula Times Tribune, a small, local paper in downtown Palo Alto. I can’t even begin to measure what I learned in those three months.

One of my biggest early influences in the Palo Alto newsroom was Judy Miller, then the young city editor of the Times Tribune. She soon left for the San Francisco Chronicle. Later, she directed two Pulitzer Prize-winning projects at the Miami Herald where she eventually rose to managing editor.

Judy earned the nickname “Bulldog.” And it fit. I’ve never met anyone as tenacious and as relentless. I ran into her at the recent gathering of Investigative Reporters and Editors in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. We reminisced about the old days, and what she meant to my career. She inspired reporters to dig deep and to stop only when you reached the bottom.

Judy has been an important mentor over the years. She's always been available as a sounding board when I've been stuck. And yet, I can’t remember if she said even two words to me during my summer internship.

Her influence went beyond mere words. She taught by example. If you stopped for just a second to watch her in action, you learned a ton. And if you stopped too long, you would likely get a sharp look back, as if to wonder – no, demand – your next front page story.

I could only hope that our interns this summer will find their own mentor or influential figure somewhere among our own accomplished staff – whether it’s one of our superb veterans such as Lance Williams, Susanne Rust, Michael Montgomery, Mark Schapiro, Louis Freedberg or Bob Salladay. Or one of our talented younger guns like Mark Luckie, Erica Perez, Ryan Gabrielson, Christina Jewett, Corey Johnson, G.W. Schulz, Carrie Ching, Andy Becker or Chase Davis.

Every one of us remembers what it was like to be an intern. And we’re all here to help.

And I'm personally thrilled to see all the energy in our newsroom. One of the more unpleasant things I had to do in my last job was call a young college student we had selected for an internship a few weeks earlier to relay the bad news that her internship had been canceled. In a budget crisis, the interns were the first to go.

This summer our interns aren't exactly getting rich off their paychecks from us. But we are proud that we are offering so many internships at a time when many news organizations are still living without the help of eager college students.

So without further ado, let me introduce our current crop of interns:

Austin Fast is a Dow Jones News Fund copy editing intern with California Watch and assists in producing Politics Verbatim. He is a recent graduate of Miami University (of Ohio) with degrees in journalism and international studies. While in college, Austin produced stories at Miami's NPR station, served as editor in chief of Miami's student newspaper and completed an internship with an online news wire service in Pristina, Kosovo.

Mandy Hofmockel is a Dow Jones News Fund web production intern for California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting. She is a senior majoring in media studies and political science at Penn State University. Mandy has worked as a reporter, copy editor and web editor for her college newspaper for the past three years. She also spent a summer reporting for her local paper.

Timothy Sandoval is a reporting intern in the Sacramento bureau for California Watch. He has covered the California State University budget crisis, student protests, and general news stories for The State Hornet, CSU Sacramento’s newspaper. Timothy grew up in Los Angeles. He graduated from St. John Bosco High School, and attended Cal Poly Pomona from 2007 to 2009. He currently attends Sacramento State and is set to graduate in 2012.

Alex Brewer is a reporting intern for the Center for Investigative Reporting where he will primarily work with Andy Becker on immigration stories and with the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Alex is the annual Neil Isaacs and Frank Wright Fellow from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Next year he will be a junior pursuing a double bachelor's degree in psychology and cinema media studies. On campus he is also chief content editor for The Lens, Carleton's bi-yearly society and politics magazine. 

Erin Ferguson is a shared reporting intern for KQED Radio, the Ventura County Star and California Watch, based in Sacramento. Erin mostly will be blogging about the state budget. She is a senior in modern literary studies at UC Santa Cruz. She is part of the internship program coordinated by the University of California public affairs journalism program. It's a joint venture between UC Center Sacramento and the UC Berkeley graduate school of journalism.

Sarah McHie is the veteran of our intern crew. She started her internship in October with the Center for Investigative Reporting as a web production assistant. Sarah previously was an associate web producer at San Francisco magazine. She is a recent graduate of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana where she obtained a degree in Telecommunications with a concentration in multimedia. 

We expect you'll be seeing their names a lot this summer and for a long time to come.

Mark Katches | Update: California Watch | June 21, 2010

California Watch launches Politics Verbatim

One of the most gratifying things about California Watch is the speed at which we can embrace innovation. And then go for it.

Today, we’re unveiling a website built by our own Chase Davis called Politics Verbatim. This new site will attempt to track every quote, promise and statement made by our two major candidates for governor in California – Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman.

Check out the search tool that Davis created. It allows readers to sort candidate statements by nine different categories – including promises, attacks, and vague policy points. If they dodge an issue or a subject, there’s a search category for that, too. Readers can also sort by geography, to see where the candidates have been appearing – and what parts of the state they’ve been ignoring.

The site also will include blog posts from Davis, our Senior Editor Robert Salladay and Sacramento based reporter Timothy Sandoval.

The candidates’ statements are sorted by 26 topics – from abortion to welfare.

We are unveiling Politics Verbatim today with about 300 documents and 1,000 excerpts. We will be adding to the site daily, scouring news and campaign sites and Twitter and Facebook feeds. We also are encouraging crowd-sourcing from other journalists and readers. We hope to soon create easy ways for readers to upload video and audio files from public campaign events. California is a massive state, and we can’t provide blanket coverage. But with help from others and from our media partners, we believe we can build a useful, relevant tool in a critical election year. We are hoping to explore additional partnerships with other media outlets to strengthen the content of Politics Verbatim.

Our overarching goal is to create a resource for voters and for those interested in policy. When Davis pitched Politics Verbatim a couple months back, he hoped the site would be a way to bring more accountability to the political process. By tracking the candidates' spoken words, we could hold their feet to the fire when they break promises or fail to live up to campaign pledges.  

We expect the site to evolve in the next few weeks. We’re treating today’s launch as Phase I. We are up and running and functional. We expect to roll out a second phase in the next month or so – a phase that will include easier ways to assess side-by-side the positions of Brown and Whitman. In that respect, Politics Verbatim will help serve as an interactive guide for undecided voters.

Ideally, we would track other candidates and races. And that will be the eventual goal – hopefully sooner rather than later. We'd like to add the U.S. Senate race and initiative campaigns, for instance. But that takes resources. So for now, we’re focusing on the race to become the next chief executive in the nation’s most dysfunctional state.

Politics Verbatim speaks to the advantages of a small newsroom. One reporter had an idea, made a pitch. And it was green-lighted quickly. No mess. No fuss. We’ve been able to move fast to create this project because of the amazing talents of Davis and the lack of obstructions along the way.

I’ve worked in some terrific newsrooms where innovation was valued. But even in the most receptive large newsrooms, I’m betting a project such as Politics Verbatim would have been slowed by multiple rounds of memos, meetings and bureaucratic hurdles that might have sucked the momentum out of the idea.

Several other people deserve credit for today’s launch. Freelancer Coulter Jones and California Watch intern Austin Fast were instrumental in searching for campaign statements and materials to load onto our site. Our Senior Editor Salladay helped shape the project and multimedia producer Lisa Pickoff-White contributed to the look of Politics Verbatim. Davis, who is in his mid 20s, recruited his friends at Upstatement to design our logo and site layout. They did it at a steep discount. I’m told that Davis enticed them with some barbecue and a promise of a Terminator DVD.

You have got to love this generation of innovators.

Please let us know what you think. 

California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and is now the largest investigative reporting team operating in the state. Visit the Web site at www.californiawatch.org for in-depth coverage of K-12 schools, higher education, money and politics, health and welfare, public safety and the environment.

California Watch announces new public engagement manager

Our newsroom is growing so fast we may need nametags. Today we’re announcing another hire – our first public engagement manager. She’s Ashley Alvarado, a talented young journalist who has been working at Los Angeles and Los Cabos magazines.

Ashley is set to start July 6. She joins other recent hires, Susanne Rust and Joanna Lin, who will be joining us a in few weeks. We also landed Pulitzer Prize winner Ryan Gabrielson, who won’t officially start until Sept. 1.

This wave of hiring brings our California Watch newsroom to 16 people, including 11 reporters. That doesn't even count support, administrative and leadership staff we share with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

So what exactly is a public engagement manager? It’s an innovative, new job that combines the skills of a reporter, editor, web producer and community manager. And Ashley is the perfect person to fill that role.

Since it’s a new job, we expect it to evolve, and Ashley will play a key role helping to shape it. The main aim of the public engagement manager will be to help identify stories in neglected, forgotten and voiceless communities throughout California. Once we tell these stories, Ashley’s job will be to make sure we’re reaching the people who need to know about our work – both the affected parties and those who can make a difference.

We expect that Ashley also will help bring community stakeholders together for town hall-style round table forums or live chats online. She will work collaboratively with reporters and multimedia producers inside our newsroom while building relationships and networks with other news organizations and community stakeholders.

Ultimately we want to make sure our stories make a difference. Ashley will help us meet that goal.

Here’s a little more about her:

Ashley is a graduate of USC where she earned degrees in print journalism and Spanish. She most recently served as a researcher/proof reader at Los Angeles Magazine, where she also contributed stories. She also serves as managing editor of Los Cabos Magazine in Mexico.

Ashley has freelanced for Bon Appetit, the Contra Costa Times, Latina, the Los Angeles Times Magazine and Entrepreneur. She also previously worked as a researcher and copy editor at Tu Ciudad Los Angeles until the magazine folded in 2008. She is a native of Eugene, Oregon.

California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and is now the largest investigative reporting team operating in the state. Visit the Web site at www.californiawatch.org for in-depth coverage of K-12 schools, higher education, money and politics, health and welfare, public safety and the environment.

California Watch rolls out site tweaks, including star ratings for comments

In our ongoing effort to make our website more interactive and engaging, we rolled out a few subtle changes this past weekend.  Some of the refinements are totally under the hood. You won't really see them. We added a spell checker to our writing and editing tool for creating blog posts, for instance. We all pride ourselves in knowing how to use the English language, but it can't hurt to have a spell checker given that our editing staff is fairly small.

One change you might notice is that we’ve made our "donate" link far more prominent on our homepage because, frankly, we want to stay in business for a long time to come. A little more visibility can't hurt.
And in our ongoing effort to promote and encourage responsible commenting, we’ve added a new star-rating system on our site. Readers can now rate all comments on stories, blogs and data features. If someone makes a particularly astute observation or you just plain agree, say it with stars. You can rate a comment from one to five stars – with five being the highest.  No reason to mince words here. If you think a comment sucks, give it one star. The average rating bestowed by all readers appears alongside your rating.  It’s basically a Yelp-inspired system. We like it because it’s simple and easy. It provides a little more flexibility than the thumbs up/thumbs down rating systems that a lot of other sites appear to be gravitating toward.
Adding star ratings to comments is a simple way to reward and acknowledge commenters who are especially articulate or persuasive. Is there shame in one-star comments? That's in the eye of the commenter, I suppose. But you can express your dissatisfaction when you think any commenter falls below the bar.
The rating system is just our latest effort to keep that bar high. A couple months back we eliminated anonymous commenting. Since we did that, we’ve barely had to remove any inappropriate comments (although we’re still battling with an influx of spam commenting on our site).
We’ve also given away an iPod Touch each of the last two months as part of our Debate Championship promotion. Every month, we enter the best comments on our site into a drawing and ship out an iPod Touch to the winner.  You can read more about the promotion here.  
We think the promotion, the removal of anonymous comments and the rating system all are steps that will help make our online forum an engaging, informative and family-friendly place to be. Let us know what you think.

California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and is now the largest investigative reporting team operating in the state. Visit the Web site at www.californiawatch.org for in-depth coverage of K-12 schools, higher education, money and politics, health and welfare, public safety and the environment.