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The Muckraker

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.

Parents use Facebook security features to protect kids from predators


Protecting children online has been a growing concern since, well, the Internet went mainstream. Predators can easily hide their identities, pretending to be younger and using fake profile pictures. With more than 500 million users worldwide, Facebook is the social network of choice to share photos and information, as well as to connect with people around the world. While it is against Facebook’s policy for children younger than 13 to have accounts, Consumer Reports found that more than 7.5 million do. And, even when a child doesn’t have his or her own account, a study released last year found that 92 percent of U.S. babies have some kind of online presence before age 2.

We asked members of our Public Insight Network to share their thoughts on this issue and whether they approve of the 12-and-younger set having their own Facebook profiles. While the vast majority of respondents said their children 12 and younger did not have Facebook accounts, many said they do post pictures of their kids online. They also said they would post pictures of their friends’ children without asking permission, but had privacy settings in place to protect those they didn’t know from seeing pictures. Only one said his or her son had been contacted by someone he didn’t know after posting his phone number on Facebook.

But let’s hear directly from those in our Public Insight Network. Here are some of the interesting and revealing answers from those raising the next generation of social media users:


Q: What age was your child when you first posted a picture of him or her?
A: 4-5 months. I actually joined FB to get info and photos of my child that the day care posts to their FB account. They share the calendar, weekly menu, photos and videos on their Facebook account. They only accept parents of the children enrolled as friends.


Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about this issue?
A: Re: the posting pics of my children – I used to do it a lot more often when she was a baby. Now that she's older I rarely post pics of her and it has always been limited to the ppl I want to see the pics. As soon as I add a new friend they go into two groups - one that can see my status updates including pics, etc. and the other cannot even see my wall. I will definitely educate my child about the pros and cons of social networking and help her make educated decisions about what she can and cannot do online. Also, I only post pics of other people's kids if their parents already post pics of their kids on FB. I wouldn't post pics of other kids if their parents do not post pictures. All my friends do post pics of their kids so I never run into any problems with parents getting upset!


Q: Are sexual predators something you worry about when it comes to social networking sites?
A: No

Q: Why or why not?
A: In general I am concerned about sexual predators. However, that is an issue with or without social networking. My grandmother was gang-raped by her uncle and some of his friends at the age of 9 – in the 1930s. That certainly predates social networking.


Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about this issue?
A: My policy with my 10-year-old's Facebook account is that I know his password, and he is not allowed to "friend" anyone without my permission. Also, his entire profile, even the profile picture is private to anyone that isn't on his friends list. I would suggest to other parents to have a similar policy if their child is on Facebook. Just like anything else in life, as long as you are involved and interested in what they are doing, you can keep things safe for them.


Q: Which privacy settings – if any – do you use to limit who can view these photos?
A: Custom setting

Q: Are you OK with children under 13 having their own accounts?
A: No

Q: Are sexual predators something you worry about when it comes to social networking sites?
A: Yes

Q: Why or why not?
A: I worry that the wrong person will become attracted to a child in the photo, so I have recently stopped labeling the photos with my children's names. I never label other people's children when they are in the photo. I also changed my privacy settings so that people I don't know well in real life are blocked from seeing photos other than my very basic profile photos. I don't provide my address, phone number, or e-mail address on my profile. However, I have an uncommon name, so I'm not that hard to find.

Ashley Alvarado, public engagement manager for California Watch, contributed to this query. Share your thoughts and insights with us. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter and join the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch on the Public Insight Network.


More problematic construction projects added to interactive database

California Watch's investigation of seismic safety in public schools featured an interactive database identifying campuses that are home to hundreds of buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards. Our interactive now features more potentially risky construction projects at campuses across the state.

Our On Shaky Ground series, led by reporter Corey G. Johnson, found state regulators had routinely failed to enforce the Field Act, California's earthquake safety law for public schools. That failure allowed children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards reported during construction. At least 20,000 projects – from minor fire alarm upgrades to major construction of new classrooms – were completed without receiving a final Field Act certification.

This week, we added more than 5,500 projects to our interactive that were denied Field Act certification for failure to file important documentation verifying the safety of the construction. It wasn't clear what the safety status was for those projects.

For instance, in an internal memo obtained by Johnson, a high-ranking official at the state architect's office expressed alarm that "hundreds of projects" were changed from possible structural defects to missing paperwork "for no apparent or recorded reason."

Johnson also found evidence that massive windows at Southeast Middle School in South Gate, near Los Angeles, were installed incorrectly and could potentially fall on students in an earthquake. While regulators maintain that this is a documentation or paperwork issue, Johnson discovered that both the main architect and inspector on the construction job insisted that massive windows in the school’s central classroom building were incorrectly installed.

When we first launched our interactive, it included risky buildings and construction projects denied Field Act certification for potential safety hazards. That means schools like Gilroy High didn't display any record of problematic construction projects. Now, since we've included these additional projects, the Gilroy page displays 16 projects denied Field Act certification for lack of documentation attesting to the safety of the construction.

There are seven public schools with 10 or more of these projects tied to them. Gilroy High has the most, at 16, and five of the seven are in Santa Clara County.


School County District Projects
Gilroy High Santa Clara Gilroy Unified 16
Whittier High Los Angeles Whittier Union High 13
Benicia High Solano Benicia Unified 11
Cupertino High Santa Clara Fremont Union High 11
Homestead High Santa Clara Fremont Union High 10
Lynbrook High Santa Clara Fremont Union High 10
Monta Vista High Santa Clara Fremont Union High 10


Further investigation will be needed to confirm how severe the potential problems are. Because many of these projects are decades old, some problems may have been fixed.

Thanks to the ongoing hard work of reporter Kendall Taggart and a huge assist by researcher Johnathon Barhydt, we were able to tie these projects to schools in our interactive using information obtained through public records requests and from the state's online Tracker. The Tracker system provides notes describing the more recent projects and includes information not released to California Watch, such as the address of a project.

We hope it's helpful to have the information more accessible than it is in the raw spreadsheets and look forward to feedback from readers about the projects.


Shaking up the rules of engagement

Seven weeks. Fifteen hundred miles. Thirty-six thousand coloring books. It’s been nearly two months since California Watch published its "On Shaky Ground" series on seismic safety in California’s public schools, but the stories’ publication did not mark the end of our efforts to cover the issue and engage Californians. During these past several weeks, I’ve traveled the state – from Oakland to Chula Vista – hosting earthquake preparedness trainings, attending safety fairs, and introducing kids to earthquake preparedness through classes, puppet shows and coloring books. Here’s a closer look at our efforts.



You decide: Vote on Open Newsroom location


Last week we asked you to send in suggestions on where to send at least one California Watch reporter for our next Open Newsroom, a quarterly happening when our staffers fan out to Wi-Fi hot spots across the state to meet with readers over a cuppa joe. We were thrilled with your responses, which came in via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. Suggestions ranged from San Francisco to Fresno, South LA and the Santa Cruz Mountains. 

You spoke, and we listened. We’ve combed through your submissions and selected five towns. Now it’s up to you to vote on your top choice. We’ll announce the winning city next week, and on March 28 a California Watch staffer will be at a coffeehouse there from 9 a.m. till noon.



California Watch: Help plan our Open Newsroom

Next month California Watch reporters, editors and interns will once again spread out to coffeehouses across the state for an Open Newsroom event. We’re still narrowing down the locations, but there’s one thing we’ve decided: the guest of honor, and that’s you!

From 9 a.m. till noon on March 28, we’ll set up shop in Wi-Fi spots with the sole purpose of getting to connect with our readers. We are looking forward to meeting all of you, hearing about your communities and any tips you may have for California Watch investigations.

Now we need you to help us decide where to go. While many of our staffers will select their own location, we want you to pick at least one spot. Where would you like to meet up? Please e-mail your suggested cities – or coffeehouses – to aalvarado@californiawatch.org or @ mention @alvaradoCW with the hashtag #opennews by March 7. We’ll select our top five spots and open it up to a vote. 


Meghann Farnsworth | Update: California Watch | February 11, 2011

A post-mortem on the "Post Mortem" social media outreach

How many social media coordinators does it take to promote a yearlong investigation between four media organizations? Distribution and Online Community Manager Meghann Farnsworth reports on the social media outreach around the Post Mortem partnership series.


CIR Staff | Update: California Watch | January 28, 2011

California Watch launches media network

California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, today launched the California Watch Media Network and announced its first members, which include some of the state’s largest and most reputable news organizations.

Joining the network are the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, San Diego Union Tribune, Orange County Register, Bakersfield Californian, and the Fresno Bee.

The news organizations that are part of the California Watch Media Network will receive stories and daily news posts from California Watch, the state’s largest investigative reporting team. The new group also will work to find ways to collaborate together on investigative reporting projects.

“This new network represents a step forward in terms of how we market and distribute our content,” said California Watch Editorial Director Mark Katches. “It’s our hope that many more news organizations, both large and small, will join us in the coming months.”

Katches added that the goal of the network extends beyond distributing California Watch stories.

“It sets the table for more collaborative relationships,” Katches said. “That’s the most exciting part about it. We hope it will create even more opportunities for news organizations to work together on investigative projects.”

Membership fees to join the network are determined by circulation and audience reach of news outlets. For print publications, rates are based on Sunday Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) statistics. For broadcast members, rates are based on market size. Members also will have select content featured on the California Watch website at www.californiawatch.org.

“We were thrilled to join the California Watch Media Network," said Steve Proctor, managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. "California Watch is doing first-rate investigative journalism, a critical component of any newspaper. Our partnership has been extremely important to the Chronicle and its readers and we look forward to collaborating on more great work in the future."

Since launching in late 2009, California Watch has developed a unique distribution model, charging news organizations fees for the rights to publish content. California Watch also typically edits multiple versions of stories to appeal to local news markets.

“We have to find ways to generate revenue. It’s an important part of our business strategy,” said Robert J. Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. “The high-caliber news organizations that have already joined our network helps to illustrate the value of our journalism.”

Stories will also be offered to news organizations outside the network and California Watch will continue its successful partnership with KQED Public Radio.

For more information about the benefits of joining the California Watch Media Network, editors should contact Distribution and Online Community Manager Meghann Farnsworth at mfarnsworth@cironline.org or 510-809-2213.


About California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting

California Watch, the largest investigative team operating in the state, was launched in 2009 by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). Priority areas of coverage include education, health and welfare, public safety, the environment and the influence of money on the political and regulatory process. The goal is to expose hidden truths, prompt debate and spark change. California Watch receives funding from The James Irvine Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the California Endowment. California Watch received a general excellence award from the Online News Association in 2010. Its staff also was named “Journalists of the Year” by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The Center for Investigative Reporting is the nation's oldest nonprofit investigative news organization. CIR reports have reached the public through television, print, radio and the web, appearing in outlets such as 60 Minutes, PBS Frontline, NPR, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Politico and U.S. News & World Report. CIR stories have received numerous journalism awards including the Alfred I. du Pont-Columbia University Silver Baton, George Polk Award, Emmy Award, Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, and National Magazine Award for Reporting Excellence. More importantly, its reports have sparked congressional hearings and legislation, United Nations resolutions, public interest lawsuits and change in corporate policies. CIR founded California Watch to help create a new model for regional investigative and other high-impact reporting.

Press Contact:
Marlene Saritzky
California Watch/Center for Investigative Reporting