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April 8, 2011, 12:30 p.m.

California Watch finds a new consumer group for its “On Shaky Ground” investigation: kids

This morning, California Watch launched a major series on the seismic safety of California’s public schools. Education reporter Corey Johnson and fellow investigators at the outfit spent 19 months reporting the story, digging up systemic failures in the regulation of school construction standards across the state. Starting today, the results of their work — “roughly 20,000 words of text and more than a half dozen videos,” Mark Katches, California Watch’s editorial director, notes — are being distributed not just on California Watch’s website, but also, in varying forms, on the platforms provided by a record number of partner media outlets, from the large (the San Francisco Chronicle, KGO-TV) to the small (Patch sites across the state).

Drop! Cover! Hold on!

We’ve written before about California Watch’s far-and-wide strategy when it comes to distributing its investigations. What’s unique about the nonprofit outlet’s latest effort, though — besides the sheer scale of it — is that it’s identified a fairly unique target audience for its reporting: kids. In particular, kids in the 5-to-10-year-old age range. “On Shaky Ground,” with its exposés of school construction practices, is a story first and foremost about children; so California Watch wanted to find a way not just to distribute its investigation via “traditional” means — everything from editorial partnerships to Twitter — but also to make sure that it would resonate with young people. As Ashley Alvarado, California Watch’s public engagement manager, told me of the outlet’s (yes) 10-and-under demographic: “I really wanted to find a way to arm them with the information they need in the case of an earthquake.”

Her solution? A coloring book — starring, in his official debut, California Watch’s crowd-named new mascot, Sunny. The book, reflecting California’s diversity, is available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese (both traditional and simplified characters!). It includes concise safety information — “Drop! Cover! Hold on!” — delivered in both visual and verbal form. It also includes games — word searches, quizzes, and the like — to engage kids and reinforce the safety lessons the book contains.

The book is a continuation of California Watch’s efforts to count people of all ages among its consumers — a way of expanding the outlet’s broadly kid-focused work in exposing lead tainting in ginger candies and in jewelry that might appeal to young girls. “One of the things we want to do here is think differently…about every way people get stories and information,” says Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. (CIR oversees California Watch.)

And, indeed: “Ready to Rumble” — starring Sunny, the California Watchdog — is a far cry from the stereotypical Work of Investigative Journalism. (Alvarado first suggested the idea for the coloring book. And “honestly, when I heard that,” Rosenthal recalls, “I was like, ‘Okay….’ I’m kind of an old-school guy.”) But, then, the book accomplishes exactly what that traditional WoIJ sets out to do: inform, explain, empower. It’s just doing all that in a different way than a traditional news story, and for a different group of consumers.

And those consumers have responded. So far, Rosenthal told me, around 28,000 books have been pre-ordered, mostly from schools, educational associations, and after-school programs. California Watch initially planned to print only 2,000 copies, Alvarado notes — but after she put out some feelers to gauge interest in them, the orders came pouring in: more than 18,000 books requested in English, around 8,000 in Spanish, and around 2,000 for Vietnamese and Chinese combined. For teachers in resource-strapped schools, the allure of quality instruction materials — ones that can actually be fun for kids — is powerful.

A life beyond text

The coloring book is a way, essentially, to transform information into education. And the kind of freedom it represents from the narrative constraints of the news article — a logical extension of the data-driven stories and graphic-driven interactives that are reinvigorating investigative journalism — allows for a redefinition of what constitutes “a work of journalism” in the first place. One of the challenges journalists face in creating work that engages and, then, endures is the problem of the multi-level audience: How do you serve, in a single story, a collective of users who come into that story with wildly discrepant levels of background knowledge?

The answer suggested by Sunny the California Watchdog and his cheerfully wagging tail is: You don’t. Because to some extent you can’t. Why try to inform your readers by forming your journalism into a one-size-fits-all narrative…when instead you can tailor and tailor and tailor some more, until all of your users — or, at least, the majority of them — have a story that is uniquely relevant to them?

Of course, tailoring doesn’t come cheap. California Watch has the ability to experiment with such freedom — to customize its work so narrowly, to share it so widely (not to mention to allow reporters to spend over a year and a half on a single, important story) — in large part because, as a nonprofit, it’s insulated from market pressures. And for “Ready to Rumble,” the oufit got additional funding from KQED, InkWorks press, the Public Insight Network, and Patch (California Watch has been working with AOL’s 100+ local California sites to localize the “Shaky Ground” findings). Because of that, at the moment, California Watch is able to distribute the coloring books for free. But soon they’ll have to look at how they’ll be able to pay for additional products. One school district alone, Chula Vista, has ordered 15,000 books for its students, Alvarado told me. Which is great — but even with the project’s underwriting, she notes, “we can’t, for too long, swallow those kinds of costs.”

As part of the distribution plan, starting next week, Alvarado will also be embarking on a “Shaky Ground” tour of sorts to interact personally with some of the story’s intended readers. (If, after learning of California Watch’s findings, “parents do what we expect them to do — and that’s freak out,” then, she notes, it will be nice to be able to reassure them in person.) Alvarado has also recruited a preparedness educator from the American Red Cross to participate in a Twitter chat — hashtag #quakeready — on Tuesday. They’re hoping, she says, that the efforts to give “On Shaky Ground” life beyond its text will result in a public — of both kids and adults — better prepared to deal with an earthquake if (and, most likely, when) the next one hits. The coloring book is a component of that. “I never would have antitcipated that this would be used by adults,” Rosenthal says. But that fact that the book actually has universal appeal “is a great reward for doing the unexpected and not just anticipating the outcome.”

POSTED     April 8, 2011, 12:30 p.m.
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