The Online Journalism Awards recognize the best digital storytelling across the world. This is CalMatters fourth year being recognized in the contest.
CalMatters journalists are two-time finalists in this year’s Online Journalism Awards contest that recognizes the world’s best digital journalism.
This is the nonprofit team’s first honor in Explanatory Reporting and second in Feature Writing.
The honors also represent CalMatters growth, as the newsroom has just over 50 employees and is now competing in the medium category for newsrooms with 51 to 250 employees.
Previously, CalMatters won first place, feature, in 2018 for a story examining why housing costs are so high. And we were a finalist in 2019 for excellence and innovation in visual design storytelling and a finalist in general excellence in online journalism in 2021.
In Explanatory Reporting, our drought series (ongoing) is a finalist. The other finalists in this category are the national nonprofit newsroom, ProPublica, and collaborative reporting by ProPublica with WBUR. The work from CalMatters was led by our environment team of Rachel Becker, Julie Cart and editor Marla Cone. It also included staff photography from throughout the state, a major effort by our data team for live tracking statistics and a mini-doc video that was broadcast nationally.
As California entered the grips of another severe drought in the spring of 2021, CalMatters launched “Lessons Learned: Drought Then and Now,” a richly detailed ongoing series investigating whether the situation has improved or worsened.
Reporters Julie Cart and Rachel Becker scoured state databases and queried scores of local water agencies to explore the number of wells that have dried up, and locate areas where the impact of drought has spread. The deep fragmentation of California’s water system means that there’s no one source to go to on California water; the thousands of public water systems in California each have their own story, requiring the reporters to reach far and wide to understand vastly different conditions across the state. During the course of our reporting we found that the absence of data — real measurement of California’s water resources, who uses them and how much — was its own story. It became a fundamental revelation. As experts told us: You can’t manage what you can’t measure.
Other multimedia contributions to the project included a video by reporter Byrhonda Lyons exposing the emergence of water bandits stealing a newly scarce commodity, a card deck explainer “Danger in Droughtsville” to help our audience understand the challenges of water planning, and the most comprehensive dashboard yet chocked full of data on California’s water supply amid drought. Data editor John Osborn D’Agostino and data reporters Erica Yee and Jeremia Kimelman created a detailed water dashboard and a game-inspired drought explainer illustrated by freelancer Cicely Mirales.
In Features, our Outgunned project is a finalist. Other finalists in this category are a collaborative project between ProPublica and Alive in Afghanistan, Univision News Digital, ProPublica and the San Francisco Chronicle. The work by CalMatters was written by investigative reporter Robert Lewis. It included an explainer graphic from political writer Ben Christopher. Our data and graphics teams prepared a multimedia display and we prepared a radio story that was broadcast statewide and nationally. Editors included Marjie Lundstrom and Joel Sappell.
Every year California’s Attorney General puts out a report on its Armed and Prohibited Persons System.
But in all the coverage, CalMatters reporter Robert Lewis never saw any information on who was actually on the list — and certainly not any satisfying answers as to why the system is struggling. So he decided to see if he could find people in the system and try to understand why California is having so much trouble getting registered guns from people the state knows have guns and also knows shouldn’t have guns.
In the course of reporting, Lewis learned that the state DOJ prepares a monthly report for local law enforcement agencies showing whom in their jurisdiction is in the database. He submitted Public Records Act requests to 400 local law enforcement agencies across the state seeking copies of the most recent monthly reports. Four agencies provided him with some basic information. Using information in those records he was able to pull court files and locate other sources. He also tracked the responses from the other 396 agencies to see the reasons for denial, which became a part of the story. About 150 agencies didn’t just deny his request — they indicated they had no idea what he was talking about. This became critical to the story as it revealed many local agencies had abdicated responsibility for seizing these guns to the state and weren’t doing even the most basic work to help clear the backlog.
Lewis also sought historical context — garnering hundreds of pages of legislative history records from the state archives. And he reported on how local courts were failing to enforce their orders requiring individuals to surrender firearms —requesting information from all 58 county superior courts about background check procedures in family court proceedings.
For the second story in the series, he used thousands of pages of court records and transcripts to tell the story of Calley Garay, a Madera County woman who was killed by her husband. He also identified hundreds of domestic violence cases in other counties and looked through those files online and in courthouses around the state.
Tracking 400 public records requests was a difficult task. He also fought to get records from some courts, both because of the ongoing pandemic and also because some clerks are amazingly unfamiliar with the basic presumption that court records are open to the public. He had to appeal the decision of one superior court to withhold records — “politely” threatening litigation while citing various statutes and rules of court — before they would release the records.