As California Watch ramps up distribution of its work, we are experimenting with different ways to reach the California public.

Our goal is to distribute our stories as widely as possible, in as many media formats as possible – in the hope that we will be able to spark a conversation on critically important issues affecting many Californians.

Typically, we like to give media outlets interested in running a story a heads up of a week or two – or more –  so they will have an opportunity to supplement our reports with their own local reporting. They may even collaborate with us in the reporting.

This week, however, we had to shorten our distribution time frame considerably on a story Nathanael Johnson had been working on for weeks – the near tripling of maternal mortality rates in California over the past decade.

Nathanael discovered that California’s Department of Public Health had been sitting on a report written in 2008 detailing this trend.

On January 26, a nonprofit health organization published an alert pointing to similar distressing trends nationwide. The alert was beginning to attract press attention. A story could break at any time that would take the wind out of all the work Nathanael had already done. So we felt that we should release our story quickly to provide a strong California perspective on a breaking national story.

We knew we could put the story on our Web site and hope that it would go “viral.”  We considered that as an option but decided even with late notice, we would reach out to other news organizations.

Imagine trying to coordinate publication of a major story with a dozen news outlets, encompassing print, broadcast and online media. With just a day’s notice, several media partners responded rapidly, and ran the story on their front pages, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, Bakersfield Californian, Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Orange County Register.

Michael Montgomery, who works jointly for California Watch and KQED, prepared a report for KQED’s the California Report, which aired on 28 public radio stations around the state. KGO-TV in San Francisco aired a report on its 11 p.m. newscast. New America Media distributed the story to ethnic media outlets. The issue was the subject of a one-hour discussion on KQED’s Forum, hosted by Michael Krasny. Alternet also carried the story.

This heartbreaking issue is likely to get even wider attention in the days ahead, as it should. While we would far prefer to give our media partners adequate time to localize our stories, there will be times that we will have to throw out preconceived timetables, and we will have no choice but to move rapidly to get a story into circulation. Being nimble is the name of today’s game.

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.

Louis Freedberg

Louis Freedberg was formerly executive director of the California Media Collaborative, whose goal was to devise new strategies for coverage of key California issues. The Collaborative joined forces with CIR in May 2009. Until August 2007, Freedberg worked at the San Francisco Chronicle in a variety of roles: columnist and member of its editorial board; Washington correspondent during the presidency of Bill Clinton; and higher education reporter. He was a senior editor at Pacific News Service, now New America Media, where he established and directed Pacific Youth Press. He was the founder and director of Youth News in Oakland, which trained high school students as radio news reporters. He has written and reported for a wide range of publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Public Radio. He has reported from diverse regions of the world, including Southern Africa, the former Soviet Union and Central America.. He was the recipient of a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford and an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship. He has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley and a B.A. in psychology from Yale University.