From Mama’s Basement to Journalism Accolades

It took a lot of digging — and a leap of faith — for Corey Johnson and the California Watch team to challenge the earthquake readiness of school buildings. Photo courtesy Scripps Howard Foundation

By Joe Grimm

Corey Johnson greeted the crowd at the Scripps Howard Awards on April 26 with a story:

“About seven years ago, I was like many other Americans: college degree, broke, jobless, living with my mama. Probably one more unswallowed drink from the orange juice carton away from getting kicked out of the house. And . . . I said, ‘I want to be a journalist!’ ”

It almost didn’t happen.

Johnson was in Detroit to pick up the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Roy W. Howard Award for public service reporting. He was representing California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Its 19-month investigation “On Shaky Ground” showed flaws in seismic safety compliance and oversight at schools. More than 150 California news outlets picked up the series. Reforms to better prepare schoolchildren for the next big earthquake followed.

“I’ve been blessed because I have had a lot of people pour into my life,” Johnson said. This is how he describes his journey:

He attended Florida A&M University and walked in 1997. He soon learned that his complicated route through college, as he switched from engineering to psychology to African-American studies, meant that he had enough credits to graduate but not enough in the right places. He did not have a degree.

He returned to his mother’s home in Atlanta, trying to make the best of things. He did odd jobs and worked at a Service Merchandise store, which closed in 1999. More odd jobs followed, but he lacked a degree and a direction.

Reading and seeing coverage of the 9/11 terror attacks gave him the journalism bug, and he started poking around the story of Martin Luther King Jr. Journalists had looked at surveillance of King by federal law enforcement, but Johnson became curious about the role of Atlanta police. He was given documents by David J. Garrow, then with Emory University. Garrow is research professor of history and law at the University of Pittsburgh and the 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner for biography for a book about King. Johnson pursued Garrow’s lead.

The documents prompted Johnson to talk in 2003 with Garrow and then Hank Klibanoff and Shawn McIntosh, editors at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Klibanoff opened Johnson’s mind “to being a journalist, and I’m thinking I want to be an investigative journalist — and I’d never written a day in my life,” Johnson said. He completed his degree in 2003.

Johnson attended the annual conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors in Atlanta in June 2004. He recalls, “I said, OK, this is what I want to do. I can do this, but I don’t have any clips, any background. I have the passion, but I don’t have what you need.” He offered to sweep the AJC’s floors just to break in.

Instead, Sarah Hicks, then the AJC’s new hiring editor, called in December to recommend that Johnson apply to the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute’s 12-week program designed to lead people who have not had formal training in journalism into newsroom jobs. Johnson applied with a glowing recommendation that Klibanoff turned around in a jiffy and still has.

Speed was important because the deadline had passed, but Diversity Institute Executive Director Robbie Morganfield phoned Johnson.

“When they called me to say yes, I jumped for joy. I sang that song from ‘The Wiz.’ ” ‘He recalled “Brand New Day,” with the lyric, “Can’t you feel a brand new day?”

After completing the program in April 2005, he spent about two years each at The Greenville (NC) Daily Reflector and The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, working from night cops to investigations. These jobs led him to California Watch, the story about earthquake preparedness and part of the Roy W. Howard Award and its $10,000 prize.

Without the Diversity Institute, Johnson said, he might be working at Wal-Mart.

“It’s a tough time for our business,” Johnson said from the stage in Detroit. “There are thousands and thousands of Americans who don’t understand what we do. They don’t understand the value of what we do. They’re not reading. They may be watching, but they’re not listening. They may be listening, but they’re not watching. They may be listening but not reading.

“And so, at California Watch, we try very, very hard to try to figure out ways that we can show Americans that America needs the best of what we have to offer. You honor the best of what we are and you also honor the best of what we hope to be.”

Johnson said the award recognized “the thousands of journalists and editors who write about levees before they break, who write about housing bubbles before they burst and do all kinds of incredible, courageous, thankless things every day that never get an award and never get praise and who try to serve their fellow Americans.”

Joe Grimm, a consultant and adjunct faculty member of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, recruited for the Detroit Free Press, Knight Ridder and Gannett from 1990 until 2008. He now teaches at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He has run the JobsPage journalism careers site at since 1996. Questions about careers? E-mail Joe for an answer.


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