Ditto for when he left Florida A&M University in 1997.
Back in Atlanta, the unemployed Johnson read David Garrow’s book, “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” and became interested in King’s assassination.
With time on his hands, Johnson began visiting the King Center archives to try to understand a little bit more about King’s assassination and the FBI spying on him in the 1960s.
“I came to realize that there was little known about the local Atlanta Police and what role they have played in watching and monitoring King,” he said.
Johnson’s research and findings in 2004 so impressed Garrow that he recommended Johnson to then-AJC managing editor Hank Klibanoff and Shawn McIntosh, who is now public editor.
They too became impressed with the young man and nominated him for a four-month Freedom Forum Fellowship at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., which teaches aspiring reporters about journalism.
When he graduated in April 2005, the AJC editors got Johnson his first reporting job with the Daily Reflector, a small Cox-owned newspaper in Greenville, N.C.
Fast-forward to 2012, and Johnson, now 37, is at the top of his profession and the toast of journalism’s town. A series of stories on which he was lead reporter has just won Scripps Howard’s prestigious Roy W. Howard Award for Public Service Reporting and $10,000 for his employer, California Watch, a news service for investigative reporting, and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
The series – titled “On Shaky Ground” – resulted from 19 months of investigation that exposed flaws in earthquake safety compliance and oversight in California’s public schools.
The Scripps Howard Foundation announced the 2012 awards on March 16.
On April 26, Johnson, his editors and his mother, Alma Mustafa, his father Jesse, and other family members will be in Detroit to pick up the award.
On Thursday, McIntosh did not have to be reminded about who Johnson is.
“I could never forget Corey,” she said. “He is one of the most curious and relentless reporters I have ever met.”
Klibanoff said he is extremely proud that Johnson fulfilled the promise he saw in him in 2004.
“I saw in Corey an indefatigable worker,” he said. “He would stop at nothing in pursuit of information and he had terrific instincts for what information he needed for a story.”
Klibanoff, who co-wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” helped open the doors to journalism training and Johnson’s first reporting job.
“He did great work in Greenville and got hired away by the Fayetteville paper,” he said. “When the California Watch was hiring, I recommended him.”
McIntosh said that Johnson just wanted to be a reporter when she met him and that he was willing to go to small papers and do the work.
“He is a great example of the persistence it takes to make a great reporter,” she said.
Even before the first story in the “On Shaky Ground” series was published, Johnson’s requests for documents had began to change policy in the state agency that monitors seismic safety.
The series ran in more than 150 news outlets across California and prompted measures that will better prepare schoolchildren for the next big earthquake.
In the 19 months that he worked on the stories, Johnson, who joined California Watch as an education reporter after two years at the Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina, combed through 30,000 documents – reports, e-mails and spreadsheets – and emerged as one of the state’s most knowledgeable experts on state oversight of seismic safety in California public schools.
In the letter to the Scripps Howard judges, Mark Katches, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, said that with his fresh eye, Johnson, saw what scores of reporters had overlooked for decades and went on to detail a staggering breakdown in the way California protects children and teachers from the threat of a major earthquake.
“We found that thousands of school buildings were being occupied even though they did not meet seismic safety requirements,” Katches wrote. “Bad inspectors missed major defects or falsified reports – while being rewarded with more work.”
To get the story, Johnson became a virtual embed inside the state architect’s offices. He spent months sifting through long-forgotten documents and used a hand truck to move around 30 boxes of case files.
Katches said all the detailed work paid off.
“We identified schools with missing wall anchors, dangerous lights poised above children, poor welding, slipshod emergency exits and malfunctioning fire alarms,” he said. “All these problems had been red-flagged by regulators and then lost in a swamp of paperwork. In many cases, local school officials overlooked warning signs in a race to complete new facilities during an unprecedented school building boom. It was a dangerous roll of the dice.”
The series is also a strong contender for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, which will be announced in April.
Johnson said Wednesday from his office in Sacramento that when he began, he had no idea what he would find.
“I just began asking questions,” he said.
Of course, the people getting paid millions of dollars and skirting state regulations did not want to talk to him.
“A lot of spinning was going on,” he said. “It was very difficult to decipher the tea leaves.”
Johnson said Wednesday that he is extremely pleased with the aftermath of the series.
“Before the stories even came out, the agency began making changes,” he said. “When they searched the data and found more than 20,000 school projects had never complied with the laws, they started taking action.”
An inspiration to students
Before high school, Johnson attended Flat Shoals Elementary School in Decatur and what was then McNair Junior High School.
Gil Turman, who was principal at McNair Junior High when Johnson was a student, said his success shows that even kids who don’t go to “elite” schools can do elite work. He said Johnson was a very conscientious student and that his mother was very involved in his education and the school.
Before he found his journalism feet, Johnson was a substitute teacher for DeKalb Schools for a year.
Turman said he is extremely proud of his former student.
“He has risen to the top of his profession because of positive influence, great direction and quality education,” he said.
Turman said Johnson’s accomplishment will be an inspiration current McNair students.
“To know that there is a graduate of their school who is achieving as he is will say to them that they can do the same,” Turman said.
In January, “On Shaky Ground” was voted a likely contender for a 2012 Pulitzer Prize by reporters nationwide.
Johnson said he is not allowing any of that to go to his head.
“I never had my mind on being in the running for something like this,” he said. “But when you get positive feedback, it really feels good.”