Mission & State, an in-depth, nonprofit local journalism initiative, was launched last year in Santa Barbara with high hopes and two years of funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Santa Barbara Foundation and a number of other local foundations and donors.
Startup ventures are notoriously difficult to pull off, and this was no exception. Although the concept was intriguing, the execution wasn’t working. Noozhawk was hired to manage the project, effective June 1. Earlier this week, the Santa Barbara Foundation announced Mission & State’s termination, which came amid implacable opposition from a handful of Noozhawk’s competitors.
After reading the histrionic denunciations that were being spammed around town for the better part of three weeks, I was starting to hate on Noozhawk myself! But then I remembered I had actually written the management proposal, and it was nothing at all like some media’s mischaracterizations.
For the benefit of our readers, I thought I would share Noozhawk’s same vision and plan for Mission & State that I patiently had explained to most of the local news media.
First, a few things to keep in mind:
» Noozhawk was not “given” Mission & State. We approached the Santa Barbara Foundation and the Mission & State advisory committee with a proposal to try to salvage it. After weeks of discussions, and with a unanimous vote of the advisory committee, we were hired to manage it.
» Noozhawk was not given “a pile of money.” We were to receive a very minimal management fee to cover Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton’s work as editor of Mission & State, but the rest of the allocated funding was restricted to the project itself.
» Noozhawk was not a grantee, which in the nonprofit world can sometimes result in lax accountability. We were hired as a vendor, with a contract stipulating the requirements and deliverables expected of us. Although our budget plan sought to stretch Mission & State’s remaining funding over a 32-month period, the contract was for one year. If we didn’t perform — even prior to 12 months — we could be fired.
» Noozhawk fully intended to use its own reporters where possible, but we didn’t then and never would have the staffing to use our reporters exclusively. To claim otherwise is nonsense.
» A partnership between a for-profit news organization and nonprofits and/or foundations is not “highly suspicious.” In fact, it’s quite common — even in Santa Barbara County.
The Ford Foundation made sizable media grants to two of the country’s most influential for-profit newspapers. The nonprofit Oklahoma Watch’s relationship with for-profit media is critical to its success in that state. One of the most cohesive collaborations seems to be the nonprofit Lens Nola and the for-profit WVUE-TV in New Orleans. The former is based in the latter’s news room.
In analyzing Mission & State’s performance, my partners, Tom Bolton and Kim Clark, and I determined there were four deficiencies that needed to be addressed immediately:
Among the myriad challenges of in-depth, investigative journalism is that it’s time-intensive. Throw in the Internet’s insatiable appetite for fresh content and it doesn’t take long to fall behind. Our plan was to have three tiers of content under way simultaneously:
» Quarterly in-depth projects on major community issues, incorporating multimedia elements, data analysis, interactivity and public engagement. These projects would be serialized over two to three weeks for maximum impact. Public forums, discussions and virtual town halls could provide additional community access.
» Shorter, multisource stories exploring a more narrowly defined aspect of local community issues published as single stories or on consecutive days with a frequency of every two weeks.
» Weekly enterprise stories taking a more in-depth look at a top story of the previous week. Local news operations rarely can go back and dig deeper into a topic, even though traffic indicates intense interest in the subject. These stories would give readers new reasons to engage on issues that already had captured their attention.
Let’s be candid: If Mission & State wasn’t being confused with an intersection on the Upper Eastside, it was misidentified as a long-closed downtown bar and grill. Somehow we needed to get more community awareness, and fast.
Noozhawk would provide a major presence for Mission & State on our website, where we knew people would actually see it. We had hoped to enlist partners from other media to do the same.
The Mission & State website would remain online but we believed brand awareness was a more productive strategy — and would position Mission & State to be more supportive of collaborators and less of a competitor.
Volume and visibility provide a compelling pitch for potential sponsors and donors. We like making those asks. Meeting benchmarks and delivering on project objectives might even compel national funders to consider additional backing for Mission & State. Given such a sizable startup investment, however, to have no plan to attain sustainability was as irresponsible as it was astonishing.
We actually had the highest hopes for collaboration, and were thrilled to have as our foundation the enthusiastic commitment from KEYT and its KCOY and KKFX affiliates — also known as Santa Barbara County’s largest news operation. Both the Santa Maria Sun and the Santa Maria Times also had signaled their interest, although the Times initially was opposed. Even the Daily Nexus at UC Santa Barbara was in.
Our plan was to work with local news media and their platforms, enlisting them to cover in-depth issues from the perspectives and interests of their own established audiences.
By using their own journalists and their own story ideas and their own formats, in collaboration with the Mission & State project, the Mission & State brand would begin to develop a positive identity that would be associated with the endorsement, strength and reach of the media partners.
Mission & State would pay for the content on a freelance basis, but the originating news organizations could “break” their stories themselves, with the understanding that afterward they would appear on missionandstate.org and be offered to other interested media.
For smaller news organizations that might not have the capacity to undertake projects on their own, we thought they could be invited to submit requests that Mission & State could do for them. They would have the benefit of “commissioning” a story without having to pay for it.
We believed the arrangement removed a key obstacle largely overlooked in the initial Mission & State model: pushback from partnering organizations’ sales staffs.
Media sales representatives are not interested in selling someone else’s content; they believe their own product is superior. Under this framework, they would be selling their own material — literally.
So, in addition to being paid by Mission & State to produce unique in-depth content for their own publications, those publications would retain the ability to sell advertising around that same content. I call that a revenue stream.
As I mentioned, I had made this pitch personally to more than a dozen local news organizations, including all but one of the grand total of six that attended the Santa Barbara Foundation’s community forum. At that meeting, only one news executive — KEYT general manager Mark Danielson — spoke in favor of the Noozhawk plan. He was ignored.
The rest were adamantly opposed, although the professed reasons rang hollow and unimaginative. It was an extraordinary display, though, complete with hissing, gasps and liberal use of the F-word — you know, the quintessential Santa Barbara epithet: “for-profit.”
It’s unfortunate that our competitors couldn’t wrap their heads around this innovative concept. Try as we might, we were unable to convince them to even give it a brief trial period to let us prove the legitimacy of this new era of news and how they would benefit themselves.
I’m disappointed for our community; it deserved better. I’m disappointed for Mission & State’s first-class reporter, Josh Molina, who is a far better investigative journalist than is often found in a media market of our size. I’m disappointed for the other top-notch reporters who had expressed an interest in participating with Mission & State, including several at publications opposed to the project. I’m disappointed for the Santa Barbara and Knight foundations, which invested an enormous amount of time and resources — in good faith — to make this concept work.
What I’m not disappointed about is Noozhawk’s effort. My partners and I saw a problem and we provided a solution. Given the limited time and funding remaining, we might not have been able to get Mission & State to sustainability. But we have no doubt we would have gotten it close, at which point the community would have been able to fairly evaluate whether it deserved to live or to die. We’ll never know who was correct, will we?
So what’s next for Noozhawk? With no artificial distraction to divert our attention, we go back to delivering the freshest news in Santa Barbara. And now Santa Maria.
We’ve been experiencing rapid growth in both readership and revenue the last couple of years. Kim Clark’s sales and marketing strategies have enabled Noozhawk to capitalize on our skyrocketing traffic. Under Tom Bolton’s direction, the news team has continually sharpened its focus while becoming even more efficient with our resources.
Our strategic partnerships with KEYT, the San Luis Obispo Tribune and the Ventura County Star have been invaluable, as have our relationships with student journalists at local high schools, especially The Charger Account at Dos Pueblos High.
We anticipate continued expansion in 2014, which already has seen the addition of Janene Scully as our Santa Maria Valley-based North County editor. We intend to use Josh Molina as often as we can until we can figure out how to bring him into the Noozhawk nest full time.
Finally, we’ll continue to pursue pioneering ideas and projects that enhance our community and help keep Noozhawk in the vanguard of next-generation local news. It’s a tumultuous time to be in the business, but there’s never been a more exciting one.
On behalf of my partners, Tom Bolton and Kim Clark, and all of Team Noozhawk, we thank you again for entrusting us with your local news, and for your enthusiastic support and encouragement.
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There were 71,372 people who read Noozhawk this past week. I’ve already taken up too much of your time with “long-form journalism” today, so let’s just blow through this week’s top stories.
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Wave rage in New Zealand.
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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.