[Noozhawk’s note: This article is part of Noozhawk’s 12-day, six-week special investigative series, Prescription for Abuse. Related links are below.]

At a fundamental level, a person’s health decides whether he or she will live or die.

Health journalism by extension plays a central role by influencing important policy decisions and making sure the personal stories aren’t lost in the medical jargon, said Michelle Levander, director of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

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The partnership between the Annenberg School and The California Endowment, the state’s largest health foundation, is training professional journalists to bring health journalism back into the daily coverage of their local communities.

“Health is a local story,” Levander said. “People get sick or do well partly based on the conditions of the place they live in, the food they eat and the jobs they have, and they receive their medical care from local institutions.”

Noozhawk was selected for one of 10 2011 California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships in March. For its project, Noozhawk reporters have been researching and reporting on the misuse and abuse of prescription medications in Santa Barbara County.

Levander said her program recognized that the changing news business meant more people are getting their information online.

“Traditional newsrooms are getting smaller and that’s created opportunity for news sites like Noozhawk to fill in some gaps,” she said.

Michelle Levander

Michelle Levander

Noozhawk was selected as a fellow because of its well-researched proposal, capability to take on ambitious projects and established position as an important news source in Santa Barbara, Levander said.

Such partnerships can help revitalize the field of health journalism, said Jon Funabiki, executive director of San Francisco State University’s Renaissance Journalism Center, itself a partner with the Annenberg School in the Health Journalism Fellowships program.

“These special programs can fill the vacuum in journalism,” he said. “We’re seeing many kinds of new reporting projects and innovation, and how hyperlocal news outlets can bring a special perspective.”

USC’s program has its fellows attend training sessions where they learn how to better report on health with the help of veteran journalists in the field. Noozhawk was paired with senior fellows Mark Taylor, a co-founder for the Association of Health Care Journalists, and Susan Mernit, founder and publisher of Oakland Local.

“If I can help make others better at what they do, I think that’s a very noble goal,” Taylor said.

Taylor said his role in helping Noozhawk was minimal because it was more advanced and self-motivated than some of the other online fellows with whom he has worked. Bill Macfadyen, Noozhawk’s founder and publisher, is a veteran professional newsman with extensive connections in both the news media and Santa Barbara, and his staff includes four experienced full-time journalists.

Noozhawk was assisted in its data analysis by Frank Bass, the Bloomberg News data editor who shared the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for General News Reporting that the then-Alabama Journal in Montgomery, Ala., earned for a series on the state’s infant mortality rates. Sean Connelley, a design technologist for San Francisco-based Stamen Design and a Flash producer for the Los Angeles Times, also played a role.

The $3 billion California Endowment was created when Blue Cross became a for-profit health-care corporation in 1996. Its tax credits and assets were used to fund the endowment and it largely uses its annual $150 million budget to provide grants to health-care institutions in under-served neighborhoods, program manager Mary Lou Fulton said.

“We want to make sure that health stays in the public spotlight,” Fulton said.

More than 500 journalists have gone through USC’s program since the endowment made its first investment in 2005.

Despite being an information-hungry industry, the news business has little funding for ongoing training of its professionals, Levander said. She added that many operators of local news sites do not have journalism degrees or even professional experience in the field.

“As the years have gone by since our program was started, it has become clear that if anything the needs for professional education are greater than when we started,” she said.

The news media’s tumultuous current environment of transition is forcing journalists to adopt a new perspective, Funabiki said.

“I think the silver lining in the crisis facing journalism is it has made journalists become much more open to new ideas, experiences and different kinds of relationships with nonprofit organizations and the community,” he said.

The goal is to have quality journalism and new technology create an innovative two-way dialogue between journalists and their readers on health-related issues.

Jon Funabiki

Jon Funabiki

“I’m really hoping that the people involved in these types of projects promote great discussions about issues and concerns in their community that can affect policy and make a difference,” Levander said.

There are nine other independent news sites involved in Annenberg’s Class of 2011.

» The Homeless in Santa Barbara blog, published by founder and editor Isabelle Walker, is writing about what happens to homeless people after they are discharged from a hospital or emergency room.

» Led by founder and editor Elizabeth Larson, Lakeport’s Lake County News is producing a series on Lakeport County’s primary health concerns, based on information from the 2010 Lake County Health Needs Assessment, the 2010 Census and research by a variety of other organizations.

» Damien Newton, founder and editor of LA.StreetsBlog.org in Los Angeles, is examining the progress of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Policies for Livable, Active, Communities and Environments (PLACE) Program. Click here for the L.A. Streets Blog series.

» Leimert Park Beat founder and publisher Eddie North-Hager is writing about the ties between safe places in a community and emotional and physical health. The project will produce reasons for the lack of parks and open spaces in South Los Angeles, the consequences for residents’ health and efforts to increase recreational options.

» Brandy Tuzon Boyd, founder and editor of NatomasBuzz.com, is examining efforts to promote walking and biking in suburban Sacramento.

» San Francisco’s SF Public Press, led by founder and editor Michael Stoll, is looking at the track record of a city-sponsored health care program called Healthy San Francisco.

» Maria Gaura and Tara Leonard, co-founders and editors of SantaCruzWire.com, are exploring attempts by Monterey County foodbanks to confront malnutrition and transform food aid for the poor. Click here for the Santa Cruz Wire series.

» Way Out West, led by co-editor and founding partner Victoria Schlesinger, is analyzing how the Bay Area is affected by the implementation of California’s pioneering 2007 Green Chemistry Initiative to regulate the chemicals in consumer and commercial products.

» Pascale Fusshoeller, co-founder and editor of YubaNet.com in Nevada City, analyzed the health effects of ozone and particulate matter pollution in the Sierra Nevada, with an emphasis on wildfire.

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Noozhawk staff writers Daniel Langhorne and Alex Kacik can be reached at dlanghorne@noozhawk.com and akacik@noozhawk.com, respectively. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.