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Bill Macfadyen: Noozhawk Earns a USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowship

We're excited to announce a project examining the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs in our community

One year ago, a 46-year-old Santa Maria man died while in restraints at a Santa Barbara County psychiatric health facility. Noozhawk has been a lone voice reporting on local mental health issues and was quickly tipped about the story.

During our own investigation of the incident, we scrutinized county Coroner’s Bureau data on alcohol- and drug-related deaths from 2008 and 2009, and we discovered several common threads unrelated to our original story. In addition to alcohol and marijuana, the reports revealed a preponderance of prescription drugs, nearly all used to treat anxiety or as painkillers. The information was as intriguing as it was sobering, but we have a small staff and determined that resources weren’t available to pursue the prescription drugs story at that time. We had an intern put the data into a spreadsheet, and shelved it.

Early this year, however, we were invited by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism to apply for a prestigious health journalism fellowship offered in partnership with the Renaissance Journalism Center at San Francisco State University. It was a tremendous opportunity for us so we set about trying to decide on a project that might most benefit our community.

I talked to several dozen people in health care, education, social services, treatment and addiction, law enforcement and insurance, as well as elected officials and top civic leaders, and received a wealth of advice and fantastic suggestions. Meanwhile, our staff was doing its own research. In the end, we kept bouncing back to prescription drugs, which is the project we proposed.

Late last month, we were notified that we had been selected as one of 10 recipients of a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship.

To say we’re excited is an understatement. Noozhawk is on a quest to figure out how to make professional online local news viable and sustainable and, as a result, we’re usually off scouting well ahead of the herd of what I like to call Fossil Media. But it’s satisfying and gratifying to be recognized for our work by colleagues in professional journalism. To have access to and assistance from the considerable resources and expertise of the Annenberg School and the Renaissance Journalism Center make it that much sweeter.

For competitive reasons, we’ll decline to reveal too much about our project at this time. The misuse and abuse of prescription drugs is a growing epidemic in our community — and our country — and we intend to determine the scope of the problem locally and to identify ways we can fix it. As always with Noozhawk, we’ll be striving to create partnerships and collaborations to leverage our opportunity into a much larger undertaking. We’re gratified to have also earned the confidence and respect of our community, which we think will be excited to participate.

Reporters Lara Cooper and Giana Magnoli, along with managing editor Michelle Nelson, will be doing the bulk of the work, while I’ll be trying not to get in the way. With most of our company projects, we like to involve everyone down to our interns so the entire team can share in the credit. And speaking of interns, if you or someone you know, are interested in a summer internship or one involving this project, please email me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

At Annenberg, we’ll be joining nine other Fellows from the online journalism world — some larger, some smaller, some for-profit, some nonprofit, but all of them with a record of first-rate reporting projects behind them and a commitment to chronicling the health of their own communities ahead of them.

Those selected for the program are a fellow Santa Barbaran, Isabelle Walker, founder and editor of the Homeless in Santa Barbara blog; Pascale Fusshoeller, co-founder and editor of in Nevada City; Maria Gaura and Tara Leonard, two of the three founding editors of; my friend, Elizabeth Larson, founder and editor of Lakeport’s Lake County News; Damien Newton, founder and editor of in Los Angeles; Eddie North-Hager, founder and publisher of Los Angeles’ Leimert Park Beat; Victoria Schlesinger, co-editor and founding partner of Way Out West, which covers environmental issues in the Bay Area; Michael Stoll, founder and editor of San Francisco’s SF Public Press; and Brandy Tuzon Boyd, founder and editor of in Sacramento.

You’ll be hearing more about Noozhawk’s prescription drugs project as the parameters take shape. Our first Annenberg session is at the end of the month and we expect to launch the enterprise later this year.

In the meantime, you may be wondering what happened to another ambitious Noozhawk venture, our Santa Barbara Challenge. For those who need their memories jogged, it’s the public-engagement project on the city of Santa Barbara’s budget that we’re conducting with the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy in Malibu. Believe it or not, that will be making its long-anticipated debut next week. I think.

Thank you for all of your support and enthusiasm for us. We think Noozhawk is uniquely suited to play a leading and innovative role in reporting on Santa Barbara, Goleta and the South Coast, with a depth not seen in a long time. With your help and involvement, we are making that difference.

Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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