Nonprofit journalism on the American Riviera

Starting an in-depth news operation from scratch can have its ups and downs, even in paradise

SANTA BARBARA — It was June 2009, and the Santa Barbara News-Press imbroglio that had begun three years earlier was still playing out. A panel discussion on the future of journalism in Santa Barbara drew an audience of some 200 people, but a fair amount of the discussion focused not on the future but the past, particularly as it related to News-Press owner Wendy McCaw. McCaw’s stewardship of that daily—which included an exodus of editors sparked by what they viewed as McCaw’s inappropriate intrusions into journalistic decision-making—had made national news, in part because one of the intrusions involved a story about former West Wing star Rob Lowe’s efforts to build a possibly over-large house in the tony community of Montecito. A unionization dispute at the paper and several lawsuits subsequently roiled the waters over an extended period of time; local emotions continued to run high.

But if the journalistic past was occasionally present, this was the rare future-of-journalism panel discussion: It actually had an effect on the future. In its wake, a group of five local journalists met over the course of three years, creating plans to improve in-depth reporting in Santa Barbara. The first of those plans—to obtain grant funding for an investigative reporter or two who would work at an existing Santa Barbara publication, presumably the well-established alternative weekly, the Santa Barbara Independent—foundered. A subsequent effort, supported in part by $40,000 in local seed money, saw success in 2012, when the initiative won a two-year, $500,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, to be matched by the Santa Barbara Foundation and other local sources.

The result of these years of effort is Mission & State, a digital publication that offers “narrative journalism from the heart of Santa Barbara.” (Disclosure: Mission & State operates under the umbrella of the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy. I previously worked as editor of a magazine published by the center.) Mission & State (a reference to major streets that intersect somewhere near the center of Santa Barbara) went live early in June, under the direction of Executive Editor Joe Donnelly, a veteran journalist whose recent efforts include founding the well-regarded long-form journal Slake: Los Angeles and serving as deputy editor of LA Weekly. In its first three-plus months of publishing, the site has managed to illustrate much of the promise and a few of the difficulties involved in creating a nonprofit in-depth journalism enterprise in a small market. (The Census Bureau says Santa Barbara County is home to about 431,000 people; the city of Santa Barbara has just 90,000 of them.)

On the promise side, Mission & State is visually striking, its design far less cluttered and more magazine-like than is often the case for local news websites. The relatively small staff, which includes only three full-time writers, has clearly worked hard, producing dozens of stories and a significant contingent of video and multimedia pieces. Donnelly believes Mission & State has shown that even a small staff can produce online news that looks good, reads well, and includes multimedia. “Just because it’s community-based doesn’t mean it has to be second-class,” he says.

Indeed, the general run of Mission & State work is quite professional, and several of the site’s in-depth efforts stand up, in overall quality terms, with the better work being done at far larger outlets. A package on Santa Barbara’s outsized but relatively little-known role in the child sex abuse scandal that roiled the Catholic Church, for example, tells its story ably, not just in a cleanly written narrative, but also through a series of videos and an interactive timeline that details the amazing scope of the priestly predation that occurred, as the main article suggests, “in the shadow of the Old Mission” in Santa Barbara. A recent explanatory piece, “Where Have All the Lawyers Gone?”, makes a solid argument that the legal community in moneyed Santa Barbara hasn’t (by any stretch of the imagination) been living up to its responsibility to provide pro bono legal services to the poor. The legal story has been picked up or followed by several organizations, including the Pacific Coast Business Times. And both of these pieces sparked interviews on local public radio.

At the same time, some Mission & State offerings—including a recent analysis of the “meaning of Chelsea Manning,” the new female identity of convicted military secrets leaker Bradley Manning—have sparked head-scratching among some Santa Barbarans who wonder why such ruminations appear in a publication supposedly dedicated to in-depth local journalism. Just an hour and a half up US 101 from Hollywood, Santa Barbara is certainly worldly enough to care about news beyond its borders. Whether Mission & State will gain traction with such feature-oriented, non-local fare is, however, an open question.

Beyond the journalism itself, Mission & State has struggled a bit with a question all nonprofit news start-ups must answer: How will the site’s work be distributed? At least initially, the site was expected to produce long-form enterprise journalism that other outlets were not providing, and then share the articles for free or at fairly low cost. It’s a model that larger news nonprofits like ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Texas Tribune have had success with.

But Santa Barbara is a small city that can feel (and behave) like a small town, and so far, Santa Barbara’s larger news outlets and the journalistic newcomer do not seem to be playing well together.

Donnelly says that the model used by news nonprofits that serve statewide or national markets full of potential news partners doesn’t really apply to Santa Barbara, where there are limited partnership opportunities. Although he’s open to the possibility, Donnelly says he doesn’t see attempts to share stories with the News-Press as likely to have much chance of success, given the history of the founding of Mission & State. (Emails to News-Press officials seeking an interview went unanswered.) And so far, discussions with the weekly Independent have been cordial but unproductive. “We just haven’t found anything yet that makes sense,” Donnelly says.

Independent Editor in Chief Marianne Partridge says that she and Donnelly have lunched, but “I’m not yet clear on what their actual mission is.” She says she has asked her staff to let her know if they see something on the Mission & State site that would work for the Independent. “At this point, it is not useful to us,” she says. “But it may be [in the future].”

Hap Freund was among the original organizers of the effort that became Mission & State and is on the site’s advisory board. When asked about collaboration, Freund chuckled, noting that “it’s not a one way street. You have to have someone who wants to collaborate with you.”

If the distribution situation remains fluid, Mission & State appears to be on reasonably firm financial ground. Freund says he doesn’t foresee a problem in finalizing the $250,000 in local matching funds for the 2014 installment of the Knight grant. Thereafter, he says, the goal will be to increase community support to take the place of an anticipated decline in foundation support. “We have over a year to make that case,” he says.

With its cadre of billionaire and multimillionaire philanthropists, stunning seaside beauty, and contentious journalistic history, Santa Barbara is hardly a typical small media market. But the Mission & State story does provide a takeaway for others interested in creating a nonprofit news organization of modest size: Persistence pays. Correspondent Melinda Burns, a former News-Press writer who spearheaded much of the effort to create a news nonprofit in Santa Barbara, notes that she and four other Santa Barbara journalists worked for two and a half years to get local foundation support for a Santa Barbara news nonprofit—only to have local philanthropists reject their proposal and tell them to come back with the “bigger idea” that is only now taking shape as Mission & State.

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John Mecklin is the California and Nevada correspondent for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. He is the deputy editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @meckdevil. Tags: , , , , , ,