behind the news

Santa Barbara is getting a nonprofit investigative newsroom

A Knight grant is funding the launch of a new journalism initiative
October 16, 2012

A few years ago, a small team of journalists based in Santa Barbara, CA, starting sharing ideas on how address a gap in investigative coverage in their hometown. Now that gap is about to be filled thanks to a two-year, $500,000 matching grant from the Knight Foundation. Next year the Santa Barbara Journalism Initiative will launch the city’s first nonprofit, investigative news organization working alongside existing outlets to enrich journalism there.

“This is an engaged community, and there’s a media mix here,” said Abe Peck, a professor emeritus of journalism at Northwestern University who now serves on the search committee for SBJI’s first editor. “But for various reasons they just don’t have the wherewithal to follow a story through to its logical conclusion. Someone has to make sure that meaningful, in-depth journalism that makes a difference is sustainable. The idea is to provide enough horsepower to get those stories back into into the mix.”

Peck started talking with other journalists based in the Santa Barbara area about an initiative of this kind—a sort of locally based ProPublica—about three years ago. He teamed up with Warren Schultheis, who runs a local blog network called City 2.0, Melinda Burns, a former senior reporter at the Santa Barbara News-Press, Richard Flacks, a former professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, and Hap Freund, who used to head Santa Barbara Channels community television. Together they applied for seed money to fund the research that went into their Knight proposal.

The advisory committee anticipates that SBJI will produce annual enterprise pieces and monthly explanatory stories with shorter posts in between, though the exact structure of the initiative isn’t finalized. Kevin Davis, the CEO and executive director of the Investigative News Network of 64 nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative newsrooms, said that SBJI is part of a growing number of grant-funded, local partnerships springing up in cities around the US.

“The structure of focusing on issues that the local news organizations aren’t covering in depth, but working with them in partnership, is a model that we see throughout the network,” Davis said. “In the case of the Santa Barbara Initiative, they are taking a similar path to MinnPost, or Voice of San Diego, or even Texas Tribune.”

Once SBJI has an editor, it will work under the umbrella of another local nonprofit, the Miller McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. Steven Ainsley, a former publisher of the Boston Globe, will chair the new reporting initiative’s advisory committee.

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“The expectation is that so long as we’re successful in the first two years of the Knight Grant that we’ll be able to perpetuate it with community support beyond that,” Ainsley said.

The Knight Foundation’s matching grant requires the Santa Barbara Foundation, the nonprofit overseeing the launch, to match the amount offered in order to receive the cash. That’s an intentional move to get local funding for SBJI so that community groups are already invested in the initiative when Knight money runs out in two years, with the hope that they will continue their support, Davis said.

Community foundations that have already contributed to the SBJI include The Santa Barbara Foundation, the Fund for Santa Barbara, the James S. Bower Foundation, and the McCune Foundation.

The search committee is looking for an initial team of five journalists and have put out a call for applications for an executive editor, which they hope to appoint by early 2013.

Hazel Sheffield is a journalist and filmmaker based in London. She is a former CJR fellow and business editor of the Independent.