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How Mission & State became foundation’s Mission Impossible

By   /   Friday, July 18th, 2014  /   Comments Off

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Henry Dubroff

Henry Dubroff

It’s time to hit “pause” on the Santa Barbara Foundation’s Mission & State public-interest journalism project.

That’s not just my view. At a packed community meeting with representation from a half-dozen media organizations in the area, Lois Mitchell, president of The Orfalea Foundation, a program funder, urged the foundation to suspend a controversial contract that handed control of the nonprofit news initiative over to Noozhawk, an online news and aggregation site.

Prior to the July 15 meeting, 13 news organizations signed a letter stating the foundation’s goal of achieving local news collaboration is not viable so long as Noozhawk remains the gatekeeper and financial beneficiary. The program is “doomed,” Mitchell said, because other organizations won’t step up to collaborate with a competitor. The Business Times signed the letter and has indicated all along it would not be a party to an arrangement where it could not control the distribution of its journalism.

“I do believe without their peers’ and colleagues’ support of the collaborative concept, that Mission & State is headed for failure, as well as a waste of philanthropic funds,” Mitchell wrote in a follow-up email to me. “That is why I emphasized halting immediately, taking a publishing hiatus, and pausing with an openness to contemplate alternative structures and plans.”

Representatives from the Miller-McCune Center, also an early funder of Mission & State, were highly skeptical of the arrangement with Noozhawk. They dropped out of an advisory role when Noozhawk was handed a no-bid, privately negotiated grant whose initial payment for management fees and news operations was $67,000. About $300,000 remains of an original grant totaling $1 million. About half of the original funding came from the Knight Foundation as part of a nationwide effort to fund some 100 experimental community news initiatives.

In the middle of this media mashup is Ron Gallo, president and CEO of the Santa Barbara Foundation, who said he was blindsided by the negative reaction to the Noozhawk deal. “If I knew this was going to be the reaction I would have been the first to say, ‘whoa,’ ” he said at the meeting.

Several years ago, I was involved in informally helping Melinda Burns, a former Santa Barbara News-Press staff writer, launch a project whose vision was to seek funding for one or two investigative journalists to have a free hand to look into Santa Barbara County’s notoriously insular power structure and shake things up. Dick Flacks, a member of the original advisory committee, told the July 15 meeting that for the project to be viable, it needs to be guided by a “separate body that’s independent.” Burns added her voice to those calling for a pause or reset of the contract with Noozhawk, saying that it was never the goal to pit media interests against each other. And as Mitchell observed, if the Mission & State project is not supposed to be competitive with daily or weekly news organizations, there should be no reason not to suspend it until a better way can be found to invest the remaining $300,000.

One really good reason for the Santa Barbara Foundation to take the Mitchell plan seriously is that there is a ton of reputation risk for one of the region’s largest philanthropic organizations if it continues to alienate the media groups in the communities it is supposed to serve. A second reason is that Gallo and his team are spending management time that could otherwise be devoted to broader community problems such as early childhood education, homelessness in Santa Barbara and poverty and crime in Lompoc and Santa Maria, where the economy is not as strong as it is on the South Coast.

From the perspective of the Business Times, we enjoy collaborating with partners such as KCLU and KEYT, where the benefits are mutual and where we can extend our brand constructively. But like the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News and other financial publications, we want our best journalism to reside behind our digital paywall and in our print archives, for our loyal and paying subscribers to access. That means collaboration with a free news and aggregation website like Noozhawk is just not possible.

We’d encourage the Santa Barbara Foundation and Mission & State’s funders to consider a journalist-in-residence program, internship or fellowship program. Through such an initiative, Mission & State could enable each media organization to do work on its own public-interest reporting project, and  a voluntary advisory board could oversee the application process. That’s a model that has stood the test of time.

• Contact Henry Dubroff at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.

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