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Mission & State's Former Editor Speaks Out
updated: Jul 24, 2014, 3:37 PM

By Joe Donnelly

I was saddened by the announcement on Tuesday that Mission and State was coming to an end many months and hundreds of thousands of dollars before it should have. That the announcement came on the same day Judge Colleen Sterne denied the city's proposed gang-injunction is a bittersweet irony I'll get to.

I was the founding executive editor of Mission and State. It was an honor to have been selected to start up this noble enterprise and I was even more honored to work alongside the dedicated and passionate journalists I had the pleasure of working with during my tenure, which came to an abrupt end early last March.

I can assure you, everyone who worked with me approached his or her job with the utmost integrity. It is mostly for them, their work, and their legacy, that I feel compelled to address the onslaught of unchallenged misinformation regarding Mission and State, at least as I knew it.

The first thing I want to put to rest is the narrative of failure being foisted onto the community. Publicly circulated attempts to justify the missteps regarding the disposition of Mission and State and to spin its demise in recent news accounts have explicitly or implicitly trafficked in the notion that Mission and State wasn't meeting its objectives, was "burning" through its budget, that "radical action" was need to save it from failure, that the Knight Foundation had pulled its funding, etc.

This narrative isn't accurate or fair and belies the hard work and commitment of the journalists who strived to make a difference with Mission and State.

Despite what you may have heard or read, the Knight Foundation had funded Mission and State for two years contingent upon local matching funds, a challenge that Santa Barbara commendably met. That funding wasn't in question until the recent attempt by the Santa Barbara Foundation to offload the project. It's also worth noting that the Knight Foundation, according to a report made at an advisory board meeting last fall, was extremely happy with Mission and State's initial direction and progress. Peer associations such as The Investigative News Network also lauded Mission and State as a model for nonprofit, multimedia digital journalism.

You may have also read that Mission and State was recklessly burning through its budget. Nothing could be further from the truth. The project came in under budget in year one and was operating well below the allotted budget for year two when I left. From what I understand, there is still more than half this year's budget untapped as of Tuesday's announcement that the project was shuttering.

Another red herring that's been tossed out there is that Mission and State had failed to achieve sustainability. Sustainability beyond the two-year Knight Foundation commitment and community match was a primary responsibility of the advisory board, though it never acted on this duty despite being urged to do so and despite funds being slotted for a development director.

We should also keep in mind that the people and entities contributing to Mission and State didn't donate funds to be used some day, for some thing. They funded a specific project for a specific period of time with the charge that excellent, narrative journalism be pursued during that time. Former managing editor Phuong-Cac Nguyen and I respected these commitments and took that mission seriously.

It has also been suggested that Mission and State failed in its objective to collaborate with other media. The Mission and State I knew made every conceivable effort to collaborate with local media. Mission and State "1.0" as its initial incarnation has been called, had an arrangement with the Sentinel and Casa that placed stories in those publications on a nearly weekly basis. Casa published our work in English and Spanish. At the time of my dismissal, we were planning to put the entire Mission and State/Casa collaboration in an archive available on both websites.

We placed several significant stories with Noozhawk and The Independent, both of whose participation I solicited regularly and with whom we were increasingly finding ways to collaborate. We collaborated with Pacific Coast Business Times on several occasions and were exploring further investigations into stories of mutual interest. On Edhat, our stories were among the most frequently posted and commented on. As far as local radio goes, Mission and State reporters made several key appearances on KCLU during my tenure. Early in the year, we discussed an ongoing partnership with KCBX news director Randol White, leading to one of our reporters recent on-air discussion of her excellent oil-industry coverage, the first of what was meant to be many such collaborations. We had an ongoing collaboration with KDB before it was sold and had been discussing ways to work together with Jennifer Ferro, KCRW's general manager, before the station had even made an offer on KDB.

We not only placed stories with, or collaborated with, every available local media, we also did community- based collaborations with Brooks Institute, UCSB and Antioch including energetic, well-attended forums on pro bono legal services and homelessness. More was in the works. Not a bad track record for the eight months Mission and State had been publishing by the time I was let go.

In my final month at Mission and State, the site had nearly 14,000 visits with 23,000 page views, according to Google Analytics. These numbers had been trending up for several months and while they certainly wouldn't scare The Huffington Post, they were much admired by peers in our community-based nonprofit segment, especially considering our ripe-young age and that our in-depth stories demanded significant time and attention from readers.

A reader survey undertaken just before my exit indicated a high-degree of community support for what we were doing as did the average length of time spent on our stories, which well exceeded the industry norm. More important were the hundreds of comments on stories posted our website and the hundreds more generated when our stories appeared on Edhat, comments that attest to the civic spirit of Santa Barbara and the resonating spirit of our work.

The ginned-up narrative of failure does a disservice to that spirit, to the journalists who dreamed up this enterprise to serve an underserved community and to those who made a difference during Mission and State's too-brief run by helping to stir up energy, discussion, and sometimes outrage over such issues as oil-company mischief, public safety, the county jail system, water use, homelessness, environmental degradation, growth and development, transportation, healthcare, education… it goes on.

Mission and State wasn't perfect, no start up is, but objective evidence would support the idea that it was on the right track and really starting to hit its stride when a series of unfortunate decisions led to this point.

I was particularly proud of our coverage of the proposed gang injunction. We played a critical role in getting that issue in front of the public, despite the pushback we got for doing so. As councilwoman Cathy Murillo commented on a social-media post about Judge Sterne's decision to deny the measure, "The coverage from Mission and State brought the subject into the light. The public needed to understand the injunction and its ramifications. So unfortunate that it was mostly discussed in closed session for many months. ... M&S coverage of other issues also to be celebrated! Much to be proud of!"

Indeed. I'm sure a perusal of the excellent work by former Mission and State journalists such as Phuong- Cac Nguyen, Alex Kacik, Sam Slovick, Melinda Burns, Karen Pelland, Yvette Cabrera, Erin Lennon, Natalie Cherot, Kathleen Reddington, Daryl Kelley, Laura Bertocci, Jeff Wing, Joshua Molina and others will bear that out.

I would hope that a small portion of remaining Mission and State funds could be used to keep this legacy of success alive in a digital archive so that future attempts at this sort of community-based, nonprofit journalism, which is surely going play a growing role in journalism, can learn and be inspired by the fantastic model Santa Barbara contributed with Mission and State.

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