Changes are afoot at Mission & State, a nonprofit news website covering Santa Barbara County that launched in June 2013 with a focus on long-form, multimedia journalism. Its executive editor, Joe Donnelly, is stepping down, and Josh Molina — who previously worked for the Santa Barbra News-Press and The Daily Sound — has been hired as a staff reporter. Managing editor Phuong-Cac Nguyen will take over as interim executive editor until a permanent replacement is found.

Mission & State, which operates under the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, secured $1 million in funding through a two-year $500,000 matching grant from the Miami-based Knight Foundation. The original grant was awarded in October 2012, and funds are distributed quarterly through the Santa Barbara Foundation, which helped secure donors and contributed money of its own. A total of $625,000 has been distributed so far.

Mission & State boardmember Steve Ainsley said no decision has been made if another round of Knight Foundation funding will be sought when the current one expires in October 2014. Ainsley said he wouldn’t go into details on Donnelly’s departure or Mission & State’s future, and Jan Campbell with The Santa Barbara Foundation declined to comment for this story. Calls and emails to the Knight Foundation were not returned.

Donnelly, a former deputy editor for L.A. Weekly, said he is leaving his post voluntarily and will stay on board until the end of the month to help with the transition. “It’s all been amicable,” he said. “There’s no hurry, no push out the door.” Donnelly said he made the decision because his wife is about to give birth to their first child and because he felt his salary was over-burdening Mission & State‘s budget. “In my mind, I’m eating too much of it,” he explained. “The heavy lifting has mostly been done, so now is a good time for me to transition out and let the resources be used differently.”

Donnelly said he’s proud of the work he and Mission & State have produced and that the news outlet has “built a really solid track record and earned a lot of trust in the community and among readers.” He pointed to their coverage of oil and political issues and said the website’s “Homeless Blog” has received national attention. Donnelly said he’s perhaps most pleased with Mission & State‘s coverage of the proposed gang injunction. “I personally think it’s a bad policy, and we’ve shined a spotlight on the issue,” he said.

Looking ahead, Donnelly said he expects the site — which launched in June 2013 and is headquartered in Old Town Goleta — to focus more of its attention on the South Coast rather than North County and “identify core areas of coverage.” He admitted the organization has faced the typical challenges that come with starting an online publication but said they’re “doing well” overall. “The Internet is an infinite space, so getting enough gravity to attract bodies to you isn’t easy,” he explained. “Our readership isn’t huge, but it’s deep, and it’s getting bigger.” Donnelly said a budgetary shift toward development and away from editorial is likely in the works, noting a recent reduction in reporter staffing.

Donnelly said he’ll take his upcoming free time to focus on a couple of possible book deals and relocating his growing family closer to relatives in Orange County. He said he couldn’t have been happier with his experience at Mission & State. “It offered the kind of journalism that I really like,” he said. “It breeds empathy not just web traffic.” He said he’s confident the nonprofit’s board will figure out how to keep the website operating in the future. “But if it’s not as good down the road as it is now,” he said with a laugh, “they’ll hear from me.”

For his part, Molina — who was working as a press spokesperson for Assemblymember Das Williams until Monday and started at Mission & State on Tuesday — said he’s looking forward to reporting and writing news again. He said he’ll likely focus on education issues on top of covering general assignment beats. Molina — one of the outlet’s two remaining reporters — said that while he loved his years at daily papers, filing multiple pieces a day and getting a good grasp of journalism, he’s happy to have a job that will let him dig deeper into stories. “I’m hopeful that I can have a long career here,” he said. “I want to be a journalist. It’s a bit of a risk for me, but I want to follow my heart.”


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