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Noozhawk's Annenberg Fellowship Was Just the Right Prescription for Us

Noozhawk's Annenberg Fellowship Was Just the Right Prescription for Us

Picture of Bill Macfadyen

As a scrappy Internet startup running on cash flow and ambition, Noozhawk has never shied from projects that can showcase our professionalism and understanding of our community. We viewed our Annenberg California Health Journalism fellowship as our biggest opportunity to date, and approached it as the statement venture that it was.

We had three objectives for Prescription for Abuse:

1. To fulfill our Annenberg commitment by establishing a baseline of where Santa Barbara County is with respect to the misuse and abuse of prescription medications. We wanted to publish a comprehensive series that would stand as an informative reference point for our community.

2. To parlay the prestige, recognition and resources associated with USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism into enhanced credibility among and closer collaborations with local foundations, nonprofit organizations, key businesses and opinion leaders. We wanted to put further distance between ourselves and our Fossil Media competitors to prove that we were the only local news organization capable of undertaking such a big-time project. We also wanted to refine the template we had created with previous projects so that future endeavors can be even more tightly choreographed.

3. To leverage the scope of our project proposal into a significant fundraising campaign that would get Noozhawk closer to financial viability.

Two out of three ain't bad.

I'm quite proud of our entire staff for the series we produced. At Noozhawk, we preach that family is "all in" - and our company most certainly was all in for this. Every member of our team - from news to sales to interns - enthusiastically touched the project in some way, and made it better. There are blemishes but very few holes, and most of the former can be attributed to challenges related to our small size and youthful inexperience.

It's not apparent that the general public noticed, however, based on the avalanche of tips, referrals and requests we received within hours of posting the Day One stories. In fact, we received a number of specific tips about a physician we had been investigating for alleged overprescribing, and worse. Unfortunately, as a result of privacy rules and medical board protocols that provide cozy protections for doctors, our case against this individual remains largely hearsay. But we're not quitting.

Our second objective vastly exceeded expectations. Noozhawk has emerged from this project with a much deeper respect from a wide range of civic leaders and officials, precisely the demographic we most needed to impress in a community as closely bound up in relationships as Santa Barbara's is. The careful and deliberate way we approached our topic already has opened doors to major partnership opportunities. That is hugely beneficial to the community we serve, as well as a tremendous advantage for our sales team.

And that brings me to the money. It just wasn't there. 

We initially had secured nearly $20,000 in verbal sponsorship commitments, but as the economy continued to worsen over the summer, one organization reneged on a five-figure pledge and others were halved. Few companies dared to make a commitment of any kind in such an uncertain business climate. 

Despite the disappointments, our ability to identify entrepreneurial opportunities led to three important developments:

1. As sponsors of the nonprofit Santa Barbara Teen News Network, we asked the students to make a handful of public-service videos with some of our story sources. They made nearly three dozen, all very professionally done. The experience pushed them out of their comfort zone and exposed them to the career and entrepreneurial aspects of what they had been doing for fun. Additionally, our sources subconsciously responded to our teenage interviewers in ways that made their messages more effective. Of all of our social media and multimedia-related elements, this one has received the most favorable reviews and good will.

2. As it became apparent that fundraising would underperform, we reached out to a local graduate university about taking ownership of our planned public forums as a way to extend our reach and compensate for what would likely be a severely reduced or aborted public education campaign. We're still working out details but it looks as if this new partner will hold a forum for us in January. What's more, the school will take responsibility for advertising it, hosting it, securing speakers and panelists, and moderating it. It will be the school's event, with Noozhawk taking the supporting role and not the starring one.

3. In a pure attempt at self-promotion, we reached out to Santa Barbara's lone television network affiliate and offered to give them full partnership credit in exchange for news promotion during our series and public-service announcements leading up to the public forum(s). Realizing we were handing them a completed project loaded with made-for-TV stories without having to do any work, station officials leaped at the opportunity. Now Noozhawk has a partner, and the relationship already has resulted in collaboration on additional Prescription for Abuse stories as well as other upcoming projects that will be more equitable in responsibilities and accountability. It's an exciting alliance, and one that has not been seen in Santa Barbara for more than a decade.

Noozhawk's Annenberg fellowship was a terrific opportunity for our company and for our community. It gave us a chance to stretch our organization and helped us achieve benchmarks we couldn't reach on our own. Meanwhile, it has increased our staff's confidence and placed us in a position to grow even more dynamically with our next endeavor. It would be a privilege for us to work with USC's Annenberg School again.

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