The sudden death of Pacific Standard, a decade-old Santa Barbara-based online magazine covering environmental science, social justice, economics policy, official corruption and other substantive issues, has hit the journalism community especially hard.
The small but dedicated staff of 16 journalists were sent packing this month.
Pacific Standard debuted in 2008 as the Miller-McCune Report, named after its patron, Sara Miller McCune, the founder and controlling partner of Sage Publishing. The magazine was rebranded to its current title in 2012. It was known for deeply reported, well-edited stories on social justice issues, with a particular focus on the environment and education. And it was deliberately located on the West Coast to counter the East Coast flavor of its competition, like The Atlantic and The New Yorker.
The magazine had an intriguing funding model. The for-profit Sage Publishing funded it through the Social Justice Foundation, a non-profit whose sole function was to run the Pacific Standard.
This Daily Beast article gives insight into what went wrong. It appears that Sage abruptly notified the Social Justice Foundation that there would be no more donations. It’s not clear why. The four board members at the Social Justice Foundation are all Sage executives, so it stands to reason that they were aware of any financial issues that Sage might be having.
A close look at the foundation’s tax returns from 2017, the most recent year available, shows that the company was spending close to $3.5 million a year, all a charitable gift from a single source. The publication was making very little headway, less than $300,000 a year, in generating its own revenue.
In an article on the Poynter Institute’s website casting doubt on this funding model, Kelly McBride writes that the stunning and rapid death of Pacific Standard is a cautionary tale. “A single, generous donor can be risky business.”
She added, “Just like winning the lottery, finding a generous patron is no guarantee of a happy future. The permanent shuttering of Pacific Standard is a wake-up call to those who entertain this fantasy.”