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The board of El Paso’s Newspaper Tree, a nonprofit news outlet stymied in its efforts to begin publishing online, has dismissed its publisher and editor.

El Paso Inc. has learned that publisher Louie Gilot and editor Reyes Mata III were fired a few days apart in late May as a result of internal disputes.

That leaves Newspaper Tree with one employee, investigative reporter Debbie Nathan, and lots of questions about its future.

The Texas non-profit has been waiting over a year for federal approval of the 501(c)3 status it needs to begin publishing online in El Paso.

Board president Richard Pineda confirmed that Gilot and Mata are no longer employed, but declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding their dismissal.

“I can’t comment on the personnel issue, but what I can say is the board is still committed to the mission we started with and the goals we have,” said Pineda, an associate professor in UTEP’s Communication Department

“As soon as we have the non-profit status, we still have an excellent reporter in Debbie Nathan and we are, I think, ready to have stories published,” he said.

When and if the Internal Revenue Service will approve its 501(c)3 status is an open question.

Its application and those of other aspiring online news outlets have been on hold since last year, as the IRS re-evaluates its conditions for non-profit news outlets.

Pineda, asked what he would like to see happen now, said, “I would like us to find somebody that we can put in quickly.”

No one involved with Newspaper Tree will say much about what led to Gilot and Mata’s termination.

One board member would only say the events were “heartbreaking” to him and devastating for the organization and its former employees.

Gilot, a former El Paso Times reporter, left her position as executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, an El Paso non-profit, to become Newspaper Tree publisher last November.

Mata, a former El Paso Times reporter who went on to freelance and start a small publishing company, was working for the Las Cruces Sun-News when he quit in April to be Newspaper Tree’s managing editor.

“I wanted to be part of an El Paso institution, part of a tradition,” Mata said. “My interaction with the Newspaper Tree board of directors was meaningful and constructive, and I wish them the best with their publishing endeavors.”

Started as a private online publication in 2003 by Anthony Martinez, now a lawyer and a member of the non-profit board, Newspaper Tree was acquired by Keith Mahar’s El Paso Media Group in 2006.

Known for its punchy stories and columns about local government, politics and the drug war under editor Sito Negron, Newspaper Tree essentially ceased operations in October 2009 when paychecks bounced and editorial employees were sent home.

It continued to publish routine news announcements online until late December when El Paso Community Foundation bought the name and archives from Mahar for about $25,000.

Eric Pearson, then the foundation’s vice president, said he intended to re-establish Newspaper Tree as a non-profit news organization specializing in investigative reporting and neighborhood news.

Pearson, who is now the foundation’s president, declined comment.

The foundation incorporated Newspaper Tree as a non-profit in November 2010. It applied for 501(c)3 status about 14 months ago, expecting approval by the middle of 2011.

Due largely to Pearson’s efforts, the Knight Foundation awarded a $203,000 start-up grant in September 2010.

El Paso businessmen Woody Hunt and Jack Cardwell made five-year pledges to the project amounting to $500,000.

Former El Pasoan Jimmy Janacek chipped in $25,000. Impatient and angry over the delay, he wrote in an e-mail to El Paso Inc. that he has demanded his money back and is threatening to sue if he doesn’t get it.

But Newspaper Tree cannot begin publishing until its federal non-profit status is approved, and the reason it hasn’t been rests with the IRS.

The IRS has routinely approved scores of 501(c)3 applications for non-profit news organizations in the past 40 years. But faced with a spate of new applications last year, the agency initiated a new, tougher review policy.

At the heart of the issue is the word “journalism,” which is not one of the 30-odd purposes for non-profits and charities in a decades-old section of IRS code.

Most of the news organizations that have won non-profit status have come in under an “educational” purpose the IRS is now re-examining.

Pineda said the IRS has become concerned about the “potential partisan nature of these media outlets going into the election cycle.”

As a result, he said, Newspaper Tree’s board and lawyers have had to answer multiple rounds of questions from the IRS about the publication’s purpose and practices.

“Our vision is to have a non-partisan investigative news source that benefits the community,” Pineda said. “What they’re looking for is clarification about how we would do things like editorials, and how we would clarify the direction or intent of the stories.”


 

E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.

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