Mr. Smooth

When the highly regarded, not-for-profit Strive Media Institute suddenly closed in the spring of 2008, it left behind a trail of glowing press clippings, a chorus of disappointed supporters – and a million dollars in debt. Founder Matt Johnson created the privately run after-school program to teach media skills to high school students, especially minorities. He blamed shrinking local funding for driving it out of business, while claiming he might move Strive to Chicago. While the news media have profusely praised Strive and Johnson, they have long ignored Strive’s mounting financial and legal problems, exemplified by the muted, 16-paragraph Milwaukee…

When the highly regarded, not-for-profit Strive Media Institute suddenly closed in the spring of 2008, it left behind a trail of glowing press clippings, a chorus of disappointed supporters – and a million dollars in debt.

Founder Matt Johnson created the privately run after-school program to teach media skills to high school students, especially minorities. He blamed shrinking local funding for driving it out of business, while claiming he might move Strive to Chicago.

While the news media have profusely praised Strive and Johnson, they have long ignored Strive’s mounting financial and legal problems, exemplified by the muted, 16-paragraph Milwaukee Journal Sentinel account of Strive’s closing in May.

Johnson was a former cigarette and beer salesman who launched Strive in 1991 with the creation of “Teen Forum,” a youth panel show on WISN-TV Channel 12. In 1999, Strive branched into print with Gumbo, a magazine produced by and featuring teens, while creating separate tracks for students in broadcasting (TV and radio), print, new media, and public relations and marketing.

In 2002, Teen Forum grew into something more like a “20/20” for teens called “Gumbo Television.” It first aired on WVTV-TV Channel 18 and then moved to WTMJ-TV Channel 4. Strive created two other magazines: Ya’ Heard, covering music, and Girlfriends, covering women’s health with an African-American target audience. Both were for-profit publications produced outside the educational program at the institute.

Such ventures may have been hints of problems to come. “He was a restless entrepreneur type,” one former employee says of Johnson. “He was not satisfied. He wanted to grow, wanted to expand.” Yet all that growth may have distracted Strive from its original mission as a nonprofit training program.

Strive won private grants as well as government contracts. The Milwaukee Health Department provided more than $500,000 for everything from anti-smoking media campaigns developed by Strive students to advertising in Strive-produced publications. Strive also received funding from the now-defunct state Tobacco Control Board to help produce campaigns to discourage youth smoking.

All this won Strive repeated favorable press – no fewer than 11 profiles in The Business Journal and the Journal Sentinel combined, including admiring pieces by JS columnists Eugene Kane and Tannette Johnson-Elie.

The coverage is understandable. Local TV and print outlets remain heavily white institutions, and the news industry has long bemoaned a lack of diversity. Strive was welcomed as a means to that end.

And graduates of Strive praise their experience. “It was really challenging and empowering,” says Jonathan Woods, a 2002 graduate who was the first in his family to complete high school or college and today works for a major New York public relations firm. “There’s no way a little black boy from Milwaukee would end up where I am if it wasn’t for Strive.” Denise Ford recalls assignments for “Gumbo TV” that took her to New York, Costa Rica and Italy. “We learned a lot.”

As recently as mid-2006, Johnson impressed Chicago’s McCormick Foundation enough to get a $40,000 grant to help set up a Chicago bureau for Gumbo.“I liked his effort, I liked his attitude,” says Clark Bell, media program director at the foundation. But the bureau never got off the ground – a disappointment, Bell acknowledges.

By then, Strive was heading toward its demise. Former employees and students portray a program with recurring conflicts and financial problems.

Kennita Hickman attended Strive for a year in the magazine program, then went to radio before she was expelled in 2001 because the demands of her job forced her to miss Strive’s required Saturday classes. She had recorded some radio commercials while there, but says Johnson blocked her from keeping them for her portfolio.

Hickman went back to Strive as an employee in 2005, working as an editorial assistant and dividing her time between Gumbo and Ya’ Heard. “I was putting more and more on my plate,” she says. “I gave them an ultimatum to pay me to do what I was hired to do.” Instead, she says, she was fired.

Tate Bunker, a former TV producer for Strive, says staff producers often did work on Gumbo instead of students in order to meet Johnson’s expectations. “I had to deliver a high-end product, which he used to raise more money,” Bunker says. Yet on average, students were only available four hours a week to work on the program. “To do a really in-depth package was difficult. I’d end up working 70 to 80 hours a week.”

Johnson also exercised a heavy editorial hand on occasion. When the teenage staff of Gumbo decided to run a story interviewing the children of gay couples, Johnson tried to quash publication, according to two sources familiar with the decision. The students challenged the decision in a meeting at which Johnson reportedly issued an edict against any more references to homosexuality in print. Johnson called it “a personal preference” and said “I don’t want it in the magazine anymore,” an observer recalls. He subsequently fired an instructor who had stood up for the teen editors’ decision to cover the story.

But Strive’s biggest ongoing problem was its finances. In the written program for Strive’s 2002 scholarship banquet, students were asked to name the one gift they would give the school if they could. “Money,” was the almost universal reply.

Students paid $500 a year for instruction (though some got a partial waiver based on need) and were promised $1,000-a-year college scholarships if they met certain goals. But some tell Pressroom they never got the scholarships. One, 2002 grad Ashley Battle, says when she confronted Johnson, “He looked me dead in the face and said, ‘You don’t need it.’ ”

Former employees say Strive often missed payroll. A source also says that on one occasion, Strive didn’t pay a health insurance premium, and employees lost their benefits. Two former employees reported that in late 2006, Johnson fired most of the staff just before Christmas to avoid year-end and holiday pay. “I went to his office and said, ‘You’re not doing that,’ ” one recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, we’ll work it out for you.’ ” The former employee was able to collect, but says others weren’t. “If he knew someone wouldn’t fight back, he’d take full advantage of them.”

Money came and went. “Any funding that came in, regardless of what it was for, was used for whatever outstanding bills we had,” says another former employee. “The phones were turned off many times, credit cards were cut off, vendors came in to collect payments, and our products were produced late because printers refused to print without payment.”

State agencies have sued Strive at least nine times for falling behind on tax or unemployment compensation payments. Private vendors have sued over unpaid debts; among the largest was printer Wisconsin Web Offset. (“We switched printers a lot,” says a former insider.)

While most of those debts were eventually paid, as of mid-October, Strive still owed $112,000 to five vendors – all default judgments incurred when neither Johnson nor a lawyer showed up in court.

Strive’s last hurrah may have been its bid for funds from the Milwaukee School Choice program. In early 2006 Johnson announced plans to raise $7.5 million to build a 30,000-square-foot building for the private SMI Early College Preparatory High School. Although the new building hadn’t yet broken ground, the school enrolled 16 students in September 2007, collecting just over $52,000 in state voucher money. When Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning turned down the school’s bid to be accredited – a requirement for voucher schools – SMI withdrew in December 2007.

The collapse of that dream left unpaid a loan of $895,000 that Strive received to build the school. The loan came from IFF, a Chicago-based lender to nonprofits. (For more on IFF, see “Sunny Money” on page 32.) Jose Cerda, IFF’s vice president of public policy and communications, acknowledged the deal was in trouble. When news broke of Strive’s demise, “We were sorry to hear that,” he says.

Yet the media continues to soft-pedal its coverage of Strive. The most recent example: A WISN-TV report in September lacked any reference to the many court cases against Strive and depicted Johnson as an underappreciated do-gooder.

In the report, Johnson said he’s found supporters in Chicago who are offering to help him bring the program there. The claim, which the station aired unchallenged, is similar to one Strive made in its May press release when it announced its plan to reorganize, and which the aforementioned JS story included. But Pressroom could find no evidence of current Chicago activity, and both Bell at the McCormick Foundation and Cerda at IFF say they’ve seen no sign that Johnson has been busy in the Windy City.

Why treat the operation with kid gloves? One reason may be that the media typically tread more lightly on the problems of nonprofits with idealistic goals. But it’s also likely that Strive’s potential as a tool to diversify the media gave it special cachet among members of the press. And Matt Johnson’s own charisma probably helped deflect scrutiny. “He’s a smooth-talking guy,” says a former employee. “I left that place thinking people were very gullible.”

Johnson did not respond to Pressroom attempts to reach him, including contacts through a former member of the Strive board of directors and through a business that has provided financial support to Strive in the past.

Among Johnson’s former employees, some impute venal motives to him. “I looked up to him like a father,” says a former employee. “The kids looked up to him as well, but as the years passed, I realized he was just a fast-talker, and there is not much that I could believe anymore.”

Others say he was well-meaning but a woefully weak manager. “The program side of Strive was excellent, but without proper financials, this was waiting to happen,” says one ex-staffer. “My only surprise is it took so long to close.”

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