Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Cuts Lead to New Interest in Indie Probes

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Cuts Lead to New Interest in Indie Probes

Article excerpt

Lorie Hearn calls it her "big idea." On July 24, the veteran reporter and editor departed The San Diego Union-Tribune, where she worked for the last 25 years, to pursue The Watchdog Institute, a non-profit investigative reporting center, with the Union- Tribune as its lead media partner. The Institute -- which will consist of her, two reporters and a "data specialist" for tracking such matters of public record as municipal salaries and voter records -- will launch in the fall. "I'm looking forward to working with students, and learning from them, I think they have a lot to teach me," says Hearn. "Ultimately, I hope to prompt some community discussion."

Hearn isn't the first person to turn to the non-profit model to support investigative reporting. In fact, she's not even the first to do so in San Diego.

"If someone had told me last year at this time that the U-T would be spinning off a non-profit, I would have been shocked," says Scott Lewis, CEO of voiceofsandiego.org, a nonprofit independent online newspaper.

Since 1992, when the former San diego Union and the Evening Tribune merged, the Union-Tribune has been the go-to major newspaper in San Diego. It won a 2006 Pulitzer for its reporting on bribe-taking by California Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham. But widespread discontent among its reporters and the public over the U-T's perceived failure to adequately report a massive city pension fund scandal led in part to the founding of the Voice of San Diego.

The economics of the modern newspaper industry haven't helped the cause of costly investigative reporting, and the U-T is no exception. The paper has endured three rounds of buyouts and four rounds of layoffs since December 2006, most of those under previous owners Copley Press (the paper was sold to Platinum Equity in March 2009).

"Frankly, I was concerned that investigative reporting would be on the chopping block," Hearn observes. With Editor Karen Winner's support, Hearn proposed "a non-profit in conjunction with mentoring and teaching" to Platinum Equity. "I went to Platinum and said, 'I think I could save you some money,' and they made a formal commitment."

Though the U-T will be The Watchdog Institute's main partner, Hearn plans to offer syndicated versions of the Institute's stories to television and radio stations on an embargo basis.

The rest of the non-profit media world will be watching Hearn's experiment closely. …

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