When the San Diego Union-Tribune went on sale in July 2008, veteran investigative reporter Lorie Hearn worried about the future of her I-team. Would new owners support costly and time-consuming investigations? Given the deteriorating financial situation of newspapers everywhere, could they even if they wanted to?
Rather than wait for the answer, Hearn decided to gamble on an emerging trend: she started her own nonprofit investigative institute. Inspired by other such centers in Wisconsin and Boston, Hearn’s Watchdog Institute, as it is called, will likely be housed (negotiations are ongoing) at the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University and will involve students and the broader university community in its work. But unlike the other centers, which rely on donations and grants, Hearn went to Platinum Equity, the venture capital firm that bought the U-T this past March, and made a deal: Platinum will help to fund three reporters and an editor at the institute for two years. In exchange, stories that the institute works on in partnership with the newspaper will be exclusive to the U-T, but can be shared on an embargoed basis with other San Diego media. “They have an attitude that they’re willing to take risks in order to make the newspaper an example of how to turn the business around,” Hearn said.
Hearn hopes to officially launch the institute later this month, but details still must be worked out. For instance, it isn’t clear exactly how the institute staff will interact with the U-T newsroom and the journalism school students. “I see Lorie and her staff doing some watchdog training of newsroom staff,” says Karin Winner, the U-T’s editor-in-chief, via e-mail. “The institute and U-T editors and reporters will work together on big projects just as the institute will work with other media partners.”
Diane Borden of SDSU’s journalism school says via e-mail that she expects many of her students, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, will want to work with the institute, and that they are discussing the possibility of situating research projects and internships at the institute. “We also envision that institute staff will teach courses in database journalism,” she said. Winner also said that she hopes some of Borden’s students will have internships at the U-T through this partnership. “Some may end up being entry-level journalists for us down the road,” she added.
While the deal with Platinum guarantees the institute can pay salaries for two years (Hearn declined to say how much Platinum kicked in), it doesn’t cover everything. “You need to find all different sorts of funding,” Hearn explained. “Platinum is just one piece of this. If you have a diverse revenue strategy, this model can be fully sustainable.”
Beyond the details, though, is the more important idea that undergirds all these new nonprofit centers: news outlets collaborating to ensure that high-quality investigative journalism survives. “The work that we do will transcend competition and promote collaboration,” Hearn said. “The whole idea of doing investigative work that’s shared with everyone is unique. ProPublica does that sort of thing on a national level, but we’re focusing on a local one. It’s my hope that it is embraced.”
For her part, Winner is happy to embrace it. “I think it’s risky, but definitely worth trying,” Winner said. “We could be shaping the way this kind of work gets done by major metros in the future.”