SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA — Investigative editor Lorie Hearn does it all. She runs the business, raises the funds, edits the stories, does the books, and dusts the office. She even brings the bagels and cream cheese. Hearn, a former editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune, now leads Investigate Newsource, formerly known as The Watchdog Institute, a three-person nonprofit investigative outlet run out of San Diego State University. The site has covered everything from the Staff Congressional Cigar Association, a smoking club packed with influential lobbyists and politicians, to the backlog of DNA samples at the San Diego Police Department. And while her experience at a major metropolitan taught her to manage people and projects, it didn’t prepare her to lead a startup news organization.
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“I really didn’t know how to negotiate for health insurance, buy libel insurance, and get a lease with a major university, ” Hearn says. “I had to be a true entrepreneur.”
Yet in spite of her inexperience, Hearn succeeded, bringing to life a news organization that produces high-quality investigative journalism in the San Diego area. She has also succeeded in creating a completely independent news organization within a university.
“We’re not employees of the university,” Hearn says. “We’re an independent organization; we lease space from the university. When we do our investigative work, the school of journalism doesn’t even know what we’re working on.”
Of course, Investigative Newsource is not completely disconnected from the school. In exchange for office space, Hearn teaches an upper-level class in investigative journalism.
“One could argue who has the better deal on that,” Hearn says, laughing. “Teaching a class has been a lot of work.”
Hearn has an incredible amount of work on top of her course, including trying to build a unique business model–what she calls the “multi-million dollar question for everybody” in the field. And while Investigative Newsource relies heavily on grants and content distribution–the two pillars of funding for nonprofit investigative organizations–it also sells data packages (often in the form of searchable web applications) to other news organizations and hosts journalism seminars.
For one of its recent stories, an investigation into the growing number of county employees making over $100,000 a year, reporter and data analyst Kevin Crowe probed massive chunks of data from the San Diego County payroll and then worked with Investigative Newsource’s different partners in crafting the stories.
“They would pick from a list that Kevin had come up with, whichever they thought was most interesting, and their reporter would then do the shoe-leather reporting,” Hearn says.
In addition to capitalizing on their data expertise, Investigative Newsource has also started offering different seminars, including a recent five-day computer-assisted reporting bootcamp established in association with the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. And while Hearn doesn’t expect it to be a major revenue stream, it’s just one more thing she hopes can keep investigative journalism alive.
“I had to be a true entrepreneur,” Hearn says. “It’s been exciting and frightening all at the same time.”
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Name: Investigative Newsource
City: San DiegoColin Fleming is a contributor to CJR.