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From AJR,   August/September 2009  issue

Goodbye Without Leaving   

A newspaper editor converts her investigative team into a nonprofit—with her former paper as partner and chief benefactor.


By Priya Kumar
Priya Kumar (2priyak@gmail.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.     

It's an important and much-discussed question: As traditional news organizations cut back dramatically, how can the watchdog journalism that is crucial in a democracy be preserved?

Lorie Hearn has come up with an innovative way to help the cause.

Hearn, 56, left her job as a senior editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune in July to launch the Watchdog Institute; she's converting the newspaper's investigative team into a nonprofit organization that seeks to form partnerships with various San Diego media outlets. The Union-Tribune, which is making the largest investment in the venture, is the institute's lead partner.

As layoffs, buyouts and budget cuts threaten investigative teams across the country, Hearn's initiative marks the first time that a nonprofit journalism organization is debuting with a mainstream media partnership already established.

"Instead of waiting for the guillotine to drop, she dismantles the guillotine," says Charles Lewis, founder of the award-winning Center for Public Integrity, a two-decade-old investigative nonprofit.

When longtime Union-Tribune owner Copley announced last year it was selling the paper, anxiety swirled around the newsroom. The paper had already gone through downsizing, and although watchdog reporting remained a top priority, Hearn knew spirit alone wouldn't balance the checkbook.

A Union-Tribune official says the paper had no plans to cut the team, but Hearn was nevertheless ready to try something new. The opening of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (see "Investigative Teem," February/March) sparked her interest in the nonprofit model, and in May she took a proposal to the paper's new owner, Platinum Equity.

Hearn, who oversaw a four-person investigative team at the Union-Tribune, will take two reporters and a data specialist with her to the institute. In exchange for a financial contribution, the institute will produce a guaranteed number of projects for the paper.

"It seemed like a winning situation all around, and I couldn't see why we wouldn't give it a shot," says Paul Bridwell, the paper's chief restructuring officer. The Union-Tribune, which is saving a "small amount" of money with the move, will not fill the positions, he says.

Initially, Union-Tribune Editor Karin Winner balked at losing a valuable member of her leadership team. But she now calls the new arrangement a "win-win." The partnership allows the Union-Tribune to continue large-scale investigative reporting, offers training opportunities for staffers and hopefully will be a source of interns and entry-level reporters, Winner says.

"I think it's cutting edge and it's very exciting," she adds. "I really believe it has the potential of becoming the beginning of something that many newspapers will replicate in the future."

She emphasizes that the Union-Tribune remains committed to investigative reporting. "Our watchdog and local news strategy will imbue everything we do. An assistant metro editor will handle the small and medium-size watchdog work from throughout the paper," she wrote in an e-mail interview.

Hearn and Bridwell, Platinum's representative at the paper, are still finalizing the details of the multiyear contract. They declined to say how much money the paper is contributing, with Bridwell saying only that the Union-Tribune is "largely underwriting" the salaries of the team's journalists. Hearn says a local donor has also contributed seed money, though she declined to name the donor or the amount.

Collaboration and emphasis on deep, data-driven investigations are key components of the venture, which Hearn plans to launch at the end of September. She is approaching other local media outlets, including television, radio and online, to establish partnerships. She hopes the outlets will contribute, either financially or with reporting firepower, in exchange for working with the institute on a predetermined number of projects. The institute will publish projects on its Web site as well.

The institute will rely primarily on financial contributions from media outlets, but will also accept grants and tax-deductible donations. Hearn is shying away from the foundation-supported nonprofit model (see "Nonprofit News," February/March 2008), calling diverse funding critical to sustainability.

"Everybody's trying out many things," says Brant Houston, former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. "To my knowledge, Lorie..is going the strongest at trying to set up stable financial relationships with various media companies."

The institute, an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, will be based at San Diego State University. Hearn would like to have student interns work at the institute, and she wants to teach at the school, though she is still working out the details. SDSU spokesman Greg Block confirmed that negotiations are ongoing.

The institute is the latest in a string of inventive investigative reporting ventures that have taken root across the country. In June, nearly 40 journalists and nonprofit news representatives met at Pocantico, New York, and created the Investigative News Network. Though a steering committee is sorting out the specifics, the network will offer administrative support and opportunities for collaboration among nonprofits, says Houston, a steering committee member.

Scott Lewis, CEO of voiceofsandiego.org, a nonprofit online newspaper started in 2005, says if someone had told him last year that San Diego's leading newspaper would partner with a nonprofit, his jaw would have dropped. "There were so many people who were so scornful that nonprofits could pick up the slack, and to see them now look at us as leaders is flattering and shocking," Lewis says.

Though voiceofsandiego.org and the Watchdog Institute might be rivals editorially, Lewis says he's excited to see what the startup produces, and he's open to collaborating with it. "You can always have more journalism," he says.

Hearn agrees. "What is threatened these days is not people's access to information. There's plenty of that," she says. "What is threatened is the investigative work that brings people substantial knowledge that helps them make decisions in a democracy."

But the demand and audience for this type of work are even greater nowadays, says Charles Lewis, who is also part of the INN steering committee. Nonprofits are taking advantage of this by collaborating with other organizations to publish their work. "Now you're getting group publishing because content is king," he says. Scooping the competition may have driven newsrooms for many years, but getting the maximum number of eyes on the story is the most important goal, Hearn says, especially when an investigation raises a significant public concern.

For example, if the institute breaks a particularly big story in partnership with the Union-Tribune, Hearn would take the story to other local media outlets with an embargo shortly before publication. She would offer to work with their staffs to tailor the story to their mediums, whether television, radio or online. The other outlets would pay nothing to publish the story the same day, but would have to credit the institute and the original media partner.

"It's not about the medium, it's about getting the information out," Hearn says, adding that such content sharing would take place only on major probes.

Hearn has worked at five papers over her 35-year career, spending 25 of those years at the Union-Tribune. She was a 1994-95 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, and upon returning to San Diego she became legal affairs editor. She was named metro editor in 1999 and nine years later was named senior editor for metro and watchdog reporting.

Born in Niagara Falls, New York, Hearn's first taste of journalism came at age 12, when she started publishing a Girl Scout newsletter. "I loved knowing things before everybody else did," she says. She attended the University of Delaware and "finished college in three years because I wanted to get out of school and be a real journalist."

Charles Lewis, who attended high school with Hearn, remembers that enthusiasm. "She was very, very energetic and deeply involved up to her ears in the high school paper," he says.

And though she's leaving the traditional newspaper newsroom, Hearn is hardly jettisoning her roots. "I'm not abandoning the Union-Tribune," Hearn says. "I am actually doing this because I want to help it survive."

Priya Kumar Kumar (pkumar@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.