When longtime Union-Tribune senior editor Lorie Hearn departed the paper this summer to set up the nonprofit Watchdog Institute for investigative reporting, the project was billed as a way of saving local journalism “in an era of shrinking resources.” After two rounds of layoffs at the paper totaling 304 workers, new U-T owner Platinum Equity said it would put up an undisclosed amount of cash for the institute, thereby outsourcing the bulk of its enterprise-reporting chores to Hearn and her tiny staff of two reporters and a “data specialist.” “It seemed like a winning situation all around, and I couldn’t see why we wouldn’t give it a shot,” Paul Bridwell, the U-T’s “restructuring officer,” told a writer for the American Journalism Review in August, noting that Hearn and four others on her “investigative team” were not being replaced. Bridwell said the paper was “largely underwriting” the institute’s salaries, though Hearn added that a local donor whom she wouldn’t name was also kicking in seed money and that she was pitching the institute’s wares to other unnamed media outlets besides the U-T.
But the institute also has close ties to San Diego State University, where it intends to locate its offices and use student interns. Documents recently obtained from SDSU under the state’s Public Records Act raise questions about just how journalistically independent Hearn’s operation will be. “The relationship between the Institute and San Diego State University will be mutually beneficial,” says a proposal presented to a July 15 meeting of the school’s Academic Deans’ Council regarding the collaboration agreement. “Work produced by the Institute will further the University President’s goal of having the University be a leader in setting the agenda for a regional ‘civic society.’ Some of the Institute’s projects, for example, will stimulate dialog, facilitate discussion and broker solutions for major problems facing the San Diego and border region.”
Exactly what university agendas are to be set and solutions brokered by the institute were not specified. SDSU and its president Stephen Weber have long been at odds with campus neighbors and city government in battles over commercial redevelopment and university expansion and are now dickering behind closed doors with Mayor Jerry Sanders over possible development at City-owned Qualcomm Stadium, which could prove especially lucrative — and contentious — for the school. According to the institute’s pitch document, “The executive director and staff will choose the topics for reporting, although a specific media outlet may become involved in topic selection when the Institute has a contractual arrangement with a particular media outlet.”
Hiring at the institute appears to be Hearn’s call, at least as of last month. On August 17, journalism school director Diane Borden emailed Hearn, observing that the Voice of San Diego, an online news site that was the first to embark on nonprofit reporting here, “seems to be making a big deal about the U-T’s layoff last week of David Hasemyer. I wasn’t sure whether he was going to be part of your team?” Replied Hearn: “No, Dave isn’t going to be part of the Institute. As always, there is much more to the story than what the Voice reports, particularly when the story is written by a long-time friend. Actually, I’m very sorry Dave wouldn’t be a good candidate for us. We can talk more some time.…” Borden did not respond to a telephone message left at her office.