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Watchdog Institute Puzzles Union-Tribune Staffers

On Friday, June 26, U-T editor Karin Winner sent an enigmatic message to the staff. Her very close friend Lorie Hearn, who heads the investigative team (and was formerly the number two person on the staff), is leaving to form the Watchdog Institute. It plans to raise money from local donors and local and national foundations. Its investigative output will go into the U-T, and Hearn's four-person team will work with U-T staffers. Hearn is negotiating to have the institute affiliated with San Diego State's journalism program. I can't imagine SDSU has money to throw into the pot, but it could be a filter for money from elsewhere. Hearn leaves July 24. She calls Watchdog "a work in progress." It is not yet listed on the Internal Revenue Service or California Secretary of State websites. Staffers wonder whether this is a creative way for the new owner, Platinum Equity, to pare the payroll. It might be a tax maneuver for certain donors.

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On Friday, June 26, U-T editor Karin Winner sent an enigmatic message to the staff. Her very close friend Lorie Hearn, who heads the investigative team (and was formerly the number two person on the staff), is leaving to form the Watchdog Institute. It plans to raise money from local donors and local and national foundations. Its investigative output will go into the U-T, and Hearn's four-person team will work with U-T staffers. Hearn is negotiating to have the institute affiliated with San Diego State's journalism program. I can't imagine SDSU has money to throw into the pot, but it could be a filter for money from elsewhere. Hearn leaves July 24. She calls Watchdog "a work in progress." It is not yet listed on the Internal Revenue Service or California Secretary of State websites. Staffers wonder whether this is a creative way for the new owner, Platinum Equity, to pare the payroll. It might be a tax maneuver for certain donors.

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Comments
46

This can represent any number of schemes, and may be part of more than one. The first thing that comes to me is that the newspaper business is really falling apart. The new Institute will feed its revelations to the U-T, huh? Does that guarantee that they'll ever see the light of day?

At first reading, this sounds like a soft way to lay off some staffers, if they can get support for their efforts, while keeping them sending in dirt to print. So, if they can become self supporting, Winner will provide them with a voice.

Who would support a group doing this sort of thing? It doesn't seem likely that those folks will ever again see their U-T salary level while doing this freelance muckraking.

Or am I missing the obvious point?

June 29, 2009

I agree, Visduh. It's likely a bridge for the UT to get the same crap at a cheaper price.

June 29, 2009

Response to post #1: This can certainly be a way to ease Hearn (and perhaps her associates) out without appearing to be abandoning investigative reporting. Also, since Winner and Hearn are extremely close, it can be a signal to Winner. The attempt to bring in SDSU is interesting. Already, KPBS's extremely close financial ties to the U-T (the building bears the name Copley), and its programming featuring establishment fluff trumpeted by the likes of Bob Kittle, have always raised many eyebrows. Now if it would join with this project, even more eyebrows would be cocked. Some think one motivation is to compete with the Voice of San Diego for donor dollars. Best, Don Bauder

June 29, 2009

Response to post #2: It's almost certainly an attempt to get material for a lower price; get the people off the payroll and then print their output--- IF they can scare up enough money to get going. Best, Don Bauder

June 29, 2009

Watchdog Institute. Let me guess -- with a San Diego State connection, what they're envisioning is a journalistic pitbull-puppy mill. Someone should call the local SPCA and get this shoddy enterprise shut down before the breeding begins. What an inane proposition coming from the folks in editorial management who have mastered the art of internal organizational spin.

June 29, 2009

Response to post #5: Actually, Winner made just such a reference in her memo to the staff. For example, she mentions that many investigative reporting institutes "are collaborating with universities so they can also help train, teach and mentor the journalists of the future." Again, stressing the inchoate state of this enterprise, Winner adds, "Details to come." Best, Don Bauder

June 29, 2009

Well for the sake of argument maybe, just maybe, this isn't such a bad way to go...

Over the last three days we, the people of San Diego, have been bombarded with a so called "watchdog report" on city finances. This report is filled with so many omissions, fabrications, conjecture, assumptions and a host of other adjectives it hard to fathom how this got passed editors as news.

What worse, to give the readers a sense of integrity to the story, the authors claim to have spent four months and at least three reporter working on it. To support their slipshod reporting they lay blame on others; about fees, a measly $1900, the SDUT refused to pay for work they wanted others to do at taxpayers expense.

If this is the quality of reporting we are excepted to accept from the NEW SDUT then it's more than obvious Platinum Equity's purchase was for the real estate and nothing else.

This series of watch dog reporting falls to the level of sensational tabloid reporting, you know, the stuff you glance at while in line at your local grocery store. Next we'll read "ALIENS CONTROL CITY HALL or SANDERS' SECRET WEIGHT LOSS PROGRAM FOR CITY HALL.

Now I'm just wondering if a new watchdog group, one removed from the confines of "350" might be free of the incestuous influences of SDUT management? Maybe, just maybe, the good citizens of San Diego would be the recipients some real investigative journalism, not embarrassing fiction being passed by the SDUT as journalism today.

June 30, 2009

Response to post #7: Don't expect the institute, if it ever reaches fruition, to be free of U-T influence. In her memo to the staff, Winner said that the U-T would be "lead partner" in the planned institute, which will work closely with the U-T staff. The U-T will be a major donor, if not THE donor, to the institute. The so-called institute will "produce short and long-term projects for us," according to Winner. Best, Don Bauder

June 30, 2009

JW sounds upset that the UT exposed the $41 million in raises our broke city gave out last year.

Face it, the entire state is imploding from out of control gov spending-this is not just limited to San Diego (the whole nation actually).

Oakland is on the verge of BK, and as I posted yesterday the city of SanFrancisco, who had the strongest pension fund in the state 2-3 years ago, is now in the red because of the pensions and high pay. FF pay in SF doubled in 13 years (1996 when the 3%@50 was implemented by vote).

June 30, 2009

Response to post #9: Yes, Jerry Sanders handed out raises but continues to bamboozle the public, which believes he is being parsimonious. As to your general thesis, Tom Lehrer had an apt song several decades ago: "For we will all go together when we go, every Hottentot and every Eskimo..." He was talking about nuclear annihilation, not economic annihilation. Best, Don Bauder

June 30, 2009

SurfPuppy,

There are problems with the numbers in the UT article. I can vouch for at least one employee that the number cited by the UT is at least 12% higher than what it says on their W-2. One example is that when an employee takes a required training class, they often have to pay for it themselves up front and then get reimbursed. The UT decided to call that pay. When an employee is required to contribute an additional 5% into the insurance and pension, however, that is not considered a cut in pay by the UT. The UT had the chance to get the numbers right, and intentionally chose not to, for their own motivations.

June 30, 2009

There are lots of interesting tidbits to be learned from the UT database. For instance, I learned that our former mayoral spokesman was named Federico Sainz de la Maza (who knew?), and that the city could save a nice chunk of change by getting rid of the COUNCIL REPRESENTATIVE II B (A catchall category which includes folks like Gerry Braun and Julie Dubick). One in that group that we need to keep in place is Shalonda S. Vinegar (one can only guess what the "S" stands for, and whether she has a sweet disposition).

Another interesting item (if true) is the listing for Judith M. Italiano as a CLERICAL ASSISTANT II in 2005 and 2006. Why in the world would she be on the payroll at a classification she had not worked in decades? Did the city really pay her $23,000? For what? Why?

I think Saathoff is even worse. He was president of the union for 28 years (a full twenty years too long), and was pulling down a full salary from the city while he was spending all his time working as the head of the union. Why is he a fire captain? When was the last time he actually worked as a firefighter? Why was he being paid by the city while also being paid by the city?

June 30, 2009

I think Saathoff is even worse. He was president of the union for 28 years (a full twenty years too long), and was pulling down a full salary from the city while he was spending all his time working as the head of the union. Why is he a fire captain?

Why would the City pay a CAPTAIN's salary to the union rep? That certainly does not make sense. That Saathoff is a real piece of work.

As for the other issues you brought up-such as counting an educational class that was reimbursed as pay-how did you find that out? Same goes for the increased contributions to benefits not being counted as a pay reduction?

June 30, 2009

I can vouch for at least one employee that the number cited by the UT is at least 12% higher than what it says on their W-2.

Was this you?

June 30, 2009

"As for the other issues you brought up-such as counting an educational class that was reimbursed as pay-how did you find that out?"

I know for two reasons:

1) The UT said so: "The database the city provided also lumped tuition and mileage reimbursement with income, making it impossible to extract."

2) I'm married to one, and I have the W-2. I must confess that I was going by memory before, and the actual difference between the amount stated by the UT and the W-2 in this case is 8%, not 12%.

A straw pull indicated that the 8% overstatement was on the high end, but that a majority had at least some overstatement, and nobody had an understatement.

The UT also said: "Because the city did not provide breakdowns of types of pay, the data shown has limitations in disclosing some of these variables. The annual figure for compensation includes salary, overtime, bonuses, pension settlement payouts, uniform allowances, cashed-out vacation time, and hundreds of other types of cash compensation that are not broken out."

The problem with that is the city offered to break it down for them exactly how they wanted it, but said that it would take a substantial amount of city employee time and they would have to charge $1900.00 for it. The UT wasn't interested.

June 30, 2009

"Was this you?"

Happily, no.

I've never worked for any government agency. I have worked for defense contractors in the past, but I haven't for some time now and I don't miss it a bit. Of course if our business goes south, I would go back to defense if needed. My kids mouths come before my pride.

June 30, 2009

Response to post #11: Suggest you write the U-T and point out what you consider an error. Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Response to post #12: Saathoff's case is in court. Italiano is under severe criticism. The fact that both labor union leaders were on the City payroll speaks volumes. They were spending full time running their unions. Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Response to post #13: Saathoff may have been the most powerful person in City Hall. Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Response to post #14: Who gets to see these W-2s? Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Response to post #15: You can't blame the U-T for not wanting to pay $1,900. Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Response to post #16: What's the difference between working for the government and working for a defense contractor? Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Why should anyone waste their time on yellow journalism.

For those of you who may not be acquainted with the definition of yellow journalism, according to Answers.com, Yellow journalism is “journalism that exploits, distorts, or exaggerates the news to create sensation and attract readers.”

In my opinion many the SDUT has fallen further into the abyss. Here is a cautioned and robotic response to an email from it's Editor, Karin Winner:

"I truly appreciate your concerns. Unfortunately, the fact is that taxpayers fund your salary and that of other city employees. As a result, any member of the general public can gain access to the same information about you with a phone call or a visit to City Hall. In the 1983 case when the appeal's court determined that employee salaries were a matter of public record, the ruling read "with ever increasing demands on public funds which have dwindled so drastically since the passage of Proposition 13, secrecy cannot be condoned in budgetary determinations, including the establishment of salaries." More recently, Court of Appeal Justice Joanne Parrilli reiterated that "well-established norms of California public policy and American public employment exclude public employee names and salaries from the zone of financial privacy protection." I assure you that we do not intend to publish information that the courts still consider protected. As the main newspaper in the region, I believe we have a responsibility to our constituents to shine a light on the way in which the city of San Diego is handling its public finances. Particularly since the city found itself on the brink of bankruptcy, transparency about the way our local government spends our money has been yet more important. That said, I am sorry for whatever problems the stories may have caused you. Sincerely, Karin Winner"

While Ms.Winner may hide behind the letter of the law, she is a business person first, and now has a new set of bosses to please in a failing enterprise. Thus in the spirit of sensational yellow journalism, she agonized, but ultimately her decision was driven by selling newspapers. That's Karin Winner, yellow journalist and editor of the San Diego Union Tribune, a once proud newspaper, now reduced to level of a supermarket tabloid.

July 1, 2009

" . . . I believe we have a responsibility to our constituents to shine a light on the way in which the city of San Diego is handling its public finances." Karin Winner


Constituents? Whatever happened to the subscribers and readers? To JustWondering, I believe you give Karin Winner too much credit.

July 1, 2009

Response to post #21: "You can't blame the U-T for not wanting to pay $1,900. Best, Don Bauder".

I think it is cheezy not to pay $1900 to get the necessary numbers for a report of this magnitude that the UT invested four reporters and an unstated number of "analysts" for weeks, but I understand the UT was cheap before and is probably cheaper now.

I find it beyond merely irresponsible to publish numbers that they knew full well were high (and doing it very publicly), in a sensational manner, while very intentionally not pursuing the correct numbers at least in large part (in my opinion) because they knew the accurate figures would greatly reduce the impact of their four month investigation.

July 1, 2009

"Response to post #16: What's the difference between working for the government and working for a defense contractor? Best, Don Bauder"

Quite a lot, actually, but still not enough, which is why I don't anymore.

The easy answer is pretty obvious: If there was no difference, then you wouldn't be advocating outsourcing for the city.

Defense contracts are competitive bid, so there is built in competition. If you fail to perform for your customer, you won't get future or follow-on contracts, or you can even have your contract yanked early for non-performance. Your management responds not only to the customer, but to the board of directors and the shareholders. It is competitive and profit driven.

Are there games and abuses? Of course, but do you know of any major industry where there are not? I was never high enough up the food chain to be exposed to the truly evil stuff (I think of that as the level congress gets involved. Think Cunningham), but I would get a whiff every once in awhile.

July 1, 2009

Reply to #20: "Response to post #14: Who gets to see these W-2s? Best, Don Bauder"

Strictly between me, my spouse and the IRS!

July 1, 2009

Response to post #23: I side with Karin Winner on this one. The U-T was doing the public a service in printing those salaries. Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Response to post #24: She was making the point that the U-T was not just informing its readers, but all San Diegans. Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Response to post #25: I doubt that U-T deliberately published numbers that it knew were too high. Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Response to post #26: I was kidding when I made that remark. Of course there is a difference between working for the government and a defense contractor. However, that difference is not a huge one. Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Response to post #27: I would guess you share them with your tax preparer, if you have one. Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Check my temperature...You agree with Karin?!?!

As I gathered my thoughts for this post, I had Don squarely in my sights. However, I commend you for siding with Winner.

Many of the posts on this blog complain that the UT is not fulfilling its true post of watchdog journalism. Then they do a major watchdog piece, and since it doesnt side with your end of the story, you rip them again.

Rip when it's appropriate, but don't rip, just to rip.

Kudos to you Don for post siding with Karin.

July 1, 2009

I disagree with your statement, Mr. Bauder, when you "doubt that U-T deliberately published numbers that it knew were too high".

They acknowledged that they did not parse out the specifics of the pay (tuition, mileage, overtime, etc. reimbursements) because they didn't want to pay to cover the costs ($1900) of having the information sorted out in a way that broke that information down. The UT would rather that the taxpayers pick up that cost for them, so instead they published numbers that are not accurate and numbers that are misleading. Individuals seeking information from the city often have to cover the costs (allowed under the California Public Records Act), so why should the UT be exempt?

July 1, 2009

Response to post #33: The U-T deserves praise when it does a good job. It did in this case. I think you are referring to my attacks on the U-T for its irrational, hate-filled and poorly-researched smears on Mike Aguirre. Remember, it was Aguirre who first exposed the excessive City employee pay. At the time, the U-T attacked him. Now it is picking up his points -- wisely. Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Response to post #34: Remember, too, that the U-T may not have trusted the way that the administration proposed to break out those figures. Best, Don Bauder

July 1, 2009

Don, re: #36 -- That would be a whole 'nother story. Can you imagine the s***storm that would've followed if they caught the city fudging those numbers. Take mileage for instance. If the city tried to hide some money in mileage when it didn't belong there, then you've got a great story about some PR person driving 3,000 miles a month or something else equally ridiculous.

I think that $1,900 would've been well spent as a check on the city administration's honesty.

July 1, 2009

Response to post #37: It would depend how thoroughly the City massaged the numbers it presented. Best, Don Bauder

July 2, 2009

"...massaged the numbers..."

LOL......

July 2, 2009

Response to post #39: The City massages numbers a lot. During the battle over the ballpark a decade ago, City bureaucrats testified before a grand jury that they were told by superiors to make it look like TOT receipts would pay for debt service on the ballpark. Best, Don Bauder

July 2, 2009

Perhaps when Platinum purchased the U-T, it agreed as part of the sales terms, to keep certain favored U-T employees on the payroll until they were eligible to retire. This could be a ploy to limit Platinum's expenses. The salaries of the excess employees would be off-loaded on the institute, and Platinum would kick in enough cash to pay these employees only if the donations won't cover the tab. This whole deal makes no sense to me.

July 2, 2009

Response to post #41: Yes, as I stated, this may be a creative way to dump some high-priced personnel. Where will the donations come from? (Certainly, some may chip in to cover themselves from being investigated.) Best, Don Bauder

July 2, 2009

SDSU's involvement with this institute would constitute a clear conflict of interest. Under Stephen Weber's leadership, SDSU has become a front for real estate interests who seek to use the university's power of eminent domain to raze residential areas for private commercial development.

July 2, 2009

Response to post #43: Yes, SDSU is for sale. But not just to real estate interests. What about the biotechs? Their intrusion, and bucks, have influenced the curriculum. SDSU is hardly alone. This is a national trend. It is reprehensible. Universities have sold out to business. Best, Don Bauder

July 3, 2009

Under Stephen Weber's leadership, SDSU has become a front for real estate interests who seek to use the university's power of eminent domain to raze residential areas for private commercial development.

By Burwell

The US Supreme Court allowed gov to engage in such misconduct under Kelso v City of New London, which IMHO is the worst decision to come out of the court in 50 years.

July 3, 2009

Response to post #45: Yes, that was a very bad decision. Best, Don Bauder

July 3, 2009

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