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A top editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune is leaving the paper to start a local non-profit watchdog institute that will provide “data-driven investigative journalism” to media outlets, including the U-T.

The Watchdog Institute will “join a handful of new models across the country that have formed to ensure the future of investigative journalism,” U-T editor Karin Winner said in an e-mail distributed to newspaper staff Friday.

Lorie Hearn, a senior editor at the paper, will run the institute, the e-mail said. “She and a team of two reporters and a data specialist will work closely with editors, reporters and photographers on the staff to produce short and long-term projects for us,” the e-mail said.

According to Winner, the institute will be supported by donations and grants. It wasn’t immediately clear how the U-T will support the institute, although Winner wrote that the partnership between the two entities shows the paper’s “strong financial commitment to continuing to provide public service work.” Winner said the U-T will be in the institute’s “lead partner.”

She noted Hearn “isn’t leaving the Union-Tribune family entirely.”

The Watchdog Institute is in negotiations with San Diego State University over whether it will be housed on campus. While discussions are continuing, the university probably won’t fund the institute directly, spokeswoman Gina Jacobs sad.

Nonprofit investigative reporting centers associated with universities have recently sprung up in such places as Wisconsin and New England.

Newspapers across the country, including the newly sold U-T, are struggling to survive amid plummeting advertising revenue.

— RANDY DOTINGA

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