The non-profit investigative reporting venture funded with money from The San Diego Union-Tribune would operate independently from the newspaper, said the U-T senior editor who will become its executive director.

“This is not the Union-Tribune’s non-profit,” said Lorie Hearn, who currently oversees the paper’s watchdog journalism efforts. “It is my idea for starting a nonprofit, and I approached The San Diego Union-Tribune as partners.”

However, the U-T has made a substantial financial commitment to the fledgling enterprise and will be its lead partner, Hearn said in an interview today.

While certain investigative stories may be made available to all media organizations, they’ll be provided exclusively to official partners such as the U-T first, she said.

U-T editor Karin Winner announced to staff on Friday that Hearn will leave the paper to start The Watchdog Institute, which is negotiating a partnership that may allow it to be housed at San Diego State University.

“It’s still very much a work in progress,” said Hearn, who’s worked at the U-T since the 1980s. “I believe that The Watchdog Institute is going to happen, but there are logistical details to work out.”

Hearn said the venture may be in place by this fall. She will leave the U-T in July.

In recent years, journalists and philanthropists have created a number of non-profit news organizations as technology has lowered the barrier to entry for publication and, more recently, as newspapers have slashed staff numbers and struggled to stay afloat.

But it doesn’t appear that any newspaper has developed as tight of a relationship with a non-profit organization as The Watchdog Institute expects to have with the U-T.

The closest equivalent to the institute’s model may be The Huffington Post’s effort to create a non-profit investigative journalism arm. Huffington Post, a liberal news outlet created by onetime gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington, is for-profit.

The Poynter Institute, a journalism think-tank, published a piece last spring that said The Huffington Post model is “not without some complications,” particularly regarding ties between a for-profit company and a non-profit entity.


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