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The Watchdog Institute, a non-profit investigative journalism organization spun off from The San Diego Union-Tribune, published its first story and moved into offices at a local university over the weekend.

The institute hopes to launch a major investigative project within the next few months, said executive director Lorie Hearn, a former top editor at the U-T.

“We want to be serving the public much more quickly,” she said. “We don’t want to wait six months to come out with a project. We want to have a number of things that people can see.”

U-T editor Karin Winner announced in June that Hearn would depart to start the institute, but noting that Hearn wouldn’t be “leaving the U-T family entirely.” The institute, Winner said, would provide data-driven investigative journalism to the community.

The institute’s first story, a follow-up to a previous U-T investigation into questions regarding the city-funded hauling of debris following the 2007 wildfires, ran in the newspaper on Sunday.

Over the last several years, non-profit news organizations — including voiceofsandiego.org — have popped up around the country as newspaper, TV and radio newsrooms have shriveled. The Watchdog Institute is unique because much of its funding comes from a for-profit newspaper. Also, three of its four staffers worked until recently at the U-T.

Hearn declined to say what the institute’s budget will be. But she did say its initial financial supporters are the U-T and unnamed local individuals; she hopes to bring more donors on board.

The institute has a staff of four: Hearn, Brooke Williams (a former investigative reporter at the U-T), Denise Zapata (a former U-T editor) and the newly hired Kevin Crowe (a former computer-assisted journalism reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

The institute’s new offices are at San Diego State next to the School of Journalism & Media Studies. SDSU is providing the space for free in return for the institute offering internships to journalism students and helping the university create a master’s degree in investigative journalism. The university said institute staffers may also become guest lecturers.

Diane L. Borden, director of the journalism school, said via e-mail that the university plans to build a new digital media lab in addition to offering the master’s degree, which will target journalists in the middle of their careers.

At the moment, though, both the media lab and master’s degree program are on hold. The university is trying to find outside funding for the media lab, and the master’s degree depends on state funding that isn’t available, she said.

As for the institute’s relationship with the U-T, it has a two-year agreement with the newspaper to provide investigative stories, Hearn said, and the paper is its “main collaborator” at the moment. But Hearn said she is beginning to discuss partnerships with other news organizations.

“We’d like to have a financial commitment from them as well,” she said. “It sends a good message if your partner is willing to pay for investigative journalism.”

At least one prominent nonprofit journalism endeavor has already had to grapple with its relationship with its for-profit funder.

After consulting with lawyers, the newly created The Huffington Post Investigative Fund, a non-profit funded by the for-profit Huffington Post, decided to not give the Huffington Post any exclusive rights to its content. It is making its content available to all the media free; the Huffington Post gets the stories at the same time as everyone else.

According to an article published last spring by the Poynter Institute journalism think tank, the IRS is concerned about non-profit organizations whose work benefits their parent for-profit companies. The issue is whether the non-profit favors the “mothership” when it provides services while the parent company gets a tax break.

Hearn said she doesn’t know if the U-T will write off its support of the institute as a charitable expense. “I can’t speak to what the Union-Tribune’s tax situation will be,” she said.

As for the distribution of the institute’s work, she said a stories-for-free model is not “sustainable.”

“Initially, I thought it would be nice for everyone to have our content, but from a practical standpoint it’s not clear how to do that,” she said.

The plan now is to offer stories first to partners that would publish or air them and then make them available to anyone, she said. “The whole goal is to get the work we do distributed as widely as possible. We’re hoping that the things we take on are going to have real significant impact.”

The board is made up of president Charles Lewis, founder of The Center for Public Integrity; secretary Brant Houston, former executive director of the Investigative Reporters and Editors group and current Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; treasurer Marilyn Creson Brown, former chief financial officer of the U-T; board members Joyce Gattas, a dean at SDSU, and Mary Lindenstein Walshok, dean of UCSD’s University Extension; and U-T editor Winner.

— RANDY DOTINGA

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