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A local non-profit investigative journalism organization says it’s assigning a reporter to cover the local congressional delegation in Washington D.C., a move that would restore San Diego-oriented coverage in the nation’s capital.

The Watchdog Institute also announced today that The San Diego Union-Tribune is severing its financial ties to the organization. The newspaper had helped fund the institute and published many of its stories. In addition, most of the institute’s staff came from the U-T.

In an indication that it is facing hurdles on the money front, the institute’s executive director said the institute has cut its staff and will rely in part on freelancers until it reaches “greater financial stability.”

No local news organization has had a full-time staffer covering Washington D.C. since the U-T eliminated its 64-year-old capital bureau in 2008 amid several rounds of newsroom staff cutbacks. All of the bureau’s four remaining reporters left the paper.

The Copley Press (which officially ran the bureau) and the U-T shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for exposing the epic corruption by local Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who ended up going to prison.

Lorie Hearn, a former U-T editor who runs the San Diego State-based institute, said reporter Brooke Williams will cover the local congressional delegation. Williams joined the institute from the U-T.

“This was a huge opportunity for the region to once again have local feet on the ground in Washington,” Hearn said via e-mail. “Local coverage has diminished in the capital as newsrooms have shrunk. As a public service nonprofit, we felt it was vital that the institute fill that void.”

She added: “Though we intend to provide regular reports on our representatives, our focus will be deeper, data-driven reporting in keeping with the institute’s larger mission.”

The institute, one of a number of new non-profit journalism organizations around the country, has published several stories in conjunction with the U-T and other news outlets since it was created a year ago.

The U-T signed a two-year agreement to help fund the institute. However, it allowed the agreement to be modified after a year, Hearn said, and the U-T decided to cut the financial ties.

The institute, which Hearn says had a $400,000 budget in its first year, hasn’t made its other funding sources public. However, Hearn said the institute will receive a grant from an unnamed national foundation to support its journalism and fundraising efforts.

Like two other news local outlets — and KPBS — the institute relies in part on philanthropy.

Hearn declined to provide more details about the grant, saying that the donor hasn’t yet announced the grant recipients.

The institute’s website hasn’t posted stories since July 1.

Hearn acknowledged financial hurdles, saying the organization has cut its staff from four to three and will rely on freelance investigative journalists. It wasn’t immediately clear today who left the organization, and Hearn declined identify the person for privacy reasons.

She said the institute plans to continue working with the U-T and other regional news organizations. It has already worked on stories with ABC News, KGTV-TV/Channel 10 (an ABC affiliate that has a partnership with the U-T), KPBS (which is also housed at San Diego State) and the Imperial Valley Press newspaper. (San Diego State has a satellite campus in Imperial County.)

The institute also announced today that it will create a repository for publicly available data on its website.


Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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