Interesting development in San Diego. The daily dead-tree Union-Tribune is spinning off an investigative unit as a nonprofit that will be headed by Lorie Hearn, the current editor of the U-T's investigative team, and will be called "The Watchdog Institute."
The U-T is giving the new organization a "substantial financial commitment" to start the operation, according to a report on voiceofsandiego.org, and as an "official partner," will get first dibs on its output. The organization might be housed at San Diego State University.
Hearn insists that "This is not the Union-Tribune's non-profit," according to VOSD. But this clearly is new territory for newspapers, which are struggling to pay for content that continues to make them at least a marginally compelling read. As VOSD reported: "(I)t 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."
There was some predictably cynical reaction posted last night to a similar report on the San Diego Reader. Some accused the U-T of using the new structure as a backdoor means to layoffs, and another called it "a journalistic pitbull-puppy mill."
The downside - especially for VOSD - is that the new organization will be poised to compete for donor dollars within the San Diego philanthropic community.
But on the upside, here is a newspaper that at least appears to be trying something creative to preserve its role as a community watchdog rather than simply laying off staff or closing down altogether. While some newspapers have partnered with nonprofits - witness the Washington Post and ProPublica - this pushes much deeper into hybrid territory.
Several years ago, I pushed a very similar idea for a Washington, D.C., bureau. If this works, maybe it will inspire somebody to try covering the federal government again.
The new organization is expected to begin operations in the fall.