A New Dog in Town? The Union-Tribune and the Watchdog Institute

by on July 5, 2009 · 8 comments

in Media, San Diego

Who are the watchdogs who have published the recent San Diego Union-Tribune series on the topic of City worker pay? The series and the links to individual employee names and compensation are published under the rubric of “Watchdog report.”

The names of U-T staff writer Eleanor Yang Su, and staff data specialist Agustín Armendariz are the attributed authors, but a web search provided some insight into what’s really going on behind the scenes.

One of the U-T’s senior editors, Lorie Hearn, is leaving the U-T to launch an independent non-profit, the Watchdog Institute. It’s telling that since June 29, voiceofsandiego has run two articles on the topic by Randy Dotinga (one HERE, the other HERE),  Don Bauder has posted to the Reader and there was an article on the editorsweblog.  A search for Watchdog Institute on signonsandiego as of July 4, however, still turns up nothing. Now why do you suppose that is?

How do you define “Independent?”

What we know so far is that the independent Watchdog Institute will be a collaborative effort with the U-T. The U-T, as “lead partner” will provide some level of financing and in turn will receive exclusive first rights to stories. The Institute’s “data driven investigative journalism” will be made available to other media outlets after the U-T gets first dibs. The U-T has spawned its own mini me!

The Institute, which will include Hearn as director, two reporters and a data specialist, is pursuing a partnership with San Diego State. Whether that includes a financial commitment from SDSU is unclear, but the Institute may find a home on the campus. They are also looking for additional donors to support the endeavor.

This is San Diego so don’t forget to follow the money…

Do you think there’s a money angle in all this? Is this a way for Platinum Equity, the paper’s new owner, to get staff off the payroll and get the same material for a lower price? Bauder has suggested that. Will there be a tax advantage for Platinum or potential donors? Will there be a financial commitment from SDSU and what will that mean? What are the benefits to Hearn in her non-profit director status?

And the Motives are…..

If you want to get some insight into what is to come, read Lorie Hearn’s “Instilling a Watchdog Culture in the Newsroom.”  Her “manifesto” is published in the Spring 2008 Neiman Report for the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

Her lead-in is “It was 2005, and San Diego, once a model of good fiscal management, was flirting with bankruptcy, and “America’s Finest City” had been saddled with a new moniker, “Enron-by-the-Sea.” At The San Diego Union-Tribune, the region’s major metro, we’d been writing day-to-day about the fissures in the financial foundation and attempting to trace the origins, largely due to enormous pension obligations.

I’ve lived here for 31 years and I’m trying to remember the halcyon days of good fiscal management, particularly since I hit town in 1978 when Proposition 13 was passed. While the City revenue side of the budget equation has swelled with the real estate boom of the 80’s, the dotcom boom of the 90’s and another real estate boom 6 years ago, the subsequent busts have also shrunk revenues. Since Prop 13, the City has never been able to reconcile the lack of a stable and adequate revenue stream with citizen expectations of service levels and facilities, City employee expectations of wages and benefits, and the private sector’s expectation of public subsidies, tax breaks, contracts and favorable land use policies. To reduce this fiscal situation to “an enormous pension obligation” is editorializing.

While editors editorialize in the newspaper section identified as “editorial” or “op-ed,” and you and I may have our own “largely due” theories, it doesn’t speak particularly well for the “Watchdog Culture.” Hearn states, “While it’s tough to prove that good journalism translates into increased circulation, we know it retains civic-minded readers who don’t want to be told what to think but don’t mind being told what to think about.

Mark Twain wrote that “People commonly use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp post; for support rather than illumination.” Good advice to keep in mind when reading the “data driven investigative journalism” that the Watchdog Institute promises.

It remains to be seen whether this is indeed a new dog …or whether it’s just the same old yellow cur.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar BillRayDrums July 5, 2009 at 10:18 am

First off, looks like U-T ain’t doing so good. Their comment system (by far the best thing that fishwrap has going for it) has been down for a few days. Did someone not pay the bills? Also, many of the syndicate videos are offline as well.

I think it’s pretty indicative of the current climate of the day that many people choose to get their news from smaller, more reliable sources. I’m proud to say the OB Rag has become my favorite place to get news, followed by Reddit and Digg.

With the abysmal apathy that U-T seems to exude from every pore of it’s new skin, that’s not going to help them in the log run. It’s sad to see yet another institution of the news go belly-up but really, what are we missing? An obvious bias slanted to the right? Puhleeze. You can find that anywhere now.


avatar bodysurferbob July 5, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Anna, thanks for bringing this to our attention. We OBceans have been caught up in our yearly festival, so have been distracted.


avatar doug porter July 6, 2009 at 9:58 am

compare the Sunday LA Times with the Sunday Union Tribune; the Times may be in trouble, but at least it takes longer that 20 minutes to read.


avatar mr fresh July 6, 2009 at 10:03 am

maybe we can get our own dog expert–see story on dave gilbert–to take this dog for a long walk down a short pier. or is using the dog metaphor insulting to the species?


avatar Frank Gormlie July 6, 2009 at 3:04 pm

The Sunday LA Times has always been better. I used to ask my friends who got it to save the news and opinion sections. But hey, the first thing I always look at is the comics section anyways.


avatar Patty Jones July 6, 2009 at 9:07 pm

And I only look at the comics if I hear Frank laugh.


avatar lane tobias July 6, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Anna you hit the nail on the head! It seems like the UT’s coverage of civic matters depend on whether corruption is individual or institutional. If an individual seems to be bucking the status quo, they get bombarded with coverage and ultimately cast in a negative light. But they will overlook the underlying corruption in the status quo itself – all in the interest of a headline. Like with Carolyn Smith and the SEDC.


avatar Lisa July 11, 2009 at 12:39 pm


This is the “same old dog” but it has new tricks.



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