By: Mark Fitzgerald
During the spectacular fall and imprisonment of Republican U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, readers throughout America became aware of the investigative prowess of The San Diego Union- Tribune. The U-T and Copley News Service shared this year’s Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for uncovering one of the worst bribery scandals in the history of Congress.
But just as locals know the best beaches, San Diegans know that in the last few years the once lightly regarded U-T has transformed itself into an aggressive paper that’s been busy collecting plenty of political scalps in its now famously troubled hometown.
For every national figure like Cunningham, it sometimes seems the U-T is also uncovering the sins of a dozen or more local pols. People like Nick Inzunza, a suburban mayor running for the California Assembly on a platform of helping the poor: The paper revealed he’s the slumlord of 100 mostly vermin-infested apartments. Or Jim Galley, the “pro-traditional family” Republican congressional candidate, whom the paper learned is an accused deadbeat dad, at one point married to two women at the same time.
Editor Karin Winner is well aware of her paper’s newfound reputation. “We were a newspaper that used to be accused of being in the back pocket of the establishment, and kind of a puppet of the mayor,” she says.
That image started disappearing when the U-T adopted watchdog journalism as its turnaround strategy about four years ago. Winner appointed investigative reporters throughout the paper, including business and sports. Watchdog journalism became part of staffers’ performance appraisals.
This newsroom change couldn’t have happened at a better time for San Diego ? or for reporters hungry for juicy stories. “The seventh-largest city in the United States is coming apart at the seams,” notes Metro Editor Lorie Hearn. Beautiful San Diego is in a financial free-fall, propelled by a pension deficit that could reach as high as $2 billion. Its leadership often seems as muddled as the finances. Among those taken down by the U-T: two city council members who took bribes to drop the “no-touch” rule enforced at local strip clubs.
Metro editor Hearn is able to borrow reporters and a computer expert to conduct ambitious investigations. One team created the first accurate database of city-owned properties and land; it’s so thorough that the city wants to buy it, adds Winner.
“We’ve worked hard to achieve a real neutrality in our stories,” Hearn says. “There’s no inflammatory tone. The stories are full of meticulously documented numbers. It’s basically bulletproof reporting.”