This story first appeared in inewsource’s weekend newsletter. Sign up for it here.
It’s been a week of impact and innovation at inewsource.
Reporter Megan Wood’s ongoing story into missed meetings by trustees of the Sweetwater Union High School District produced immediate impact Monday night, while several months of behind-the-scenes work by Brandon Quester and Jill Castellano led to the unveiling of inewsource’s automated database of San Diego campaign finance transactions.
Also in this edition of The Weekender: A Q&A with inewsource executive director and editor Lorie Hearn; our own Ashley Rodriguez was featured by RISE San Diego – an urban leadership and civic engagement nonprofit – for her work over the past decade; a new Weekly Ask video asks where you get your news; and a few aggregated inewsource databases for back-to-school needs.
Shyla Nott is out this week at the annual Online News Association conference in Austin, Texas. She returns Monday.
—Brad Racino, inewsource
Q & A with Lorie Hearn
When and why did you start inewsource?
I got the idea to start inewsource in 2008, when traditional journalism models were collapsing across the country. Locally, the Union-Tribune, where I was an editor, was sold and my job was dominated by laying off people. I was terrified to watch our overall coverage shrink as well as our ability to do time-consuming in-depth stories. Accountability reporting had been in my blood for decades. Others in my cross-country network of investigative journalists were experimenting with creating nonprofit newsrooms. One focused here on data-driven investigative reporting struck me as necessary and doable. We opened our doors in October 2009 in the journalism department of San Diego State.
inewsource is coming up on its 10th anniversary. What were some of the biggest challenges and milestones along the way?
We survived year two. That’s when our initial funding dried up and we could have gone out of business. Good journalism, personal sacrifices and generous supporters got us through. I’m especially proud of the eight national awards our work has earned, and the impact those stories have had on real people. Foundations and individuals have recognized our work and have given us the money we need to keep our small but ambitious staff employed. The start in 2011 of our partnership with KPBS was transformative: We had a newsroom to call home and a large, receptive audience to serve. I am grateful to this region that we have made it almost 10 years. That’s a major accomplishment for any nonprofit or for-profit.
What do you wish people understood about nonprofit news?
Nonprofit news doesn’t magically happen. The biggest mistake I made when I started inewsource was thinking that if we did good work, people would automatically give us money. No, I was told. You have to ask for it! The truth is it takes everyone who values reading our stories to give a little something to let us know you’re in our camp. I started inewsource to do journalism, but today I spend most of my time raising money. That’s just fine. It means I get to feed my passion for trustworthy journalism by inspiring the support to make it happen.
Claiming ‘hardship’ when dining with a gubernatorial candidate
Megan Wood reported last week that a Sweetwater school board member asked to be compensated for a meeting he missed while in Sacramento lobbying for his labor union and having dinner with Democratic governor candidate Gavin Newsom. The trustee, Nicholas Segura, claimed “hardship” as the reason for missing the school board meeting.
An inewsource review of school board records back to August 2016 shows the trustees have cited “hardship” 12 times for their absences. All five board members made the claim at least once, and they were paid.
Three days after inewsource published Megan’s story, the Sweetwater school board voted unanimously to tighten the rules for when trustees can claim “hardship” and get paid for missing a meeting. Segura also withdrew his payment request.
After Monday night’s meeting, one Sweetwater taxpayer credited inewsource’s reporting with getting the school board to address the issue.
“I have been challenging them on this for three years,” said Kathleen Cheers, and nothing happened.
One Sweetwater trustee reached out to thank Wood for her reporting.
“Doubt this will continue to be an issue now that you have ‘shed light’ on the shortcomings of the process,” wrote Sweetwater board member Frank Tarantino. “Thank you for taking the risks associated with good journalism.”
All the campaign finance you could ever want
Are you obsessed with the SoccerCity ballot initiative? Need to know who’s funding Chris Cate’s re-election bid? Want to download a database of more than a quarter million campaign finance records in San Diego for the past 11 years?
We’ve got you covered.
A lot of effort went into building inewsource’s fully automated follow the money tool that debuted this week. It contains more than 160,000 contributions totaling more than $100 million, and it’s updated nightly by an automated computer program we built specifically for this purpose. This type of useable and interactive campaign finance data doesn’t exist anywhere else in San Diego. Well, except maybe our San Diego County campaign finance database.
Reporter Jill Castellano filmed a nifty step-by-step with our partner KPBS about how to use the tool. You can watch the short video here.
HiCaliber Horse Rescue moving out?
An attorney for the Valley Center nonprofit said last month HiCaliber would be closing Sept. 15, though that’s not “set in stone.” We reached out to the attorney, Sean Jones, as well as HiCaliber’s founder, Michelle Knuttila, and co-founder, Romney Snyder, for an update.
Jones didn’t return our emails, calls or texts. Knuttila wouldn’t speak to us on the record. Snyder said, “We don’t respond to inewsource.”
According to a HiCaliber Facebook post in August, the group tried relocating to a smaller location, but three potential rentals fell through.
“According to several realtors, the critics of HiCaliber have apparently been faxing and emailing all property management companies and realtors with any listings in our area, attached with tall tales telling them not to rent to us,” the post said.
It’s still unclear whether the operation will be moving to a different location, though Knuttila has formed a for-profit company called AlphaMare LLC – which apparently has nothing to do with horse rescue.
We asked, you answered
In our Weekly Ask video from earlier this month, we wanted to know which map or database you – our readers – would like to see us build next. We received quite a few responses, including a request to map the condition of the city’s infrastructure and a map of San Diego schools “with their average hours of homework assigned per student.”
Do you have a request? Let us know. Our Weekly Ask videos were designed to stay relevant, so even though we have a new one out this week (Where do you get your news?), you can always reach out to us about older ones.
Students have been returning to school the past several weeks, and inewsource has you covered on school facts – at least on the database front. Not so much on the “get up, get out of bed, get on the bus” front.
Here’s a collection of tools you can use when evaluating a school’s performance across several metrics:
- The percent of students in California, by school and district, who met the “college and career readiness” benchmarks set by the College Board for SAT tests.
- The percent of students in California, by school and year, who received a composite ACT score of 21 or more.
- The number and percent of students in California, by school and year, who passed established benchmarks for AP tests.
- The number and percent of students classified as “homeless” within San Diego County school districts and charter schools.
- The financial responsibility scores of for-profit and nonprofit educational institutions in the U.S.
- The number and percent of students, by race and college, who pass remedial level English and math classes at California community colleges after two years.
inewsource’s donor engagement manager, Ashley Rodriguez, was highlighted this week on Facebook by RISE San Diego, an urban leadership and civic engagement nonprofit, for her work over the past decade in the nonprofit sector.
RISE labeled their post #WonderWomanWednesday – we couldn’t agree more.
We'll let you know when big things happen.