The human search engines

Investigative journalism has been one of the first casualities of a cash-strapped media climate – but a new website hopes to redress the balance

These are desperate times for traditional journalism in America. From east coast to west, media proprietors are competing to see who can panic the most and cut the deepest. McClatchy, the No 3 newspaper chain in the US, and even the the New York Times and Newsweek have announced redundancies. Sam Zell, the irascible chairman of the Tribune Company that owns the Los Angeles Times, has come up with the original idea of cutting pagination from his newspapers until news and advertising share equal space.

Slash and burn

Within a landscape scarred by slash and burn, a few buds of hope are appearing. One of the most unusual is blossoming on the 23rd floor of an office block in downtown Manhattan.

ProPublica.org aims to make up some of the ground lost to journalism by the current crisis of advertising revenues bleeding to the internet. In particular, it seeks to preserve the skills and value of investigative reporting – one of the first casualties of cuts by dint of its relative costliness.

It burst on to the US media scene last week with its first major investigation Рan expos̩ of how the US-backed Arabic language TV network Alhurra is counter-productive to US interests, poorly watched and a waste of $500m of public money. The investigation was produced as a documentary and aired on the prestigious TV magazine 60 Minutes, causing ripples through Congress and shaking up the Bush administration-backed network.

To appear on something as hallowed as 60 Minutes is astonishing for so new a venture, but then ProPublica is not an ordinary start-up. By the time it is fully up and running in August it will have a staff of 27, mostly reporters, including some of the most experienced and eminent names in US journalism. It will be the largest dedicated investigative team in America, and one of the largest in the world.

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