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Media: A New Watchdog on the Block

When I first read a story Monday about a new investigative non-profit news organization called ProPublica, I had one reaction and one question: First, that this is a sorely needed group, considering the growing trend among news outlets of trimming and, in some cases, eliminating investigative units as advertising revenue continues to drop.

When I first read a story Monday about a new investigative non-profit news organization called ProPublica, I had one reaction and one question: First, that this is a sorely needed group, considering the growing trend among news outlets of trimming and, in some cases, eliminating investigative units as advertising revenue continues to drop. (There are exceptions such as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its 10-person Watchdog Team and the New York Daily News with its four-person Sports Investigative Team.

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Second, Can the group really pull it off?

The group will be headed by Editor in Chief Paul E. Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. That’s a good start. When fully staffed next year, ProPublica will employ 24 full-time journalists, dedicated fully to the kind of long-term, muckraking projects that require deep pockets and patient bosses, according to yesterday’s release. ProPublica said its annual budget will be around $10 million, funded by several foundations and philanthropies, allowing the organization to give its content freely to news outlets of its choosing.

“We would offer a story exclusively to them, at no cost,” Steiger said to Editor & Publisher of a targeted news outlet. “What we would want in return is credit and the ability to put it on our Web site after a time and the right to follow up.”

It’ll be interesting to see which news outlet is the first to jump at this unique opportunity when the group begins publishing stories in early 2008. I wouldn’t be surprised if negotiations have already taken place. The New York Times, for example, has already said it would be willing to consider running such stories.

But will a paper like the Times continuously run in-depth investigative pieces from another news outlet? I’d love to be a fly on the wall at 620 Eighth Avenue when those discussions take place. Does the average Times or Journal or Washington Post reader take notice of bylines? Does delivering the best content to readers trump a paper’s desire to break a story on its own? Time will tell.

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What I can say, for sure, is that this project needs and deserves support from anyone who cares about the type of journalism that makes those in power accountable for their words and actions. Is ProPublica an unknown quantity? Sure. But can its success lead to a renewed interest in investigative work? We can only hope.

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