An Investigative News Site Gets a Web Facelift

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The media is not in a good way right now. Advertising has fallen off a cliff, taking revenue with it, and even if the economy recovers, it’s far from clear that those funds will ever flow to mainstream news organizations at the level they once did as the media landscape grows more crowded. Magazines and newspapers have been cutting back on staff for years now. I’ve seen it here at TIME magazine, which has closed a number of foreign bureaus—including the Tokyo office, which I ran as recently as 2007. The mainstream media can still put together great work—see the Times’ ambitious Year at War series, or CNN’s intense, on the ground focus on the earthquake in Haiti. Still, the resources are drying up on every end.

But there’s some creativity to go with your destruction, and a number of news sites—many of them non-profits—have arisen even as newspapers, magazines and TV news has withered. One of the best is ProPublica, a Web news site—funded primarily by philanthropic donations, including a large grant from the Sandler Foundation—that focuses like a laser on investigative reporting. ProPublica scores hits on the very subjects that daily papers have been forced to cut back on: long investigations, budgetary shenanigans, regulatory failure, environmental crime. Though many of their investigations were initially done in conjunction with existing papers, they’ve recently been striking out more on their own—as anyone would know who has followed their great coverage of the Gulf oil spill and BP’s past history of safety problems, chiefly from reporters Abrahm Lustgarten and Marian Wang. (Full disclosure: I’m friends with Amanda Michel, ProPublica’s director of community engagement.)

ProPublica’s homepage used to be a slog, but that’s changed. The organization just unveiled a site overhaul, and it looks much better. Investigations—like oil spill or its long look into the practice of hydrofracking for natural gas—are put into categories, with each story listed. That allows you to start from the beginning, or jump in later if you’re already familiar with the topic. Each of those pages comes with a “story so far” blurb, which gives readers some context to what they’re actually reading. It’s a nice play on the changing format of the web—there’s no need to have the endless repetition with a daily update, which is how even the best papers still cover a long, evolving story like the Gulf spill. But at the same time—unlike many blogs—it’s not set up only for those few readers who live and breathe, for example, health care reform. You can also easily access ProPublica’s secret weapon: its analytical tools, like the Recovery Tracker, which allows you to  find out how stimulus money is being spent in your county.

With its ultra-serious attitude, ProPublica is journalism at its purest—while taking advantage of what the web can do. I don’t know if it’s business model is sustainable for the long-term—if the grants ever ran dry, it’s difficult to imagine the site being able to pay its bills off advertising like the rest of us. But in the meantime it’s demonstrating that investigative reporting might not die with the daily paper. And if they can figure out a way to launch an investigation into Twilight—the ultimate stimulus spending this 4th of July weekend—they might even get some real traffic.