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Al Jazeera adding Chicago reporters in push to expand U.S. audience

CNN veteran Ali Velshi will host prime-time program Al Jazeera. | Charles Sykes~AP/Invision

CNN veteran Ali Velshi will host a prime-time program on Al Jazeera. | Charles Sykes~AP/Invision

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Updated: April 30, 2013 10:03AM

Al Jazeera Media Network plans to beef up its Chicago bureau as it prepares to launch a 24/7 U.S. news channel later this summer.

The channel used to be Al Gore’s struggling Current TV until Al Jazeera took it off the former vice president’s hands in January for a cool $500 million.

The acquisition allows Al Jazeera to feed “a huge hunger for investigative, fact-based journalism,” director of international operations Ehab Al Shihabi said Monday, adding that nearly 40 percent of online visitors to Al Jazeera’s English-language website are from the United States.

“It’s going to be run by American talent and staff for the American audience,” he said about the New York City-headquartered network with a dozen U.S. bureaus, including Chicago and Detroit.

The channel will be devoted mostly to domestic news, with some international reports coming from Al Jazeera’s extensive network of overseas outposts.

Al Shihabi will discuss Al Jazeera’s plans Tuesday with students and faculty at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, where he will tout upcoming programming, some high-profile new hires and internship opportunities at Al Jazeera America.

Veteran investigative newspaper reporter Edward Pound (formerly of The Chicago Sun-Times) has been hired to helm the 16-person investigative team. CNN’s former chief business correspondent Ali Velshi will develop and host a primetime business program.

Al Shihabi’s Evanston visit is part of an outreach campaign to drum up interest and support for his channel’s big break into the U.S. market — a move likely to be met with some resistance among Americans leery of trusting a Middle East-based news organization bankrolled largely by the emir of Qatar.

While Al Jazeera’s original Arabic news channel has been panned in the West for being unbalanced, the editorially independent, international version has been better received (although it, too, has its critics). Lauded for its Arab Spring coverage, Al Jazeera English was praised by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for offering “real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and arguments between talking heads.”

In the States, Al Jazeera English is available in 4.7 million homes, mostly in the New York-Washington, D.C., area.

Al Jazeera was having a difficult time expanding its reach until it snapped up Current, broadening its footprint nearly 10-fold to more than 40 million U.S. households.

Al Jazeera English opened a small Chicago bureau last year. The new channel, Al Jazeera America, will build upon that, initially adding an estimated three to six people.

“We’re going to cover the under-covered areas,” Al Shihabi said. “We’re going to be the voice of the voiceless.”

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