NPR invests in first-ever investigative unit
Signaling its ambitions to dig deeper and break more big stories, NPR News has hired a news manager to lead its first-ever investigative reporting unit.
Susanne Reber, a radio journalist who built an investigative program at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., joined NPR on Jan. 4 as deputy managing editor of investigations.
The size and scope of the new unit have yet to be determined, according to Reber and her boss, NPR News Executive Editor Dick Meyer, but its core team will support NPR reporters chasing big stories and collaborating with journalists from other nonprofit investigative groups.
NPR is investing in investigative journalism as commercial news media cuts back and nonprofit news entities look to fill the gap. ProPublica, the New York-based investigative reporting center launched two years ago with backing of the Sandler Foundation, is the largest of the new nonprofit centers and one of several potential partners for NPR.
Within public broadcasting, Minnesota Public Radio also is expanding its commitment to this type of reporting. During the MPR-hosted Future of News Summit in November, President Bill Kling announced a $5 million challenge grant for a new “enterprise news fund.” He described it as a permanent fund supporting enterprise journalism, but the scope of the reporting and size of the fund are still under wraps. MPR already produces long-form investigative work on a national scale through its documentary unit American RadioWorks.
There’s growing support within the field and outside it for public radio to take on a greater watchdog role. In addition to the Columbia University’s Journalism School 2009 study that called for more “accountability journalism” from public broadcasting, a report issued last week by the Public Radio Audience Growth Task Force (story, page 5) endorsed greater spending on investigative reporting.
Meyer, whose earlier career with CBS News included investigative reporting, said the decision to expand NPR’s commitment in this arena was a no-brainer. “It seems really obvious that this is a direction we need to go in,” he said. “It was on our radar from the moment I got here.” Meyer left CBSNews.com to sign on as editorial director of NPR digital media in 2008; he became executive editor of NPR News last spring.
As the decline of ad-supported news media accelerates, major daily newspapers and commercial networks are “radically pulling back from investigative journalism,” Meyer said. “In terms of really ambitious journalism, there’s a tremendous vacuum, and it’s NPR’s mission and obligation to fill that vacuum.”
“NPR is becoming a primary news source for more and more people, and people expect investigative journalism from their primary news source,” Meyer said. “Investigative reporting, aggressive reporting is expected, and we intend to provide it.”
“The commitment to this by everybody in the newsroom and management is total, long term and patient,” Meyer said. “We are going to build this very slowly and systematically.” NPR funds the investigative unit within its current budget, “moving people and resources and funding around,” he said, and it will seek more support as it scales up operations.
The network began recruiting an investigations editor after Brian Duffy, who last spring moved from his job as managing editor to the designated point man for enterprise reporting, left the newsroom to work in NPR’s development office. Duffy stepped out of news management for family reasons and because he’s under contract to write a book, he said.
Reber stood out in a field of strong applicants for the job, according to Meyer. She ran “a really, really impressive program at the CBC.” Her experience in radio reporting and training investigators made her uniquely qualified, Meyer said. “No one in North America has her level of radio experience.”
“Susanne is a gifted radio storyteller and a tenacious, sophisticated investigative reporter,” Meyer said in a Dec. 11 memo announcing her hiring. “She is the perfect match for NPR News as we expand and invest in our ambitious investigative program.”
Since 2003, Reber has headed the CBC News investigative unit in Toronto, managing probes that won top journalism prizes, including the 2008 Michener Award for reporting on excessive use of Taser guns by Canadian police. Under her leadership, the unit provided investigative journalism training and produced both local and national reporting. In addition, she has extensive experience in computer-assisted reporting. She previously served as deputy managing editor of CBC National Radio News, an executive producer for national news, and a field reporter who took international assignments.
“They’ve brought me here with my extensive radio background to be an ambassador for this kind of reporting within NPR,” Reber said. “I’m letting everybody know we’re open for business.”
“NPR has a ton of really good reporters,” Reber said. “One reason I am here is to build talent and give other people the chance to do this kind of work.” Reber and Meyer said they’d like to rotate reporters through the new unit, giving experience to those interested.
Reber knows first-hand the importance of mentorship in training investigative reporters. Her mentor was Gerald McAuliffe, a CBC investigative reporter who “years and years ago” would talk with her about his stories. McAuliffe, who has since retired, asked her to work on his investigation of marijuana smugglers, she recalled. “He said to me, ‘If it hits your outrage button, chances are it’s going to hit someone else’s. Just go for with your gut.”
McAuliffe “helped me wake up and realize I wanted to do this, that this is how I’m wired,” Reber said.
“I think this is incredibly exciting,” said Daniel Zwerdling, national desk correspondent whose investigations have won top journalistic prizes. In his three decades at the network, “this is the first time ever that NPR has hired a fairly high-level manager specifically to support, shepherd, bless and work with investigative projects.”
Former NPR News chief Bill Marimow also championed investigations during his time as v.p. and co-managing editor, 2004-06. Marimow, now editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “was a huge help to people doing this sort of reporting because he was a great investigative reporter himself and understood what it takes,” Zwerdling said. “But that was just part of what he was about. He had many other responsibilities.”
In addition, Marimow encountered a newsroom culture that placed higher value on sound-rich reporting, according to NPR veterans. “At that time there was a resistance and even embarrassment about doing investigative reporting,” said former NPR News chief and ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, who joined NPR in 1997 after leading CBC Radio News. “There was an aversion to the risk-taking that investigative journalism requires.”
Also, NPR management’s commitment to investigative reporting has lapsed during previous economic downturns. In late 2002, Zwerdling was about to be laid off and his investigative beat eliminated when protests by news colleagues prompted NPR brass to reinstate him. He has broken news, shaped government probes and won journalism prizes since a 1986 story on the explosion of the NASA Space Shuttle Challenger, reported with Howard Berkes.
“At a time when news organizations are moving away from investigative reporting and the work is moving out to Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica, building an in-house unit can only add to NPR’s value to its audience and to the stations,” Dvorkin said. “It will be yet another thing that will make NPR unique.” The Center for Public Integrity is a Washington-based investigative nonprofit headed by Bill Buzenberg, a former news chief for Minnesota Public Radio and, before that, NPR.
Dvorkin, who was once Reber’s boss at the CBC, said he encouraged her to take the NPR job. “She’s a great journalist and an ideal employee in my experience,” he said. “Susanne’s a great leader, and she’s very eager to do whatever job she’s given.”
Web page posted Jan. 11, 2010
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