Late last July, Minnesota Public Radio announced a round of layoffs and some restructuring of its news operation. Among other things, the latter meant moving the newsroom boss, Chris Worthington, to a new role overseeing an as yet-to-be-premiered investigative unit. Worthington’s permanent replacement, Nancy Cassutt, was announced late last week.
Despite the usual “nationwide search,” Cassutt was right there in the building, serving as MPR’s managing director for content initiatives. Early in her career, she was a government reporter before going on to work for WCCO-TV and KSTP-TV as well as at St. Paul-based Internet Broadcasting (now called Lakana) as a senior vice president. In other words: She has a bona fide reporting and news management résumé — and is indisputably local.
Mike Reszler, who had served as interim newsroom leader after Worthington’s departure, will shift to digital duties. News Director Mike Edgerly, who operates the newsroom’s gears and pulleys, will report to Cassutt. As executive director, MPR news and programming, Cassutt will oversee the entirety of MPR’s daily on-air and digital content.
The obvious questions for anyone moving into a position of leadership at MPR are twofold: “What do you want to do differently?” and “What can you do differently?”
The MPR “empire” as some like to call it, is an outsized presence among the country’s public broadcasters and something like an heirloom to Minnesota’s serious/self-serious news consumers. Anything remotely resembling change, much less radical change, is met with intense resistance by the audience. And how change happens within the company is often a mystery given its notoriously zipped-up cultural ethos.
Cassutt, who — according to my unscientific, generalized observation — is personally well-liked around town, likes the way MPR’s reporters delivered fresh content at news events (think last fall’s Black Lives Matter protest over the killing of Jamar Clark or the recent Super Tuesday caucuses) and believes there are ways to bring that same kind of enhanced immediacy to other stories. Or as she says: “We hope to focus on being a bit more free and lively on the radio end while making sure that our digital platforms remain robust.”
Avid consumers of MPR’s programming rarely complain about the quality of its produced stories. What you do hear are mutterings about an antiseptic quality to some of the programming — a consequence, perhaps, of too much production and moderation. The empire’s homogenized, formal quality too often lacks the occasionally unruly-but-essential passion of characters involved in big news stories. No one expects, and even fewer want to hear, MPR rolling around with the raging illiterati, but there’s something to be said for giving the audience a greater sense of the moment.
Cassutt gets the critique. “Yeah, we’re really good at production audio, which is great. But it’s also a high bar [for other facets of news reporting]. The thing is, there’s a lot this place pushes out in a day. Spontaneity is important in broadcasting. I’m not saying we aren’t spontaneous. But I can see where there is room to step it up a bit.”
Cassutt has yet to have individual sitdowns with marquee hosts Tom Weber, Kerri Miller and Cathy Wurzer. And while she says “all programs will be evaluated,” she does not foresee significant changes to cast or content at this time.
What and how much Worthington’s investigative unit — which includes Madeleine Baran, Curtis Gilbert and former state government reporter Tom Scheck — will eventually produce is not something Cassutt has a grip on at the moment. (She formally takes over March 28.)
She does say that the unit has aspirations to play on a national stage, which is all well and good. But those of us among the public interested in a full-time investigative team are curious if the MPR mission will be to deliver a steady stream of material, meaning solid AA and AAA stories while waiting for the next major league investigation, like Baran’s “Betrayed by Silence,” MPR’s much-lauded coverage on the archdiocese sex-abuse scandal.
A news programming executive generally finds comfort in a regular series of stories, blockbusters and otherwise, moving through the pipeline. (Befitting MPR’s aforementioned ethos, I’m now into Month Three of waiting to have a casual conversation with Worthington and Scheck about their unit.)
What Cassutt can emphasize with confidence is that MPR will continue focused reporting on sustainability, health and education, topics she has had a hand in cultivating in her previous role.
She mentions a monthlong look at the state’s water issues, kicking off on Earth Day, as well as “deep reporting” on mental health and graduation rates. All three subject lines are commendably substantive. But they also are very much within the familiar public radio eat-your-vegetables vein. It’s only an educated guess, but MPR’s generally well-educated audience might respond positively to more gimlet-eyed reporting on local business and behind-the-scenes political function than they are currently getting.
There are now 68 people in MPR’s news division, and Cassutt says she expects no new hires, despite the bounty of a $10 million gift from an anonymous benefactor last year.
“I don’t know how that’s going to be used,” she said. “But I do want to make sure all the roles we’re assigning have a head count attached to them. And some of that means the people we have have to perform several different functions. I’m telling people that in today’s world everyone has to be a Swiss Army knife. You have to be prepared for a set of tasks.”