MPR aims to go big with investigative unit: ‘No one is off-limits’

MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert
Chris Worthington says he has been out barnstorming the country, looking for partners interested in and capable of offering various forms of resource assistance to MPR’s work.

By any measure, Minnesota Public Radio — reporter Madeleine Baran in particular — did a remarkable job with the long-running, evolving investigation into sex abuse within Minnesota’s Catholic dioceses. 

Among several prestigious national honors, “Betrayed by Silence” was a Peabody Award winner last year. Encouraged by the success of that series, MPR has formed a permanent, full­-time investigative unit that includes Baran and colleagues Tom Scheck and Curtis Gilbert. Defined investigative units are a rarity in most newsrooms these days. At best, a couple of reporters and an editor might be designated for periodic investigative duty, while maintaining a presence on regular beat coverage.

MPR clearly has higher ambitions here, a desire to develop stories that play both locally and on a national stage, as “Betrayed by Silence” did. As evidence of that, the unit’s leader, Chris Worthington, MPR’s managing director, Investigations and Documentaries, says he has been out barnstorming the country looking for partners interested in and capable of offering various forms of resource assistance to MPR’s work, somewhat in the mode of ​ProPublica. (The question of why MPR, which received a $10 million gift from an anonymous donor last fall, needs assistance from other news organizations is one I’ll get to below.)

In an interview that took several months to come together (MPR being a bit of an antonym for “spontaneity”), Worthington laid out a mission defined by stories that demonstrate a serious “imbalance” in terms of rights promised and rights regularly accorded, as well as financial malfeasance and fraud, often regarded as ground zero for investigative journalism. 

The razor’s edge editors and reporters must walk, particularly in the context of large-scale financial fraud, is truly reporting “without fear or favor,” as the old newsroom saying goes. Commercial news operations, local TV in particular, rarely target prominent, well­-established individuals, companies or corporations. The often implicit directive from “upstairs” being: “There are plenty of other stories out there. We don’t [bleep] where we eat.”

MPR’s creation of an investigative unit, one asserting a determination to produce investigations of national substance, implies an intention to take on stories regardless of revenue/underwriting blowback. The reality will be interesting to watch. Despite its non­profit status, MPR is at least as well interwoven with Minnesota’s most prominent players as the Star Tribune or the Pioneer Press, neither of which is currently using the model of creating separate, formal investigative units. (The Star Tribune’s best-known investigative reporter, ​Paul McEnroe, left the paper last fall​ to join KSTP­-TV.)

Worthington acknowledges MPR’s deep network of underwriting relationships and offers assurances that “no one is off­-limits.”

Both Worthington and Scheck, a well­-regarded political reporter before making the shift to investigations, insist they will not be deterred by whose toes they might be stepping on. Each, separately, says they never have and never would accept being told by a supervisor to lay off someone for any reason, much less naked business considerations.

The rejoinder to that answer is always this: Smart, career-­minded news people don’t need to be told where the line is. A part of their success involves knowing where that line is drawn and staying a half­-inch behind it. Both Scheck and Worthington acknowledge the example of Bill McGuire’s back­dated stock options​ at UnitedHealth, a big national story rich in “imbalance,” and one The Wall Street Journal pulled out from under the noses of local reporters.

But there is reason to be hopeful that MPR’s ambitions will bear fruit. All four people on the team have proven records for thoroughness and accuracy. (Before heading up the investigative unit, Worthington was MPR’s newsroom manager for nine years after moving over from the Pioneer Press.​ His duties were recently assigned to ​Nancy Cassutt​, whose new title is Executive Director, MPR News and Programming.)

Beyond that, as I say, their “national stage” ambition requires subject matter that carries more weight and social significance than slam-dunk exposés of bogus microwave repair shops and telephone solicitation scams.

As you might expect, Worthington isn’t talking or giving any hint of what stories his team is currently working on, or even when the first example of their work will be broadcast. But he is talking about the design and composition of the relationships he’s exploring with other organizations.

“These things can come together in an almost infinite variety of ways,” he said. “I’ve used the example an investigation into cars and how we then might approach a trade publication or a newspaper, a TV station or public radio in Detroit, any of which may know a lot more about the car industry than we do. They may contribute anything from reporting resources to a camera crew for a web component to airtime for co-­broadcast. What it is is a recognition that ​publication ​today involves many more platforms than it did several years ago.”

He also says, remarking on the astonishing windfall of documents pouring out of the so­-called Panama Papers, that MPR is not a member of the ​International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. “But that is an amazing example of a partnership.”

Scheck says the current internal arrangement has each of the three reporters pursuing their own stories with no expectations that anyone else in the MPR newsroom will be handing up great ideas they’ve squirreled away until that wistfully ­imagined, mirage-­like summer when they had nothing else to do but report out one long, complex piece.

“Every newsroom is a competitive place,” said Scheck. “This one is no different. I have a list of ideas I’ve wanted to work on, based on conversations over the years with sources in politics and over at the Capitol. Everyone does, I think. Madeleine alone seems to have like a gazillion ideas. But we all tend to be pretty protective of that stuff. More to the point, we’re all ambitious. We want to tell big stories.”

Worthington says his unit will not be running a rake across Cassutt’s newsroom (managed day­-to-­day by Mike Edgerly), grabbing away “the good stuff” from beat reporters. “But if a story comes up that requires the kind of time only we can give it ….”

On the topic of resources, money to be specific, Worthington professes to have no more of an idea what MPR or its parent, the American Public Media Group (APMG) is doing with that $10 million gift than Cassutt. “Honestly, I don’t know,” she said. “We’ve got our hands out just like every other department. You should ask.”

In response to questions directed at CEO Jon McTaggart regarding details of the gift — specifically about how the money might be allocated to news programming or the investigative unit — the APMG media relations folks wrote back:

When we announced the anonymous gift, we explained that it would be directed broadly to two strategic priorities:

    • Investments in technology that enable digital program growth and allow us to be more interactive with our audiences;
    • Investments in music programming: digital program growth, marketing, music in the schools.

That investment in technology will enable us to reach and serve more people, including those who want access to our news programming on more digital platforms. Investing in the systems, infrastructure and direct development of apps will directly benefit our news programming, as well as the investigative unit’s work.

Asked if they could provide ​any ​specifics, since even two of McTaggarts managers seemed in the dark about it, a second reply came back: “We don’t give specifics about budget for any department but we believe in robust investigative journalism and are making significant financial commitments to it. We are just starting to make investments with this gift. As we get farther into the work we’re funding, we’d be happy to give you some examples of how this gift ­­and others ­­are supporting our journalistic endeavors to serve our audiences and communities more effectively.”

That one might need a fuller investigation.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/06/2016 - 12:34 pm.

    Nice!

    I’m happy to see MPR taking on the old-school role of investigative reporting. I wish more news outlets would follow suit and resurrect their long-dormant teams.

    The best disinfectant is a little sunshine. Turn on those lights and watch the cockroaches scurry!

  2. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 04/07/2016 - 09:02 am.

    MPR’s first investigative effort

    I can give MPR a very good tip relative to its first investigative effort. News that some Minnesotans, including Gov. Mark Dayton, now want to spent $100 million to counteract “widening racial economic disparities” ought to provide impetus for local and committed investigative reporters to swing into action. They should look into the enormous amount of money already spent locally in the past half-century to help disadvantaged people.

    I have been in the volunteer trenches 34 years. My efforts started with runaway and homeless teens in New York City and Minneapolis and have included people with learning disabilities, immigrants and currently ex-prisoners among others. I have never been in a program that did not have enough staff and money to service the people we were to help. In fact, a consistent concern of staff was whether there would be enough people in their program to justify funding for another year.

    The reality is the United States is, by far, the most generous country in the world. One of the aforementioned immigrants from Vietnam once told me her parents were staggered by the amount of assistance available to people needing help in this country.

    Investigative journalists should take a look at the millions and millions of charity dollars that have already been spent as well as the duplication of services. They will find, as I have after spending over three decades trying to have an impact, that spending more money makes very little difference. For sure, some will benefit from various programs. Most will not. The problem comes down to the people themselves. They have to want to change their lives. Sadly, most do not want to undertake the effort required for that to happen.

    I have learned the easier you make it for dependent people, the more dependent people you are going to have. Sadly, that is a reality folks adhering to the liberal philosophy cannot accept. For them the answer is always, “If we just spend a few more million . . . .” It would be great if that solution worked but it does not. That assessment comes from someone who has been there . . . for 34 years.

    I am sure the folks at MPR will jump on this one right away.

    • Submitted by Riley Curran on 04/07/2016 - 12:09 pm.

      Stop projecting a conservative framework that doesn’t fit

      I have also been a volunteer for most of my life, seemingly less intense than your experience, and I find your conclusions misinformed and demeaning to those you strive to help.

      Effective charity is extremely difficult, and that is why it so often misses it’s target. It is also extremely expensive to replace the all encompassing benefits of a happy healthy home environment. But, things are drastically better than they used to be – in that they are very effective at solving difficult problems.

      These topics should challenge your position:
      1. Housing First Initiative – now practiced worldwide
      2. The free IUD initiative targeting lower income women in Denver, CO
      3. The macro trends of all things “bad” reducing in the US over the last 40 years
      4. Being the most generous country #’s wise, is not the same as % of economy wise
      5. New programs of unrestricted money simply given to the world’s poor, and how they spend it
      6. Success of Portugal’s drug decriminalization policy
      7. Nicholas Kristof’s article about the entire world getting better on every single measure
      8. Project Success’ ground breaking work on creating systems that measure efficacy of their programs in terms that are fully comparable to test scores around math and reading.

      Questions I have for you:
      1. Which groups did you volunteer for that focused on funding over care?
      2. Have you magnified your efforts by becoming a leader within these organizations?
      3. Did you attempt to create an unbiased assessment of the value of your volunteering before concluding that charity work is useless and that poor deserve it because they don’t work hard enough?

      I have a good friend that is helping redesign the shelter system for Minneapolis, and she agrees that the special sauce requires the people, the design of the programs, and the funding to make these programs work effectively.

      Honestly, I think it is a tragedy that you frame your important and generous work in futility and condescension.

      • Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 04/07/2016 - 08:30 pm.

        My response

        My belated response to your questions.

        Question 1: You miss the point. All groups were well-funded and had dedicated staff. There is already plenty of assistance available to anyone seeking to change their life. More money is not the answer.

        Question 2: The answer is obvious. I have been helping people for 34 years. For certain, that is a more consistent that “magnified” effort. Also, because I can clearly see faults in a system does not mean I give up (see earlier reference to 34 years.)

        Question 3: Read more carefully. I never wrote my charity work is “useless.” Again,spending more money is not the solution.

        And if you get a chance, please pass that assessment on to Gov. Dayton and his fellow travelers.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 04/07/2016 - 09:10 am.

    Amen, Jeff Michaels, Amen

    If MPR can be fair and balanced that would be a start. I would like to see one news outlet investigate, report and let the chips fall where they may. It has been decades since that took place nationaly in America.

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