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

The unit’s leader, Chris Worthington, says the group wants to develop stories that play both locally and on a national stage.

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.
MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert

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. 

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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.”

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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.