Public media puts millions into investigative work

By Brett Zongker

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 6 2011 1:01 a.m. MST

In San Diego, public grants allowed KPBS-TV and Radio to hire two journalists to cover the U.S.-Mexico border. They're among nine hired at stations in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, who are creating a joint bureau called Fronteras: The Changing America Desk.

Senior News Producer Natalie Walsh said the effort is paying off with investigations and long-form pieces, including a recent story about an increase in Mexican cowboys in rodeos and their challenges in that arena.

"I think we have a place at the table," and more respect, Walsh said, "now that we have the boots on the ground to back it up."

Walsh said that as bigger outlets in the area have cut staff and reduced coverage of the border, her staff has been able to step in.

At NPR, the radio audience has grown substantially over the years as it increased its emphasis on news. The network recently marked the first anniversary of its investigative reporting unit, which has eight full-time journalists.

NPR investigations have included revelations about mine safety, the military's handling of brain injuries and a series that aired this month on problems in U.S. morgues. Many of the projects were done with nonprofit partners, including ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and PBS' "Frontline." Last week, two public broadcast projects with ProPublica earned George Polk awards, one journalism's most prestigious honors.

Susanne Reber, whom NPR hired from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to head its investigative unit, said she is asking reporters to flex muscles that they already have — namely good sources — in a different way.

"They've been asked to do a certain kind of reporting, and most of the reporting on any radio service is fast turnaround," she said.

While other networks have cut back on international coverage, NPR maintains 17 foreign bureaus. It is also preparing to launch an effort to cover state capitals.

Executive Editor Dick Meyer, who spent most of his career at CBS, said NPR needs to do investigative work because others have eliminated such expensive projects.

"At CBS, I saw a radical evolution in an organization that was about a mission, about news, to one that was about making money," Meyer said. "NPR right now feels like CBS when I got there in the '80s."

Online:

Corporation for Public Broadcasting: http://www.cpb.org

Fronteras - The Changing America Desk: http://www.fronterasdesk.org/

NPR: http://www.npr.org

PBS: http://www.pbs.org

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