While Susanne Reber was running NPR's investigative unit, the radio news operation teamed up with the Center for Investigative Reporting on a project on the excesses of a government campaign that encouraged monitoring of so-called "suspicious behavior" by Americans. Reber recalls being impressed by a cartoon that CIR produced for the investigation.
"That was an insight into how they work and how innovative they can be," Reber says. "It was very clever and accessible. That little cartoon just shows what you can do if you think about how we can tell the story."
Now Reber is switching sides. She's joining the Berkeley, California-based center on Monday as senior coordinating editor for multiplatform projects and investigations. The position was created expressly to cater to Reber's strengths, according to Mark Katches, CIR's editorial director.
Reber had been deputy managing editor of NPR's first investigations team since its inception two-and-a-half years ago.
Founded in 1977, the Center for Investigative Reporting is the country's oldest nonprofit investigative reporting group. In 2009, the center launched California Watch, the Golden State's largest investigative reporting outlet. In March, it took over The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit journalism organization covering the San Francisco Bay area.
As traditional news outlets have cut back sharply on accountability reporting, established nonprofits like the center and new ones like ProPublica have worked to make up for the shortfall.
"Many newsrooms have no investigative reporters at all, or cut back their investigative clout," Reber says. "The investigative nonprofits like CIR have that as their only mission."
With the acquisition of The Bay Citizen, the center's staff nearly doubled, from 40 to 75. Reber's position is one of several created to help manage the growth. "As we've expanded, we realized we needed stronger editing and project management in place," Katches says. "Susanne is a well-known star in the investigative editing community, and we've known her for a long time. We've worked with her on stories and projects. When we knew that she was leaving NPR, we jumped at the chance" to hire her.
So why did Reber leave NPR? Neither Reber nor an NPR spokesperson would say. Margaret Low Smith, NPR's senior vice president for news, could not be reached for comment. One source at NPR pointed out that Reber's position and team had been created under a previous regime.
Reber says she's excited to join an organization that is entirely investigative, produces content on many platforms and has a wide area of coverage. At the center, she will be helping to bolster national and international reporting as well as overseeing health and environmental reporting for California Watch, Katches says.
Susanne Reber. Photo courtesy of CIR.
"I'm from Canada," Reber says. "As far as I'm concerned, California is a country."
At NPR, Reber's team produced 170 investigative stories across a variety of platforms during her tenure. That unit will continue, headed in the interim by Steve Drummond, the national desk editor.
"We have many high profile investigations that will be rolling out in the next several weeks," says Anna Christopher, NPR's media relations director.
In a memo to staff announcing Reber's departure, Smith credited the editor with building the NPR investigative unit from scratch and with developing fruitful partnerships with other nonprofit journalism entities―ProPublica, PBS' "Frontline" and the Center for Public Integrity.
Partnerships will be a major part of Reber's mission at CIR. "I'm going to continue working with the partners that I've already made working with NPR," she says. "The part that's new for me is working in a newsroom that's entirely investigative.... I'm all about the investigative."
Reber cited a multiyear investigation of Canadian peacekeeping efforts in Somalia, done while she was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as especially crucial to her development as an investigative journalist.
"It was during that investigation that I first confronted in a personal way just how far an institution like the military will go to cover up wrongdoing and lies, and attack the reporter doing the work," Reber says. "That CBC investigation led to a public inquiry into the coverup, the dismantling of Canada's Airborne Regiment and the resignation of the Chief of the Defence Staff."
Reber is also proud of the work she did at NPR. Some of the more prominent investigations she directed include stories on the nation's dysfunctional coroners and medical examiners; toxic air pollution in hundreds of communities; the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses; and mine safety in the wake of the 2010 coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29.
But, she says, she's ready to move on. "When you make a change, you always leave people behind that you love," she says. "But I'm really pumped about working" at the center.
Prior to joining NPR, Reber led the investigations unit at the CBC for six years. That stretch capped a long career at the broadcast news operation that included stints as deputy managing editor and executive producer of CBC National Radio News and an extensive run as a reporter.
Reber has two daughters, ages 16 and 21. Whenever possible, she loves returning to Canada and spending time outdoors.
While there are a couple more positions to fill, Reber's hiring represents something of a culmination of CIR's spring of expansion. "It's been a period of really rapid growth," Katches says. "I think we have some settling in to do."