When John Christie and Naomi Schalit came up with the idea of forming their own independent nonprofit news reporting service, I didn’t think it had a chance of succeeding. After all, newspapers are constantly shrinking, and people are limiting themselves, more and more, to just the news from groups and sources they agree with politically.
So I was delighted when not only did John and Naomi succeed with the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, but they have flourished, giving us truly independent, in-depth reporting that is so unusual at a time when news reporters have only hours to cover a story before moving on to the next one.
John was editor of this newspaper when, in 2009, the papers were sold. He could have retired, he notes, and “investigative journalism was declining.” He cites lots of “shrinkage in the number of news reporters,” leaving no time for investigative journalism. He felt that state government, in particular, was not getting scrutiny.
Naomi had been a journalist at this newspaper, as well as on Maine Public Radio, and they teamed up, both personally and professionally. And they’ve now published more than 200 truly outstanding news reports.
I attended a talk by John and Naomi recently at Cary Memorial Library in Wayne, and it was fascinating as they dipped into the details of some of their more significant stories, some of which took many months of research. Josh Moore, an award-winning reporter who just joined them as executive editor, and Hildie Lipson, CEO, joined John and Naomi for the talk.
As they told their inspiring story, focusing on some of the investigative reports that were especially significant, another one of their stories came to mind: John’s personal memoir about his Armenian grandmother, Gulenia Hovsepian Banaian, and her odyssey as a refugee fleeing Turkish persecution during the early days of the Armenian genocide. It was a stunning and inspiring story.
One of the reports featured in the talk was Dave Sherwood’s series describing how the Maine lottery preys on the poor. Dave, one of my favorite reporters, works part-time for MCPIR, and stirred us all up on this one. Many of us wrote about the issue, although we didn’t stir up enough concern that the Legislature did anything more than order up a study of the issue. As John noted, “The state has an addiction” to the lottery money. The state study is expected to be completed by the end of the year, and Sherwood will continue to report on the issue.
At the talk, Naomi told us about her four-part series on lead poisoning of children, a very important story. “The state’s goal was to eliminate childhood lead poisoning by 2010,” she told us. “It never happened.” She did say that Lewiston and Auburn have launched an initiative to resolve the problem in their cities, cited as the worst lead problem area in the state.
A good one-third of their stories have resulted in action, they reported, including major changes to the state’s bail and pension systems. They say that their job is to give citizens information so they can act and change things. But “we don’t want to be crusading on issues,” Naomi said. “We just give you the information.”
MCPIR, astonishingly, provides its news reports free to Maine newspapers and other news sources. Right now they have 32 media partners that publish their stories, including the newspapers owned by Maine Today Media.
You can read both current and past reports on their website, www.pinetreewatchdog.org (and don’t you just love that name!). You can also support their important work by making a donation. As a nonprofit, most of their revenue comes from donations and grants. They get important support, as well, from the Institute for Nonprofit News.
You should take a look at their website. In the elections section, you’ll find their Voter Survival Guide, very helpful in this year’s confusing election. The guide includes a list of key groups and websites where you can get campaign and election information. On their website, in the Political Party Time section, there’s even a list of upcoming political events along with detailed reports about the political money trail.
From health to energy, the environment to veterans’ issues to ethics to public safety and politics, the breadth of their reporting is impressive. We are very lucky to have these folks working here in Maine.