In romantic relationships, it’s often the small courtesies that express love best: doing the dishes, picking up the kids, making the coffee, passing the remote. When you’re a couple running a news outlet together, such small kindnesses can take unique forms. For John Christie and Naomi Schalit, it’s the order of their names on the stories that they write together: Each insists that the other’s name appear first in the byline. They’re newlyweds, you should know.
John and Naomi, 64 and 54, respectively, run Pine Tree Watchdog, a publication of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit grant and donor-supported investigative outlet focused on state government. Together they report, edit, and distribute their articles to 25 media partners, mostly newspapers, free of charge.
They may be newcomers in marital terms, but they are old-school reporters, and though they married and launched their site in 2010, they worked together as journalists before. John is the former publisher of The Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. He hired Naomi in 2006 to be the opinion-page editor for the two dailies. Long hours discussing the editorial pages led to a relationship.
Pine Tree Watchdog is the centerpiece of their lives now. The idea is to alleviate the gap in coverage of Maine’s state government: In 1989, there were about 20 year-round reporters in the statehouse in Augusta; now there are seven, excluding Pine Tree Watchdog. Passion for the job is the fuel; neither John nor Naomi has taken a salary yet, although Naomi is supposed to at some point soon. On a good day they make trips to the statehouse and return home to file FOIA requests, talk to tipsters, and review documents (they can spend months on a complex story). On a bad day they might file taxes, write checks for freelancers, or figure out why the printer won’t work. “This is what our lives are about,” Naomi says. “We’ve kind of distilled it at this point.”
John and Naomi are just one of a number of couples who have updated the traditional family-run news business by taking it online. Couples have left their newsroom jobs behind, pooled their skills, and struck out on their own. With their eggs in one unpredictable basket, such couples tend to bring passion and commitment to the work, as in any family business. Still, the nature of a news site means round-the-clock work, and the online news business comes with no guarantee of success, or even survival, and no instruction manual. Being married to the company serves as both a strength and a weakness. It can help keep the overhead low and the intensity level high, but it also makes establishing boundaries between work and homelife a challenge.
The weight of financial stress on the mom-and-pop news operation can depend on the stage of life the site’s principals are in. Julie Ardery, 59, and Bill Bishop, 58, run The Daily Yonder, an online publication focused exclusively on rural issues, out of their home in Austin, Texas. Funded by the Center for Rural Strategies, they each split one salary and work part-time, editing stories from a stable of freelancers. In the ’80s, the pair ran The Bastrop County Times together and were in a “dog-eat-dog” competition for advertising with a publication up the road. They used to sleep with the police scanner beside the bed, and scrambled for enough income to pay their employees and the printing bill every week. But they sold the paper for a good price, which Julie says has afforded them a measure of security. They find their online news life to be much more manageable than their print life was. “The stresses of running [the Bastrop paper] were ten times what we deal with today,” says Julie. “We’re still very much working people, but we’re not putting children through college either.”