HALLOWELL, MAINE — As the number of reporters covering Maine state government dropped from twenty in 1989 to fewer than ten today, a wife-and-husband duo, two old-school reporters, stepped up. In 2010, Naomi Schalit, a former reporter and producer at Maine Public Radio, and John Christie, former president and publisher of Central Maine Newspapers, launched the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a watchdog for all things shady in the state capitol.
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While Christie and Schalit acknowledge that daily political coverage still exists in Maine, they also note that there is very little investigative work being done.
“That’s the gap on the state level that we fill,” says Christie.
And for a startup with a budget under $200,000, Christie feels like they’ve filled it pretty decently.
From the look at the work that they’ve done, that appears to be true. Take a recent crop of stories center on Robert Nutting, the recently elected Republican speaker of the Maine statehouse. Christie and Schalit investigated some of the unsavory elements of his professional life as a pharmacist, including how he overcharged the government for adult diapers and was disciplined for giving a customer the wrong drugs. In another recent story, the duo reported on Maine’s secretary of state’s conflict of interest as both a public official and a representative of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, apparently “one of the most powerful special interest groups in the state.”
These stories have piqued the interest of local papers, like the Bangor Daily News and the Lewiston Sun Journal, which carry the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting’s stories free of charge.
“They pay us by distributing our stories throughout the state,” Schalit explains. (The real money comes from grants.)
Additionally, the resources of the papers, such as their legal counsel, are available for Schalit and Christie to use. And while they haven’t ruled out eventually charging for content, they don’t plan to do so anytime soon.
Yet while they’re free to borrow a lawyer, they’re on their own when it comes to web design and office supplies.
“We’re going to get an award from Staples,” Christie jokes.
Scahlit and Christie complain that the day-to-day maintenance of running a nonprofit news investigation, from marketing stories to struggling to learn HTML, often prevents them from reporting and writing.
But in spite of these struggles, Schalit and Christie are both happy with the journalism they’re doing—and, more importantly, so is the community. Schalit and Christie say that readers are constantly showing their appreciation and giving small donations. Sometimes they also help with the reporting.
“We have a “Send us a Tip” [section] and we get tips all the time,” Schalit says. “They’re usually preceded with, ‘You’re the only guys who can do this.’”
Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting Data
Name: Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
Principal Staff: John Christie, publisher and senior reporter; Naomi Schalit, executive director and senior reporter.
Affiliations: Ottaway Foundation; Maine Community Foundation; content also distributed by local newspaper media partners.