EDITORIAL – A new opportunity for our newspapers

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In the realities of today’s newspaper business, investigative reporting on larger, statewide issues – stories that can take weeks or even months to report – have mostly disappeared. Newspapers cannot afford to dedicate a reporter to one story for that amount of time.

It is a fact of the industry well known to John Christie, who in June 2009 retired after four decades in journalism, including the last nine years as president and publisher of Central Maine Newspapers. He saw firsthand how reductions in newspaper staffing impacted the formerly in-depth coverage of government and politics in Maine. For instance, 20 years ago around 20 reporters covered the State House in Augusta, Christie said. Now, there are only a handful.

“You can still put out a good paper, but you can’t afford to take anyone off,” Christie said this week. “Very often, it’s impractical now. That’s the missing piece.”

To fill that gap, Christie has launched the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit organization dedicated to uncovering and explaining the actions of local, state and federal governments while also keeping an eye on candidates for public office. Stories are posted on the center’s Web site and distributed through its media partners, which include the Bangor Daily News, the Lewiston Sun Journal, the Ellsworth American, the Mount Desert Islander, the midcoast’s Village Soup newspapers, the Downeast Coastal Press, the Forecaster – and, now, Current Publishing.

The center’s first story, published Jan. 7, detailed how political influence shaped the tax reform bill that was passed in Augusta, while its second story uncovered fraud in the gathering of signatures in statewide petition drives.

The center’s third story, a look at the claims of gubernatorial candidate Les Otten, can be found this week starting on page 1. It is part of series that will explore the records of the top candidates in the 2010 race for governor.

Christie, who founded the center out of his own pocket and is listed as its publisher, has also brought in to help Naomi Schalit, the center’s executive director and a former editor at Central Maine Newspapers, and Marian McCue, the former owner and publisher of the Forecaster. The group is hoping to support the center through donations and grants, a model Christie likens to that of public broadcasting.

“This is, on a smaller scale, along the same lines,” he said.

As newspapers everywhere grapple with budget cuts and a changing industry, nonprofit journalism is gaining momentum. The initial reports from the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting are promising, and its model may serve well both for-profit newspapers that are now able to offer more and readers who benefit from broader coverage.

After all, regardless of how it is funded, the mission of newspapers, and their obligation to readers, stays the same.

“Reporting and writing hasn’t changed,” said Christie. “You still have to dig stuff up and make sense of it.”

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