October 12, 2014

Center reporters awarded top New England journalism award — twice

New England’s leading media association has awarded two of its top journalism awards to The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting.

The New England Newspaper and Press Association on Thursday recognized the Center with two Publick Occurrences Awards for its expose called, “Rx for Theft,” and its profile of governor Paul LePage.

The press association presented 12 Publick Occurrences Awards this year for “the very best work that New England newspapers produce … whether it’s individual or team stories, series, spot news coverage, columns or photojournalism …”

Newspapers of all sizes, from large dailies to weeklies to small online media such as the Center, competed for the awards. The Center was the only news organization to win two of the awards this year.

In awarding the prize to Center senior reporters Naomi Schalit and John Christie for their series on pharmacists who steal drugs, the judges said, “The report showed that the Maine pharmacy board was too lax in reissuing licenses. Very well documented. Very difficult story to break through both the governmental barriers to research and then to actually get a pharmacist who stole on the record. Powerful.” 

Judges said Christie’s profile of Gov. LePage – “The ‘biggest, baddest person around’ crashes Augusta’s ‘nicey-nicey club’” – was a “Deeply researched and sharply written multipart online profile of Maine's controversial governor … an objective and fair examination of a controversial politician … comprehensive, deep in details and statistics.”

Schalit said the pharmacy story began when she was doing what she calls “recreational data cruising” on the section of the state’s website that lists disciplinary actions for licensed professionals.

“I was struck by how many pharmacy employees stole drugs,” said Schalit, who added that most of the thefts were by addicted pharmacy staff.

“That contradicted the public perception that pharmacy thefts were usually perpetrated by thieves with guns,” she said. “Once I started digging into the data, I found that many of the pharmacists who stole drugs lost their licenses for a while and then the state gave them back. That was clearly a story the public needed to know.”

Christie said the profile of LePage was designed to go beyond the headlines LePage had been making with his outrageous comments and get to the substance of his performance.

“I wanted to present a picture of LePage that readers would see as independent, substantive, nuanced and complete,” Christie said. “From day one, the state’s media focused on his gaffes, but rarely on the substance of his administration. Had he delivered what he promised? What were the implications of his policies?”

With LePage expected to run for reelection, he said the Center decided the full story needed to be told, everything from LePage’s shoot-from-the-hip comments to his fiscal policies.

Schalit and Christie founded the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting five years ago. It is a nonprofit, non-partisan investigative news service that publishes its in-depth stories on Maine government on its website, pinetreewatchdog.org and provides those stories to more than 30 media partners, including most daily and weekly newspapers in Maine and community radio stations.

The Publick Occurrences Award was established in 1990 to recognize individual and team merit at New England newspapers and to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of Publick Occurrences, the first newspaper published in America. Four days after it appeared in Boston in 1690, Publick Occurrences was suppressed by the royal governor.

The awards were made at the association’s annual meeting in Natick, Mass., where Christie was also given a Yankee Quill award for his lifetime achievement in New England journalism.

This post originally appeared on pinetreewatchdog.org and has been republished here with permission.