By Eric Conrad & Renée Johansson, The Maine Monitor
May 26, 2022
Who We Are
Through independent, nonpartisan, and citizen-supported impact journalism, the goal of the Maine Monitor is to inform Maine readers and to hold public institutions accountable. We shed light on issues such as county jails recording confidential calls between inmates and their attorneys, a $1.5 billion lithium discovery in Maine, and how the surging use of contract nurses during the pandemic jeopardized patient care. In 2021 alone, we won more than 40 awards from the Maine Press Association, as well as a New England Publick Occurrences Award.
The Monitor began in 2009 as the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. It was started by our two founders, long-time journalists John Christie and Naomi Schalit, who were dismayed by the steady decline of investigative and explanatory journalism in Maine.
We often focus our reporting on rural areas that typically do not have a weekly newspaper, let alone a daily, to keep citizens informed. We have five full-time journalists, and five part-time staff. We also work with many freelance photographers, podcasters and writers.
“We often focus our reporting on rural areas that typically do not have a weekly newspaper, let alone a daily, to keep citizens informed.”– Eric Conrad & Renée Johansson, The Maine Monitor
Our budget for 2022 is $420,000. That may sound modest, but given the size of our state, it’s a source of pride for us. Institutional funders like the Stephen & Tabitha King Foundation, Elmina Sewall Foundation, Report for America and INN through its News Match program provide most of our funding.
There is no single way to measure our impact in Maine. In addition to the size and distribution of our readership, we pay close attention to the actions taken in response to our stories, especially by local governments, lawmakers, officials, and institutions. As a nonprofit newsroom, we also must continue to generate content that inspires action from individuals and foundations. Donations, grant funding, and feedback from donors help us understand if our work is resonating with our supporter base.
Assessing Impact Through Our Reach
Our reach has grown dramatically in recent years, although it is hard to measure precisely because all our content is available at no cost for 12 hours after we post it on our website. We offer our content to 140 media contacts throughout New England the same day that we post.
We have readers in all 16 Maine counties. We average 37,000 unique visitors to our website each month, over 60,000 page views. Our free daily email newsletter has 5,200 subscribers and is growing rapidly. Our email open rate is 38%.
Our in-depth investigative reports reach far more readers. In the fall of 2021, for example, our reporter Kate Cough broke a story that one of the world’s richest deposits of lithium—a key mineral in the manufacture of electric vehicle batteries—had been discovered in western Maine. That story generated 80,000 page views and led the Bangor Daily News’ website in daily page views for five straight days.
In one week in February, our work on big box retailers was published by the Sun Journal and Bangor Daily News, and a website in Lewiston. An article on plastic burning incinerators was published by the national Energy News Network. And ProPublica published a piece on the ACLU filing suit against Maine for its ineffective system of defending indigent criminal defendants. We co-produced a series called “Defenseless” on this topic with ProPublica in 2020.
Thus the number of readers of our stories is much larger than the total numbers of people we are able to measure coming to our website. So when asked about “reach,” we answer that while our website numbers may seem modest, our actual reach is exponentially larger.
Assessing Impact of Our Reporting
The impact of our work has to be looked at in the context of the size, location and demographic make-up of our state.
Maine is a state of 1.3 million people tucked away at the far upper north-east corner of the U.S. People who live in Maine often describe it as “just one big small town.” It’s not unusual in a conversation to soon discover that you have mutual friends and acquaintances in common. As a result, even a fledgling media outlet like ours can make a significant difference in a state as small and closely knit as Maine. Second, policymakers and state leaders tend to know us personally, so they are more likely to trust our reporting, and to react to it quickly.
Here are two recent examples:
Samantha Hogan, who was named 2021 Maine Journalist of the Year by the Maine Press Association, is currently in the middle of writing a multi-part series called “Eavesdropping in Maine Jails.” It deals with how the local law enforcement officials are able to listen in on calls of inmates awaiting trials and their attorneys, in violation of state law and policies.
However, the Maine Monitor’s year-long investigation found that calls like those were recorded more than 1,000 times in four jails in a single year, listened to at times, and shared with prosecutors on several occasions before a defendant went on trial.
As a result of our reporting, the Legislature is currently debating a bill that would make the practice of listening to these calls a felony. The bill has support from state leaders, including Gov. Janet Mills, and, of course, from defense lawyers and inmates themselves.
In September 2021, one of our most-read reports dealt with Maine’s history of high rates of domestic violence and child abuse. Barbara Walsh, a Pulitzer Prize winner from her days as a reporter at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, authored a four-part series titled “Unsafe Homes: Children in Peril.”
This series focused on the summer of 2021 when there were four child homicides over a three month period in Maine, a shockingly high number for our state. All were related to domestic violence. The victims ranged in age from six weeks to three-years-old. Most media outlets focused on what lawmakers should do about this decades-old issue and why the state agency in charge of protecting children wasn’t doing more.
Our reporter took a different tack. We talked to the families of the victims. What went wrong? What were the root causes?
In part due to the work of The Maine Monitor, State Sen. William Diamond, a leading advocate for children’s rights in Maine, says he is more optimistic that something will be done about child abuse in the state. He is once again sponsoring legislation to address the problem, and is hopeful it will pass. Among other things, the bills would increase investment in programs that support struggling families, launch a pilot program to provide legal representation to parents undergoing child safety investigations, and increase legislative oversight over child protection services.
After reading our series, he said, “It’s important to make sure these children are never forgotten. And to keep the spotlight on their memories and on the systemic failures that contributed to their deaths.”
Donor Base As Measure of Impact
Another way we measure our impact is through the value that readers place in our work as expressed through financial contributions.
The Maine Monitor conducts two fundraising campaigns to raise revenue from individual donors each year, one in the spring, the other in November and December.
Our 2021 year-end campaign generated donations from 322 people, mostly from Maine but also from readers in Washington D.C., Arizona, Florida and even the United Kingdom. Individual contributions range from $5 to $20,000, with an average donation size of $153.
We also measure our impact through the direct feedback we get from readers about the usefulness of our work in their lives. Many donors tell us that our reporting plays an essential role in their lives by offering insights into key Maine issues. Others say our daily email newsletter provides an essential overview of the state’s top stories. To do that, our staff compiles timely and relevant content from diverse Maine media sources, ranging from commercial television stations and Maine Public Broadcasting to local weekly and daily newspapers.
One reader now living in Oregon sent an email follow-up to his $200 donation last December. “Unfortunately I haven’t been able to return to Maine since COVID, so the Monitor helps me stay connected and understand what’s happening at home,” he told us. “I look forward to your top-notch investigations and the daily newsletter keeps a pulse on what other newsrooms are reporting.”
Our staff size, annual budget, page view and audience numbers are modest compared to many media outlets across the U.S., but the reach of our reporting and our impact in Maine is exponentially greater than those numbers might suggest.
When people ask about the impact and reach of a small media outlet like The Maine Monitor, we like to say we punch far above our weight. We may still be the little guy, but we are here to make sure it’s a fair fight. Our readers, grant funders and donors respect that.
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