In and out of the lakes and rivers and ponds of northwestern Maine. Up and down through the clouds and forests of a magnificent landscape. Back and forth through the memories of the bush pilots who once made livelihoods ferrying loggers and trappers, fishermen and voyageurs around the North Woods. This is how I spent much of the fall of 1996.
The other part of that fall was spent struggling with piles of notebooks filled with the hours of the interviews I conducted with these pilots. I struggled to find a way to put their lives into a coherent narrative, to tell their stories honestly and to share them with the larger world, in Maine and beyond.
I have no idea whether any of the men I profiled are still alive. Their stories live on, edited, honed and published, thanks to the instruction I received at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
In June, the directors of the Portland-based school, founded 42 years ago by Kennebunk High School English teacher Pamela Wood, announced Salt would be closing its doors. To say the news was stunning doesn’t even begin to capture the reaction of Salt’s alumni and the larger Maine community of writers and journalists, photographers and radio producers. Salt has had management struggles over the years, but few if any of us knew its existence was in question.
Then, last month, amid community and alumni outcry, Salt’s management abruptly changed course. Salt wouldn’t close entirely; instead it would consider merging with the Maine College of Art. For many, reaction turned from stunned to whiplash.
Here’s the truth of the matter: Salt doesn’t need to close. It should be flourishing and thriving. The popularity of long-form storytelling — think the podcast Serial and the radio show This American Life and Web publications Longreads.com and Medium — is skyrocketing.
What Salt has excelled in, since the early 1970s, is documentary storytelling and long-form journalism: in print, in photography and, in recent years to great acclaim, in radio. Salt is everything trend-of-the-moment journalism is not: It is the antithesis of new media such as BuzzFeed and Vox, Huffington Post and Vice. Salt is to journalism what Wooden Boat is to boat building, Breadloaf is to writing, Haystack is to pottery or Julliard is to music. Its graduates have gone to careers with The Associated Press, The New York Times and National Geographic; to This American Life, StoryCorps and NPR.
What Salt has not excelled in is proper management. In recent years, operating expenses have risen markedly. Enrollment has declined, which is not surprising because marketing and outreach efforts were cut. The writing program was summarily canceled. Accreditation was lost several years ago, either because of financial or pedagogical instability or poor administrative oversight. Faculty walked out en masse in 2011, alienated by management. The proceeds of the sale of a plum Old Port building proceeds were to go into an endowment to ensure Salt’s future. Where is the endowment today? There is none.
Save Salt, a group of alumni who have rallied to its cause, presented the board with a viable plan that called for robust fundraising, revived curriculum, coherent outreach and marketing, and alumni engagement to chart out Salt’s future as a standalone institution. The board, however, is choosing a path that potentially threatens the loss of Salt’s unique legacy.
It remains to be seen whether merging a school of documentary journalism and storytelling with a school of fine arts is putting a square peg into a round hole. MECA is a respected, thriving institution that has done much for its students, Portland and the great Maine artistic community.
There are intriguing possibilities here, but an alliance will only work if the things that make Salt so singular and beloved — its curriculum, its culture, its values, its pedagogy — stay intact and independent oversight of its programming is contractually guaranteed.
Salt taught me how to be an honest storyteller, to listen closely to my subjects, be true to their stories and then render them into compelling narratives that endure for future generations.
This is the heart of the school, and every effort should be made to ensure that this unique educational experience, this unique Maine experience, endures without compromise.
Mike Eckel is a Washington-based writer, editor and former foreign correspondent who has worked for The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, Radio Free Europe and Voice of America and freelanced for many other media around the world.