A better future for the Salt Institute

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In and out of the lakes, 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 — that 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 about those pilots’ lives. I struggled to find a way to put their stories 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 if any of the men I profiled are still alive. Their stories live on, edited, honed and published, thanks to the instruction I received while at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.

In June, the directors of the Portland school, founded 42 years ago by Kennebunk High School English teacher Pamela Wood, announced the Salt Institute would be closing its doors.

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To say the news was stunning doesn’t even begin to capture the reaction of Salt’s alumni, or of the larger Maine community of writers and journalists, photographers and radio producers. Salt has had management struggles through the years, but few, if any, of us knew that 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 was considering 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, photography and, in recent years to great acclaim, radio.

Salt is everything that 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 on 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 since marketing and outreach efforts were cut.

The writing program was summarily canceled. Accreditation was lost several years ago, the result of either 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 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 stand-alone 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, to be true to their stories and then render them into compelling narratives that endure for future generations.

That is the heart of the school and every effort should be made to ensure that this unique educational experience, that unique Maine experience, endures without compromise.

Mike Eckel lives in Alexandria, Va.

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