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An Unsung Hero of Maryland Matters

Maryland Matters staffers in the State House press room with the food they purchased to donate to three Maryland food banks in 2019. Left to right: Marketing Director Margaret Thale, Editor Josh Kurtz and reporters Danielle E. Gaines and Bruce DePuyt. Photo by Jadine Sonoda.

As you will read elsewhere in today’s edition, Maryland Matters is joining forces with States Newsroom, publisher of almost 30 websites focusing on state capitals across the country.

It’s a sweet moment — for me, for our editor Danielle Gaines, for senior reporter Bruce DePuyt, and for everyone associated with building and sustaining Maryland Matters. States Newsroom is a vital, growing organization, led by visionary journalists whom we greatly admire. Being part of their organization is truly going to enhance our ability to bring you the news.

But it’s also a bittersweet moment, because our new arrangement means we will be saying goodbye to our publisher, Margaret Thale.

There is no way to adequately capture what Meg did for this enterprise, except to say that she did everything. Since the start of 2018, she has been our sole full-time business staffer, which meant she was in charge of fundraising, keeping the books, making payroll, filing our taxes, ensuring we did all we needed to do to maintain our nonprofit status, and so much more, including organizing our annual food drive.

She also was an eagle-eyed copy editor, our customer service representative, an ambassador to readers and donors, a sounding board, a fill-in for me as editor back in the early days when I went on vacation, a fount of ideas, and a confessor.

Most of all, she was a friend.

Meg and I first met at the daily student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin, back in the 20th century. I won’t tell you exactly when that was or who was president, but I will say that the governor of the Badger State at the time was a fellow named Lee Sherman Dreyfus, who seemed to revel in the knowledge that his initials were LSD. He was a buffoon.

Meg likes to recall that for the first several weeks we knew each other, I, a shy freshman, would only nod as we passed each other on the street. Our first conversation wasn’t until Halloween night, when we were jointly assigned to cover the revelry and mayhem that took place every All Hallows Eve on State Street in Madison. Sometimes I wonder if Meg ever regrets that I started talking.

Nevertheless, we became great friends and had many adventures together. After college, we stayed friends, tracking each other’s professional progress, personal lives, and growing families. Meg worked first as a newspaper reporter, then at fundraising firm, then as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill, and then she started and ran her own direct mail fundraising business. She got to Maryland several years before I did, and when my family decided to move here at the end of 1995, Meg and her husband Dave put us up for a while and provided hospitality and valuable advice.

By late 2017, a few months after launching Maryland Matters on a wing and a prayer, and after raising a little bit of seed money, I realized we’d need a full-time fundraiser and business person if we were ever to approach any level of sustainability. Happily, Meg was looking for a full-time gig at that point, and I thought her combination of newspaper experience, political smarts, fundraising chops, and the knowledge gleaned from running her own business would be invaluable.

What I didn’t realize is that Meg coming on board would turn into a family affair. Her daughter Jadine quickly became our IT fix-it person, and Meg now refers to her as IT. Dave graciously volunteered to compile our daily COVID-19 data for several months, and their other daughter Paige would also occasionally perform meaningful tasks.

When you write for a news outlet, everybody knows who you are. Readers engage with you every day. You gain a lot of public recognition and praise, and sometimes you get complaints and threats. But it’s not an anonymous endeavor, even though we would sometimes like it to be.

When you have a less visible job at a news outlet, you never get the recognition you deserve. So I want all our readers to know that Maryland Matters would never be where it is today with all without all of Meg’s hard work and devotion to the cause.

I need to give a shout-out, too, to our marvelous board of directors, whose role will also be changing as we become a full-fledged partner with States Newsroom — especially our president, Adrianne Flynn, and vice president, Lou Peck, two fabulous and knowledgeable journalists (Lou in addition is one of our co-founders). But also to all the rest: Charly Carter, Sebastian Johnson, Len Lucchi and Terrell Boston Smith. I could write paeans to each of you. Thank you, good friends and wise souls!

And thanks, of course, to everyone who has encouraged us and supported us along the way.

Because we came out of the gate with such a high-quality product, and because we’ve had so many talented journalists working for us, we became an established and sought-after entity very quickly. Maybe we’re even taken for granted. But I don’t think too many people realize what a fragile and to-the-bone start-up operation we have been for the past five years. It’s easy to only see what’s on the surface and not think about all the churn underneath, which has been obsessing us from the very beginning. It’s been apparent to us for a while that we’ve been treading water financially and needed to do something about it.

As we started having serious conversations with the folks at States Newsroom about joining their operation — we have already been the lucky beneficiaries of their generosity and wisdom for the past four years, but not a full-blown member of their growing non-profit —it became apparent that if we were going to make this happen, it would be without Meg, because States Newsroom, an operation volumes bigger than we are, is able to provide many of the services Meg did.

Despite the likely hit to her own career, Meg was an early and avid supporter of joining forces with States Newsroom, and she has helped us navigate this merger in important ways. Here at last, she argued, was the financial and operational stability we were looking for, a chance to stop scuffling and scrambling for funding all the time and to really concentrate on our core mission of shedding light on important developments in Annapolis and around the state.

As usual, she was right.

So I wake up today sad in the knowledge that Meg and I won’t be working directly together anymore. But I’m feeling lucky and grateful that I can look forward to another four decades of friendship.