Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, 38, says he is in the middle of building his career in journalism. But he already has three of its most prestigious awards in his back pocket: the George Polk award for watchdog journalism; the Michael Kelly award, named for the first journalist to die in Iraq, in recognition of the fearless pursuit of truth; and a finalist for the Pulitzer prize — journalism's Holy Grail.
The awards recognize work he and Advertiser Democrat Editor A.M. Sheehan did exposing deplorable conditions in publicly subsidized Section 8 housing in the Norway area. The series led to shakeups within the Maine State Housing Authority, the removal of some landlords within the Section 8 program, changes in municipal code departments, and attracted the attention of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the congressional committee that controls the purse strings of the federal Housing and Urban Development department.
"She demanded answers from HUD, and from that, HUD promised nationwide reforms," says Hongoltz-Hetling.
A New York native, Hongoltz-Hetling attended college in Chicago at the University of Illinois, where he met his wife. He started his own newspaper after graduation that focused on the university and its community. But education cuts squeezed the funding for the ads university departments were taking in the paper; it folded after seven years.
Tired of urban life, Hongoltz-Hetling and his wife, Kimberly, decided to relocate to rural Maine and settled in Bethel. From there, he began freelancing at western Maine newspapers before landing a full-time reporting job at the Sun Media's Advertiser Democrat in 2010. Since the series ran, he has joined The Forecaster, another Sun Media publication. Mainebiz chatted with Hongoltz-Hetling recently; the following is an edited transcript.
Mainebiz: How did you uncover the Section 8 story?
Hongoltz-Hetling: Another staffer covered a big house fire across the street from [the Advertiser Democrat] and talked about how many angles there were to the story. One of them came from a tenant who said they couldn't leave the building because the emergency exit door at the time of the fire was bolted closed from the outside because the landlord didn't like them to throw their trash out that door. [The reporter] left soon after and I started to look into it. The crazy part was, it wasn't a secret — everyone knew about these crappy living situations but no one was doing anything about it.
How did you manage to pull off a 9,000-word series along with your other duties?
Every week [editor] Anne and I would chip away at it. We interviewed the tenants. Anne did the research on HUD regulations. I dug up the all the building enforcement actions. We worked together.
What surprised you?
The scope of the problem. MSHA was really responsive. We published Thursday and they were knocking on landlords' doors Friday. They checked the landlords we named, then others, and hundreds of units across the state. They came up with a lot of things that needed changing.
Did you know you had a Pulitzer contender?
Not at all. We just thought we were putting out a good story.