Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Les Zaitz and the Malheur Enterprise show that people in rural areas want and need good journalism

Les Zaitz
As many newspapers struggle, a rural weekly in western Oregon is thriving because it is producing good journalism. The Malheur Enterprise, founded in 1909 in Vale, has won several national awards and has seen increasing circulation in the past three years, thanks to new owners and an editor-publisher who has long been an investigative reporter: Les Zaitz, whose family bought the Enterprise in 2015 to save it from closing. Zaitz, now 63, retired from his post as senior investigative reporter at The Oregonian in 2016 to run the Enterprise full-time.

When Zaitz bought the Enterprise, it was almost out of business, "filled with gossip and press releases," had only one reporter who mostly covered local high school sports, and had not had an ad salesperson in 10 years, Tom Goldman reports for NPR. Now, the paper has three reporters, revenue has tripled in the past three years, paid subscriptions have doubled to about 2,000, and more than 10,000 of Malheur County's 30,000 residents read the online edition in a recent week.

Zaitz told Goldman that giving him all the credit for the turnaround is a "damnable lie." Under his purview, the Enterprise won a 2017 Investigative Reporters & Editors Award in the Freedom of Information category for its "Deadly Decisions" package about a state hospital's release of a man later arrested for murdering two people. It was the first weekly to win the IRE award in that category.

What happened before the package was published was almost as important as the package itself: A state agency sued the paper to block the release of documents, but the Enterprise refused to give up and launched a GoFundMe drive to raise money for a lawyer. The documents were released after the governor stepped in. IRE judges called it a "classic David-meets-Goliath triumph." That effort, and Zaitz's earlier work in rural Oregon, helped earn him the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism, given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. In accepting the award, Zaitz urged other weekly editors to follow his example.

The "Deadly Decisions" package reaped other rewards: Investigative news organization ProPublica chose the Enterprise as one of only seven newsrooms nationwide (out of 239 applicants) for its Local Reporting Network; as part of that project, ProPublica is paying for reporter Jayme Fraser, formerly of The Missoulian, to work at the Enterprise for a year and follow up on the Deadly Decisions story.

IRJCI Director Al Cross told Goldman that Zaitz is the ideal community journalist: a person "who is in the community, of the community . . .but isn't afraid to hold up a mirror to the community that may look unflattering." After reading Goldman's story, that "Les has proven that good journalism can be good business in rural areas, that readers want a watchdog."

Goldman ventured, "Perhaps surprisingly, the weekly paper's turnaround and increased popularity happened in a part of the state that strongly supports President Trump, who continues to lash out at the media." Trump won nearly 70 percent of the vote in Malheur County, but his criticism of the news media who cover him doesn't seem to apply to Les Zaitz and the news of Malheur County.

Local attorney Carol Skerjanec told Goldman, "We're pretty intelligent people, so we don't need to be told how to feel about something or what direction to take or what stance to take. Just tell us what the facts are and we'll make our own decision. And I think that's what Les is doing."

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