Friday, September 11, 2020

Weekly editor Les Zaitz is one of new fellows of the Society of Professional Journalists; convention online this weekend

Lez Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise (Photo by Robert Quick, Quicks Foto Designs)

Followers of The Rural Blog have read here, here and here about Les Zaitz, who has made a weekly in eastern Oregon into a national example of how a small paper can do investigative reporting and accountability journalism with impact, and at the same time become a more sustainable business. Now he gets a bigger platform as a new fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists.

SPJ's national convention is online Saturday and Sunday, and the society's new fellows will each have a half-hour session. Zaitz's is at 2:15 p.m. Saturday. An interview with the former investigative reporter for The Oregonian appears in the fall edition of SPJ's magazine, Quill. Here are excerpts:

Wikipedia map, adapted
"We don't have the luxury of having a reporter sit and do nothing but work on a particular story for two weeks, let along two months. It takes very careful navigation between our regular news beats and the time it takes to do an investigative project. We've become pretty effective at saying, "Why don't you work on this project for the afternoon, and tomorrow you're going to have to go do high-school sports." Another thing, which gets me a lot of second looks from my professional colleagues, is that I don't spend time sending my reporters to city council meetings and school board meetings. Very rarely does anything happen that people didn't expect to happen. Most of it is not worth a paragraph, let alone a story, but . . . reporters go and spend the time and feel obligated to write a story, and it becomes stenography. . . . Instead of having a reporter spend three hours sitting on their butt at a school-board meeting, I'd rather have them take that time to go through budget documents to explain why poorly performing schools are doing so poorly."

Asked how the pandemic has affected his Malheur Enterprise, Zaitz said it "hit the area pretty hard when our governor ordered lots of businesses closed and stopped schools and all sorts of activities. Our display advertising essentially evaporated overnight, and a couple of major area events, for which we do specialty publications, canceled. . . . But the good news is that it was a very tough story that needed close attention, and the staff just dug in to do the reporting necessary to keep the community up to date. A big part of that job was simply sorting fact from fiction, which remains a challenge to this day."

Zaitz said his separate, higher pricing for digital access has paid off in the pandemic. "the subscriptions really piled up, because people were desperate for news. . . . I serve a very poor market, so you'd think asking people to pay for a digital subscription or a print subscription would be a very tough sell. But in the time we've done that, I can count maybe a dozen instance where print subscribers have said, "I'm a subscriber; how come I can't see your online news?" I have a good, solid statement that I send those readers, explaining the business model, that we need to diversify our income streams, and we treat them as two separate products. I can only think of one person who didn't accept that explanation. . . . You've got to bite the bullet and train your market that what you have to sell is worth paying for; and if it's not worth paying for, then you need to do something different with your product."

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