Digging Deep Into Local News, A Small Newspaper In Rural Oregon Is Thriving

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The Malheur Enterprise was founded in 1909, and, like many other newspapers, was languishing. But in the last few years, its circulation has surged and its won several national awards. 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.

Delivery day

The newspaper's recent success has meant an increased workload for the woman who delivers the papers. Wednesdays are delivery day for the Enterprise, which means 74-year-old Sheila Schroder is on the job.

Schroder loads her white Dodge Ram pickup full of papers and rolls onto the streets of Vale. The tiny eastern Oregon town, population 1,900, is where the Enterprise is headquartered. Her stops include the county courthouse, a nursing home, a flower shop. The pickup crammed with papers is an upgrade from when she started doing this more than 20 years ago.

"That's when I had a grocery cart and I delivered papers with my grocery cart full of papers," Schroder says. "People called me Bag Lady," she laughs.

Now, using a grocery cart would be tough. On her Wednesday rounds, Schroder logs about a hundred miles, traveling throughout Malheur County, Oregon's second largest.

Her expanded delivery zone is one of the effects of a newspaper that has boomed in the past three years.

Revenue has tripled

"Boomed" is a relative term when it comes to a rural weekly. Paid subscriptions are at about 2,000. But during a recent week, more than a third of Malheur County's roughly 30,000 residents read the paper's online edition. And advertising dollars, the lifeblood of a small newspaper, are way up.

"Our overall revenue is more than triple what it was three years ago," says Les Zaitz, the paper's editor and publisher. "Circulation is probably double. We're profitable and there are not a lot of papers in the United States that can say they're profitable."

Zaitz largely is responsible for this. Although he'd rather smack you with his humor than admit he's the reason for the turnaround.

"It's a damnable lie," he laughs.

But really, it's the truth. Zaitz, 63, was a long-time, award-winning investigative reporter for The Oregonian, the state's largest newspaper. He's a two-time Pultizer Prize finalist. But he's always had a passion for small town papers. Which is why, in 2015, he tabled his retirement plans and bought the Enterprise with family members. The paper, at the time, was almost out of business. It was filled with gossip and press releases.

"It wasn't delivering much in the way of real local news," Zaitz says, adding, "[it] had one reporter who primarily focused on high school sports. And only in Vale for the most part."

"It had not had an ad sales person in ten years. It took only what business came in the front door," he added. "There was just no doubt in my mind that if we turned around the news product, and got a sales person in, we could make the thing profitable pretty quick."

Sure enough, the Enterprise now is a serious, award-winning newspaper.

A spring in the step

This spring, the paper won a prestigious national Investigative Reporters and Editors award for its coverage of case that rocked Malheur County. A man released from the state hospital after claiming he faked his mental illness was accused of killing two people after his release. The Enterprise was the first weekly paper awarded the IRE Freedom of information award.

"For a remote rural weekly to achieve that kind of journalistic attention," Zaitz says, "Boy, your chest comes out a little farther. There's a little spring in your step the staff is really proud of."

The reporting staff has "swelled" to three this year, thanks to another honor for the Enterprise. The investigative news organization ProPublica is paying for a reporter, for a year, to focus solely on the story that earned the IRE award. The Enterprise was one of only seven newsrooms chosen nationwide, out of 239 applicants.

"We set the bar, the quality we want from our stories, and we don't publish them until they hit that bar," says Jayme Fraser, the ProPublica-funded reporter. "Unless there's some unusual extenuating circumstance because of time. Whereas at a lot of papers, you don't wait to hit that bar."

Fraser and her colleagues work in a wood-paneled newsroom that's small enough to hear your neighbor's phone conversations. And hear, in the questions, the influence of Les Zaitz. Reporter Pat Caldwell has been a journalist for 22 years. He says Zaitz has transformed the way he works.

"It's all about detail," Caldwell says, "detail, detail, detail. Y'know? And why, why, why, why? Why are you doing this? Why is this happening? Who pays for it?"

"That is really sort of the foundation of the Malheur Enterprise these days," says Zaitz, "in-depth aggressive coverage that you normally don't see in rural America."

Trusting the Enterprise

What you do see, a lot, in rural America, is support for a president who regularly attacks journalists with pronouncements of "fake news" and the media as "enemy of the people."

Donald Trump won nearly 70 percent of Malheur County's votes in the 2016 election. For some in Vale, that support extends to Trump's anti-media message.

"I don't watch national news because it's biased, I feel," says Steve Paulsen, 62, an environmental consultant.

"I feel like they give their opinion, instead of just the facts," says 83-year-old Bob Bement. He's a retired school teacher and coach who still flies his own plane. Bement's business card says "Time to Spare? Fly Vale Air."

Paulsen and Bement are members of an early-rising group that meets, most mornings, at the Lucky Cup in Vale. The group is all about coffee and light banter and jokes, which, on the day I visited, took whacks at farmers.

A small sampling:

"You know what they call 10 farmers in the basement? A whine cellar."

"What's the difference between a puppy and a farmer? A puppy grows up and stops whining."

Generally there's not a lot of talk about politics or religion or media. But there is quick praise for the Malheur Enterprise. Paulsen and Bement, who distrust the national media, trust the Enterprise.

So does local attorney Carol Skerjanec.

"We're pretty intelligent people," Skerjanic says, adding, "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."

Too much reporting is like hawks sitting on a fence wire

Zaitz is a fierce defender of journalism. But he can understand the disenchantment with cable news. Even disenchantment with reputable major newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times. Zaitz says he has friends at both papers, but he thinks they may go too far in their Trump coverage. Dissecting every early morning tweet by the president, Zaitz says, is like hawks sitting on a fence wire, waiting for the mouse to move.

"What that sort of incremental coverage does," Zaitz says, "is it just overwhelms the important reporting. And I think it dulls the American public's appetite for what's happening in Washington."

He knows there's an appetite for good reporting. Zaitz has earned his reader's trust with his devotion to bedrock principles of journalism. He acknowledges it also helps that he's one of them. His hands are thick from bucking hay and fixing barbed wire fences on his ranch about a hundred miles outside of Vale. But being on the inside doesn't mean he and the Enterprise pander. Zaitz has written editorials criticizing U.S. Republican Congressman Greg Walden, who's quite popular in the area.

Enterprise reporting has angered local politicians. Some still don't talk to Zaitz or his reporters.

"Public officials who've evaded scrutiny for decades here, aren't very fond of us in some quarters," Zaitz says. "But the good public officials, those who are trying to do a good job, they recognize that we are doing our job and we are holding them accountable and we're making them better governing officials. And they don't object to that. Because we try to be accurate, we try to be fair. While they may have to salve the sting of a particular story, that sting wears off and they appreciate what we're doing."

"We've had some clashes [with the Enterprise]," says Ontario city manager Adam Brown. Ontario is Malheur County's largest city. "At the end of the day, though, we respect the business they're in. They're kind of the fourth branch of government," he said.

Al Cross directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. He says Les Zaitz represents the ideal community journalist.

"A person who is in the community, of the community," Cross says, "but isn't afraid to hold up a mirror to the community that may look unflattering."

Across the state from Vale, in the western part of Oregon, Zaitz manages a digital news service serving Salem, Oregon's capitol city. It's another element, Zaitz laughs, of his anti-retirement program. It's actually another element of Zaitz's mission to spread top-notch local reporting.

"Rather than worrying about what's going on in journalism at the national level," he says, "let's turn the periscope around and let's rebuild from the small guy up. And I think that's going to have more influence in the long run."

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