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

Nov 26, 2018
Originally published on November 26, 2018 5:02 pm

The Malheur Enterprise was founded in 1909, and, like many other newspapers, was languishing. But in the past few years, its circulation has surged and it has 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.

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 adds with a laugh.

Now, using a grocery cart would be tough. On her Wednesday rounds, Schroder logs about 100 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 is largely responsible for this. Although he would rather smack you with his humor than admit he is the reason for the turnaround.

"It's a damnable lie," he says, laughing.

But really, it's the truth. Zaitz, 63, was a longtime, award-winning investigative reporter for The Oregonian, the state's largest newspaper. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. But he has 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 salesperson in 10 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 salesperson 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 a 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 being freed. The Enterprise was the first weekly paper to win 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 Zaitz.

Reporter Pat Caldwell, who has been a journalist for 22 years, 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, a retired schoolteacher 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 gets together, 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," Skerjanec 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, and 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 readers' trust with his devotion to bedrock principles of journalism. He acknowledges it also helps that he is one of them. His hands are thick from bucking hay and fixing barbed wire fences on his ranch about 100 miles outside Vale. But being on the inside doesn't mean he and the Enterprise pander. Zaitz has written editorials criticizing U.S. Republican Rep. Greg Walden, who is 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 says.

Al Cross, who directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, says 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 capital city. It's another element, Zaitz says, laughing, of his anti-retirement program. Actually, it is 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."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Oregon, a small rural newspaper is bucking an industry trend. Circulation at the Malheur Enterprise has surged over the past few years. The paper's even won several national awards. This weekly paper covers a part of the state that strongly supported President Trump, who of course has been lashing out at the media. Here's more from NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It's Wednesday morning, delivery day for the Malheur Enterprise.

SHEILA SCHRODER: All right. Now if I can remember where I'm going, we are off.

GOLDMAN: Seventy-four-year-old Sheila Schroder eases her white Dodge Ram pickup onto the streets of Vale. The tiny eastern Oregon town, population 1,900, is where the paper is headquartered. She'll make stops at the county courthouse, a nursing home, a flower shop. The Dodge Ram crammed with papers certainly is an upgrade from when she started doing this over 20 years ago.

SCHRODER: That's when I had my grocery cart, and I (laughter) delivered papers with my grocery cart full of papers.

GOLDMAN: And what did people say to you?

SCHRODER: People called me the bag lady (laughter).

GOLDMAN: Now a grocery cart would be pretty tough. On her Wednesday rounds, Schroder logs about a hundred miles throughout Malheur County, Oregon's second largest. Schroder's increased workload is one of the effects of a newspaper that has boomed in the past three years. Les Zaitz is the Enterprise editor and publisher.

LES ZAITZ: Our overall revenue is more than triple what it was three years ago. Circulation is probably double, and we're profitable. And there's not a lot of papers in the United States that can say they're profitable.

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

ZAITZ: That's a damnable lie.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: No, but seriously, it's really the truth. Zaitz, now 63, was a longtime award-winning investigative reporter for The Oregonian, the state's largest newspaper. But he's always had a serious passion for small town papers, which is why in 2015 he interrupted retirement plans and bought the Enterprise with family members. Then it was almost out of business and filled with gossip and press releases. Now it's a serious award-winning newspaper.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: Welcome to the Tuesday edition of the news at 6. We begin tonight with a development in the case of a Napa man accused of killing two people last January.

GOLDMAN: The Enterprise's in-depth coverage of that case, the killing of two people in Malheur County allegedly by a man released from the state hospital after claiming he faked his mental illness - that coverage earned the paper a prestigious national Investigative Reporters and Editors award this year. It's the first time the IRE prize went to a weekly.

JAYME FRASER: Remind me again exactly which smoking gun we're looking for.

GOLDMAN: Twenty-eight-year-old Jayme Fraser has been working full-time on the state hospital story. She's one of three reporters in the Vale office. Another, Pat Caldwell, has been a journalist for 22 years. He says Les Zaitz has transformed the way he works.

PAT CALDWELL: It's all about details - just detail, detail, detail. You know, and why, why, why, why? You know, why are you doing this? Why is that happening? Who pays for it?

GOLDMAN: Zaitz pushes, and he teaches. Here he talks about a school funding story with reporter Kristine de Leon.

ZAITZ: And tell me what I can do to help you break this down in a way that doesn't seem overwhelming...

KRISTINE DE LEON: Right.

ZAITZ: ...'Cause it's a lot - 'cause this stuff is not easy.

DE LEON: I guess like - so what should I do first?

ZAITZ: That is really sort of the foundation of the Malheur Enterprise these days - is that sort of in-depth aggressive coverage that you normally do not see in rural America.

GOLDMAN: What you do see a lot in rural America is people supporting a president who regularly attacks journalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And that's why 33 percent of the people in this country believe the fake news is in fact - and I hate to say this - the enemy of the people.

(APPLAUSE)

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

STEVE PAULSEN: I don't watch national news because it is biased, I feel.

BOB BEMENT: I feel like they give their opinion instead of just the facts.

GOLDMAN: Steve Paulsen and Bob Bement are members of an early-rising group that meets most mornings at the Lucky Cup in Vale.

(SOUNDBITE OF COFFEE GRINDER WHIRRING)

GOLDMAN: There's coffee and kind of mean farmer jokes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You know the difference between a puppy and a farmer? A puppy grows up and quits whining.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: Generally, there's not a lot of talk about politics 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.

CAROL SKERJANEC: 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.

GOLDMAN: Zaitz is a fierce defender of journalism, but he can understand the disenchantment with cable news, even with reputable major newspapers like The Washington Post and New York Times. Zaitz says he has friends at both papers, but he thinks they may go too far in their Trump coverage - for instance, dissecting every early morning tweet.

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

GOLDMAN: He knows there's an appetite for good reporting. He says during a recent week, a third of Malheur County's roughly 30,000 residents read the Enterprise online. Zaitz has earned a lot of trust not just through his journalism but also because he's one of them. His hands are thick from bucking hay and fixing barbed wire fences on his ranch, but being on the inside doesn't mean he panders. Zaitz has written editorials criticizing U.S. Republican Congressman Greg Walden who's quite popular in the area. His paper's reporting has angered local politicians. Some still don't talk to Zaitz or his reporters.

AL CROSS: And that really is the ideal community journalist - the ideal rural journalist.

GOLDMAN: Al Cross directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

CROSS: 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.

GOLDMAN: Les Zaitz hopes this kind of reporting spreads.

ZAITZ: Rather than worrying about what's going on in journalism at the national level, 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.

GOLDMAN: In Malheur County, they're building reporting and trust one week at a time. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Vale, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.