Former O investigative reporter aims to supercharge small town journalism

A Q&A with Les Zaitz, publisher and editor of the Malheur Enterprise.

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Les Zaitz has racked up a lot of accolades. The former investigative reporter for the Oregonian has received the Bruce Baer Award five times, and twice been a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. He also led the Oregonian’s coverage of the 2313d02Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation.

Today, six months after Zaitz became editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, he scored another big win. As the Enterprise  reports:

“Under pressure from Gov. Kate Brown, a state agency dropped its suit against the weekly newspaper and will turn over public records concerning accused murderer Anthony W. Montwheeler. The governor’s intercession comes the day after the Enterprise started a $20,000 legal fund campaign to defend itself against the suit brought last week by the state Psychiatric Security Review Board.”

I had planned to talk to Zaitz today about his new journalism enterprise, no pun intended.  The breaking news added a timely note to our conversation.* (Interview excerpts have been edited.)

OB: Congratulations! Did you have any idea the governor would intercede?

LZ: I got a call mid-morning today from the governor’s office, and they said: ‘Here’s what’s going to happen, but don’t say anything.’ I had no idea until this morning.

OB: You have a history of working to reform Oregon public records laws. Where do today’s events fit in?

LZ: I’ve done this public records stuff for 40 years, and this is the most profound win I’ve had in a very long time. There’s been instances where a governor prodded state agencies. But this is the first time I know of where the governor interceded in a case that was pending in court.

OB: You’ve said that you want to use the Malheur Enterprise as a laboratory for innovative journalism.

LZ: Today, all the work on innovation is done by the Washington Post, the New York Times: huge organizations working on a huge scale to solve some issue. And the rest of us are supposed to take their solutions and scale it down. I’m thinking: Let’s turn this pyramid upside down. Maybe we can find out how small rural newspapers can scale up — how we on a small scale can produce a new financial paradigm for the newspaper that can be replicated and scaled up. 

OB: What have you discovered so far?

LZ: The work here has demonstrated to me there is an intense hunger for good local information. People here can get what they need from national news from other sources. They are most eager to get information about what is happening in their communities.  I’m betting with some measure of success if you invest in good information, they will come to you.

OB: What are your metrics for success?

LZ: Advertising is continuing to grow; our social media presence is way out of scale for who we are and where we are.  

OB: Can you put numbers to those metrics?

LZ:  No. I’ve got a competitor.

OB: Since the election, national media have taken a new interest in rural America. How do you rate that coverage?

LZ: Two things that I see in my new rural perspective.  The Times has talented people and they are getting people out in the country. An issue I see with major media: They don’t understand rural America; they tend to treat them as novelties. They see these rural areas as a curiousity instead of: These areas represent an important part of the American fabric. You can’t cover rural Oregon by parachuting in.  

OB: The narrative of rural Oregon, rural America, often unfolds as a narrative of decline: the declining timber industry, declining tax base, the dismantling of the social fabric. Is that an accurate depiction?

LZ: As you say, there is a standard paradigm of decline. But there are areas in Oregon where people have found ways to adapt to changing forces, people who have managed to be adaptive, to be a survivialist. One of other things I want to do is be a cognitive voice for rural Oregon. I want to be an articulate voice, not in a promotional point of view, but to help people in urban Portland area understand how interests in Ontario, for example, are aligned with interests in the Willamette Valley.

OB:  What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned as the leader of a small paper in rural Oregon?

LZ:  The most surprising the sheer volume of news going on in this county.  It’s six or seven times of Rhode Island, and you have 6,000-7,000 people spread out over the landscape.  I thought it was going to be quiet. But we have more news than we can handle.  If we had three to four reporters [instead of two], it would be more than we can handle.

OB: You led the O’s coverage of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation. How has that influenced the way readers respond to your coverage now that you helm the Malheur Enterprise?

LZ: There have been only a couple of people aligned with the militant point of view who have not been particularly welcoming. Via social media they have made their complaints and then gone away. I am pleased people do remember that I was involved in that coverage.

OB:  What is the difference between being a reporter and being an owner/publisher?

LZ: A reporter does one thing: They go out and get the story.  The owner pays the light bills, deal with personnel issues; deals with all the issues. A very wise business man told me a long time ago you have to be a business first and a newspaper second. In my newspaper ownership, I’ve kept this thought sharply in my mind.

*UPDATE:  Another Oregon journalist is the target of a public records lawsuit filed by a government agency. PPS has filed a suit against Beth Slovic, after the Willamette Week reporter requested the names of PPS employees placed on administrative leave.