Speak Your Piece: Rural Oregon Provides Laboratory for Innovative Journalism

While the urban-focused news business wrings its hands about the future of journalism, maybe there’s something the industry ought to be learning from rural areas. A former investigative reporter for a major metropolitan daily newspaper promotes himself to editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise.

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VALE, Oregon – This struggling town literally in another time zone in Oregon would seem like the last place a retiring senior investigative reporter would show up.

As in many rural communities across America, empty brick buildings line the main streets, intermixed with antique stores, hair salons and just a couple of retailers. About 1,700 souls live here, anchored by the county seat and sustained by surrounding onion farms.

Last fall, I retired from The Oregonian in Portland, where I had been senior investigative reporter for years. The departure was to mark the formal end of a journalism career in Oregon spanning more than 40 years. My intent was to work my eastern Oregon ranch, write a book about a dangerous cult once operating in Oregon, and tinker around the edges of my profession.

The presidential election changed me from tinkerer to roll-the-sleeves-up practitioner of rural journalism. On a national level, many in journalism and civic service lament the decline of big newspapers and other media. Fortunes are being spent to arrest the decline, all in service of getting information to the public.

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Front page of the Malheur Enterprise.

Overlooked, it seemed to me, is the vital need for rural journalism. The election underscored how the national press sometimes treats rural issues as folksy sidelights. Crews parachute into rural Minnesota or Oklahoma or Montana, spend an hour in the local café, and then report with presumed authority on what rural America is about.

They go home leaving communities starved for information. And it’s not the information we think. Yes, there’s intent interest in what President Trump and his cabinet are doing. Yes, people are perhaps more aware than ever of who represents them in Congress.

But in those local cafes, the need is more pragmatic. They want to know about local crops and markets. They’re intently interested in their schools. They want to know about the FFA auction.

In my career, I’ve reported from every corner of Oregon. Besides working as a daily reporter for the state’s largest news organization, I also owned and operated a suburban weekly. Rural communities have always struck me as places that even The Oregonian didn’t fully understand. Small towns don’t mean small-minded people. Some of the sharpest individuals I’ve befriended over the years are from rural towns. And in rural towns, people have to be more honest and more tolerant. You just spend too much time running into each other.

In fall 2015, I heard that the century-old weekly newspaper in Vale was in trouble. The business is about 100 miles from the ranch where I’ve managed to work remotely for the past decade or so. The idea of a paper with such tradition disappearing at a time local news is so important bothered the heck out of me. So, my family opted to buy it rather than plan on attending its funeral.

Frankly, we expected to keep it running as a low-key, low-cost weekly. My wife, Scotta Callister, an experienced journalist herself, took over management while I finished up my career at The Oregonian. With today’s technology, much of the work could be done via satellite. As my retirement drew near, I thought more about the future of the Enterprise – and of rural journalism. Then it struck me. Why not take this sorely underdeveloped weekly and turn it into a journalism laboratory? Why not work at a small scale to figure out how to effectively – and profitably – serve community information needs? We could experiment readily, turn on a dime to change if something didn’t work, and perhaps devise solutions that could help other rural communities across the country.

And that’s when the presidential election really put the spurs to that notion. Though the Enterprise is one of the smallest newspapers in Oregon, we don’t have to act small. We’re looking around for academic and professional partners to help figure new ways to deploy social media locally. We don’t have to compete with thousands of national outlets. We’re looking for ways to effectively devise a website that is a successful business site, not just a headline poster. We’re going to start from scratch, reject paradigms of journalism, and figure out what our community wants, what it will pay for, and then deliver. We’re going to hunt for ways to honestly serve a Hispanic population that makes up about one-third of the local count but sometimes seems nearly invisible.

My hunch about the hunger for information was confirmed in January, when Vale and the surrounding area were pummeled by one winter storm after another. The local onion industry was clobbered – scores of storage sheds and packing plants collapsed. More than 120 buildings at last count gave up under snow weight.

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Les Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise. He bought the newspaper thinking he and Scotta Callister, his wife, would run it in a traditional, “low-key” manner. Zaitz says the presidential election caused them to change their strategy and try new approaches.

This was an evolving crisis. Schools closed. People were stranded. Major highways open and shut as conditions dictated.

A weekly newspaper had no hope of serving the community in a traditional manner. So we took to our Facebook page, which didn’t exist a year ago. Our reporting staff of two shoveled story after story onto the page. And boy did the community react. Quickly, we became the “go to” source for information though a local daily serves the area. For whatever reason, it elected not to put social media to use.

At the height, Facebook was telling us we were reaching a quarter million people. More importantly, for weeks, we logged more than 100,000 “engagements” – shares, comments and more. And the “thank yous” for our effort rolled in.

Now, did we make a lot of money off the effort? Well, surprisingly, paid subscriptions surged. More important, though, we established a credibility and recognition that no amount of marketing could have bought. No doubt exists in my mind that such credibility will translate into advertising sales to help sustain such efforts.

This crystallized for me and for my small staff that rural journalism is indeed critical to a community. Our ambition is to arm these residents with information to more meaningfully participate in government, nonprofit, and social organizations. That should strengthen our communities and afford more hope that they can survive and sustain, nurturing the lifestyle that more and more Americans are discovering.

So, full retirement waits. Helping the Enterprise and the profession discover new and better ways to capture rural America’s voice is a heartening substitute.

Les Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon (Facebook). He formerly was lead investigative reporter for the Portland Oregonian, where he was five-time winner of the Bruce Baer Award, Oregon’s highest honor for investigative journalism.

 

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