Back to Basics: How a Small Town Paper Continues to Thrive

Welcome to vale.. Population 1,800 – or so – in wide-open Malheur county, where agriculture is king..

The downtown is struggling a bit, vacant stores dot the main street.

But Vale boasts something many similar rural towns and many bigger communities, have lost.

It has a newspaper.

“The stress level in the profession across the country is extraordinary. We’ve lost, what, 40% of the journalists in the last 10 years in this country,” said Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise. “That’s a lot fewer eyeballs keeping an eye on local politicians and local events.”

Les Zaitz, after a long reporting career with The Oregonian now owns and runs The Malheur Enterprise; covering this region with a back-to-basics approach.

“It’s all about the content. Everything is secondary to that. Advertising sales, subscription sales, what our front office looks like,” he said. “None of that matters if we don’t deliver Class A content. That serves what people want to know.”

That approach has drawn national attention and won a string of prestigious journalism awards. This is a little paper with a big profile in the news world.

“I can’t do a thing on the national level,” Zaitz said. “I’m not at the New York Times. I can’t change CNN. I can’t change Fox. But I can change the Malheur Enterprise. And by example, perhaps change some other news organizations in Oregon and across the West.

When Les Zaitz and his partners bought The Enterprise four years ago, he described it as “arguably the worst newspaper in the state of Oregon.” There was just one full-time reporter, and subscriptions were plummeting.

“It was a newspaper that served up pre-canned material on its front page,” he said. “Press releases from government agencies, columns from government officials blathering on about nothing that had anything to do with life in Malheur County.”

Now he calls it “a journalism laboratory” where he can experiment, and also share lessons learned in four decades of newspaper work. 

“All of the skills we have as journalists, interviewing is one that you never stop learning.”

The paper is more than a century old with no set news-content formula for the modern version.

It’s whatever’s happening. Whatever people are talking about. Hard news and soft. Agriculture, politics, local sports; a region reflected back to itself.

Zaitz hired Yadira Lopez to cover the local Hispanic community

“It’s schools, it’s jobs, local politics,” Lopez said. “It’s really the same thing. Its just that we haven’t always included their voices in these articles before.”

But she, and everyone on staff, is expected to cover any issue at any time.

“I’m doing a story on Cliff Bent, our local rep,” reporter Pat Caldwell said. “Doing a story on natural resources. I’m doing a story on a community meeting that’s going to happen next week.”

Zaitz keeps his ears open on the streets and encourages his staff to do the same.

“Well, I tell them there are no stories in the newsroom,” Zaitz said.

It’s evident the stories and coverage are resonating with the community.

“When people send you cards and notes and emails.. And calls saying keep it up. Do more of what you’re doing. We love your paper. I mean those are the sweetest words any publisher could have. We love your paper.”

They’re responding in more tangible ways – bottom line ways as well. The Enterprise has seen revenues triple.

Paid, online readership is a big part of the equation, driving a boom in overall subscriptions. Online and old-fashioned to more than 2,000.

Internship programs and fellowships help with the payroll costs. Consistent social media posts draw attention to what the hold-in-your-hand paper delivers every Wednesday.

The paper has continued to evolve, Zaitz said. And timeline online content is key.

“We started with no social media.. We didn’t have a website we didn’t have Facebook, we didn’t have Twitter,” he said. “Well now our Facebook page is sort of the daily paper for Malheur County.”

“If we can do this in Vale, Oregon. In the county seat of the poorest county in Oregon with a very limited news staff, then news organizations in larger communities, whether it’s Bend or Klamath Falls.. Coos Bay.. Portland.. Denver.. It doesn’t matter,” he said. “They can’t argue to me ‘well we just don’t have the resources,’ it doesn’t matter. It’s how you deploy those resources in service to the community that makes a difference.”

 

 

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