Digging Deep Into Local News, A Small Newspaper In Rural Oregon Is Thriving In far eastern Oregon, a small weekly newspaper is bucking an industry trend. The Malheur Enterprise was languishing, but it has recently won several national awards and circulation is surging.
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Digging Deep Into Local News, A Small Newspaper In Rural Oregon Is Thriving

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

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

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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)

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