No one would have faulted veteran investigative reporter Les Zaitz if, after retiring from The Oregonian in 2016, he’d kicked back at his east Oregon ranch with his wife and watched the world go by. What did a man who’d covered the Mount St. Helens eruption, the Oregon militia standoff and Mexican drug cartels (which made him a Pulitzer Prize finalist) have left to prove? But instead, he took up a new gig as editor and publisher of The Malheur Enterprise, a tiny weekly newspaper serving the equally miniscule county of Malheur.
Instead of just covering local sports and the occasional bake sale, Zaitz and his small staff found themselves pursuing everything from community scandals to the COVID-19 pandemic and national and local protests against police brutality. And as if that weren’t enough, he’s also forged a new business model for both the Enterprise and his other paper, the all-digital Salem Reporter (launched in 2018), that might offer a way forward for newspapers across the country, both big and small. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
As a newspaper owner, what do you know now that you didn’t know as a reporter?
I’m a pretty odd duck. I worked at The Oregonian for 11 years, then I left and bought a weekly newspaper when I was fairly young, 35, and ran that for many years before I went back to The Oregonian. I will tell you that when I left the Oregonian and ran my own business, I learned the undercarriage of running a newspaper. And when I went back to The Oregonian, it frankly made me a much better reporter. Because I understood payroll and balance sheets. I sometimes smile to myself when I see that reporters or editors who get laid off are going to go out and start their own enterprise. Well that’s great, and they may know a lot about writing a headline and a lede, but I guarantee they know next to nothing about filing payroll taxes.
Do you ever think you made the wrong call? That maybe you should have just retired?
I gotta tell you, in recent weeks that thought has crossed my mind many times as one crisis mounts on top of another. I was this close to just sitting on the bench and watching the parade go by. But those moments pass. This is a pretty important time in journalism, and any good reporter wants to be out on the front lines of big stories.
What’s it like for a little paper to go after a big story?
We don’t have the luxury of having a reporter sit and do nothing but work on a particular story for two weeks, let alone two months. It takes very careful navigation between our regular news beats and the time it takes to do an investigative project. We’ve become pretty effective at saying, “Why don’t you work on this project for the afternoon, and tomorrow you’re going to have to go do high school sports.” The other thing, which gets me a lot of second looks from my professional colleagues, is that I don’t spend time sending my reporters to city council meetings and school board meetings. Very rarely does anything happen that people didn’t expect to happen. Most of it is not worth a paragraph, let alone a story. But what typically happens is reporters go and spend the time and feel obligated to write a story, and it becomes stenography. Well, I tell our reporters two things: If we’re so poorly sourced that we get surprised by what happens every time the school board meets, then we have to do a better job of sourcing. And secondly, instead of having a reporter spend three hours sitting on their butt at a school board meeting, I’d rather have them take that time to go through budget documents to explain why poorly performing schools are doing so poorly.
On those stories, are you a coach or a player?
Sometimes I engage directly as a reporter just because that’s what I’ve done all my life. I get into a good, complex story, and I’m well aware that certain officials believe that if they keep their matters complicated no one will figure it out. To me that’s just waving a red flag. For example, I have two interns who are getting ready to publish a story about a local counselor. Last week, they reported that a local woman had taken out a restraining order against this counselor for making threats. And they spent several days digging into records of two prior abuse cases. Well, my job is to coach them. What documents are you looking at? What do the documents really say? What is it that we need to tell the reader? So I use the process not only to generate what I think is strong content, but to make it a training academy for not only how you gather information, but how to prepare questions, craft the story and do rewrites. I’m very hands-on with those sorts of stories, primarily because I have the experience and the knowledge. I want to help train the next generation of really good watchdog investigative reporters.
What’s the skill set an investigative reporter needs to be successful now and in the future, and how does that vary from when you started out?
Obviously one of the most significant changes is the ability to mine data. And I confess that I decided I just don’t have the brain capacity to become a data reporter. So I rely on others. I recognize the value of it, but it remains my greatest weakness as a reporter. Also, being able to navigate social media and use that as a reporting tool. It’s incredible how valuable that can be. But I still think that the basic skills of journalism — the ability to read documents, dissect what they mean and to effectively do interviews — is really critical, and a skill that I still see as too weak in too many people. Not to mention the ability to write clearly. If you’re writing stories that aren’t clear, readers won’t feel their value and you won’t get that digital subscription.
Do you miss full-time investigative reporting?
No. That’s why I retired. I always wanted to go out at the top of my game, because I’ve seen too many times when veterans sort of coast and sit in the office, not being productive and living off past glories. I didn’t want to be one of those old guys. I wanted to go out when I was still swinging pretty hard.
What’s your day like now?
I live on a ranch about a hundred miles from the Enterprise. I generally work remotely. During the summertime with the interns, I’ll go over for a day or two, but otherwise I rely on telecommunications and Zoom. I also run a news organization in Salem, Oregon, and I do that entirely from my ranch. I’m up by 4 a.m. most mornings, getting the day set. I spend it managing the coverage for these two operations and keeping up to date on news across the state and country. When I take a break, I go feed or brush my horses. It’s not your usual journalistic lifestyle.
How did the pandemic affect the Enterprise?
We serve Malheur County, which is a very poor, remote area on the eastern edge of the state. The pandemic hit the area pretty hard when our governor ordered lots of businesses closed and stopped schools and all sorts of activities. Our display advertising evaporated essentially overnight, and a couple of major area events, for which we do specialty publications, canceled. So we lost significant revenue there. But the good news is that it was a very tough story that needed close attention, and the staff just dug in to do the reporting necessary to keep the community up to date. A big part of that job was simply sorting fact from fiction, which remains a challenge to this day.
How big is your news staff?
In March I had three full-time reporters. I laid off one as sort of a precautionary move, but brought him back on duty after 30 days. So we’re back to full staff. Plus, I’ve got four summer interns that showed up June 1. So we’re one of the largest newsrooms in eastern Oregon at this point.
You’re in a small, poor community, and your advertising has dried up. How do you pay the bills?
A couple of years ago I adopted a digital subscription model. Unlike a lot of papers, I’ve priced my digital service separately from my print product. A lot of places, if you sign up for the print paper, they throw in the digital service for free. To me, it made no sense to give away the digital service when you bought print — and vice versa. We have a very distinct digital subscription channel, and that has turned into a material source of revenue for us. And as the pandemic hit, the subscriptions really piled up, because people were desperate for news. We’re not out of the woods, but we’re alive, we’re breathing and we’re navigating this situation as carefully as we can. I serve a very poor market, so you’d think asking people to pay for a digital subscription or a print subscription would be a very tough sell. But in the time we’ve done that, I can count maybe a dozen instances where print customers have said, “I’m a subscriber, how come I can’t see your online news?” And I have a good, solid statement that I send those readers, explaining the business model. That we need to diversify our income streams, and we treat them as two separate products. I can only think of one person who didn’t accept that explanation. What that tells me is that if you are delivering a good, solid news product to the local market, the market will bear the choice of paying. Though, in a lot of instances, we have people paying for both. And I charge more for my digital subscription than I do for the print subscription. Which I think is frankly remarkable. You’ve got to bite the bullet and train your market that what you have to sell is worth paying for, and if it’s not worth paying for, you need to do something different with your product.
So how did we get the idea that no one would buy an online newspaper product?
We dug our own hole by giving away the digital product for years and years, which has never made any sense to me from a business point of view. But you see more and more organizations starting to go behind paywalls. Even The Oregonian, where I worked for many years, started doing voluntary digital subscriptions and moving some stories behind a paywall. Well what if they’d done that 10 years ago? Would they be in a different financial condition? I bet they would be.
So papers need to educate the market?
You have to value what you produce. That’s the first thing. You have to have a core belief that what you’re doing is worth people’s money. You’re not trying to trick them into it with odd little deals. That’s fundamental. And then you have to tell the community why you value the work that you do, and what it’s worth to the community. We do a lot of that at the Enterprise. We regularly explain to people, “You clearly are interested in watchdog reporting, but this stuff isn’t free. We can’t have our reporters working for no salary.” And people get that.
Do you think your subscription approach is a model that can be duplicated by other papers?
Not just small-town papers, but metros? I think the model we have here can be replicated. If someone gave me $10 million, I’d go out and buy a bunch of Oregon papers and implement this model. But my wife would kill me if a check showed up in the mailbox. She probably would intercept it and send it back with an expletive scrawled across it.
Will anything good come out of this pandemic for journalism, or is this just one more damn thing for newspapers? It remains to be seen. This is a prime opportunity for every newsroom to reassess how well we’re reporting on things. Are we just doing stuff that’s episodic, stuff without context? Are we just burying people with volume, without really explaining? Those newsrooms that are very strategic about their news coverage are going to earn increased credibility in their markets. And right now, that’s what I preach to my entire staff. Our No. 1 job is to regain the trust of the American people and the people in our community. That’s in the forefront of everything we do.
How did we lose that credibility?
I could talk for an hour about that, because I’m pretty critical of our profession in a lot of ways. But I’ll distill it down. My entire profession has been investigative reporting. I’ve seen stories that are ballyhooed as major investigative projects that frankly are either thinly reported or report very loudly on something that matters only to a few people. In some instances, we’ve strained our credibility for watchdog reporting by overreacting and overdramatizing stories, instead of just dialing them back and giving people the facts and not trying to make more out of something than it is. Secondly, I think we have not been mindful of maintaining the trust of readers. I think we spend too much time writing for each other. We crave professional accolades, and we love it when a colleague in Kansas City sends us an email saying it was a great story. That’s all very nice, but I’m not here to serve my pal in Kansas City. I’m here to serve somebody that lives in Vale, Oregon, (the Enterprise’s hometown). I care what they think.
I believe we have disconnected from our communities in a lot of ways. A big part of that is the corporate collapse of the news business. Merger after merger, acquisition after acquisition, into these giant corporations that mouth a belief in community journalism, but then strip the newsroom. Every time you lose a reporter, you lose trust in the community. And we’ve also been absolutely awful in explaining how we do our work and what drives us. In my training for my interns, I tell them, “We, as a profession, just assume that people know we’re trying to get at the truth. Well, we need to tell them why that matters to them.”
Do you feel a strong obligation to keep fighting the good fight?
Any investigative reporter who has the experience and the ability to influence where the profession is going has a duty to step up and be a leader. And that’s one reason I don’t retire. I don’t really need a day job anymore. But I just feel so profoundly that all of us who have an ability to improve the profession have an obligation to do so.
Photo by Robert Quick/Quicks Foto Designs