COLUMN: Reader trust is most important asset of the Enterprise

As I stepped to the microphone last week, I looked into the faces of editors and publishers awaiting my speech.

Microphones don’t make me nervous, but I admit to being a touch anxious. These were professional colleagues. My job was to kick off the annual convention of Washington newspaper publishers with a major speech. Journalists, who cover endless speeches in their careers, can be a tough audience.

The people of Malheur County were very much on my mind as I launched my talk. In the year that I’ve served as editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, I’ve listened closely to local people. Your praise and criticism of the newspaper’s work has been taken to heart.

More importantly, though, I’ve listened to gauge public trust in the media.

On that mark, the press has a big task. We have a president constantly telling America you can’t believe what you read or hear. Survey after survey shows that trust in the press has been sinking for years.

In newsrooms across the U.S., reporters and editors focus on numbers, too, but often of a different type. You hear a lot about “clicks” – the meter of how much readership any item online gets. The news profession has chased clicks to establish its relevance. You hear about the analysis of metrics – how well a story does, what happens when you give readers two or three different headlines on the same story.

In my speech in Olympia, I urged the crowd of professionals to instead focus on improving another metric – the trust in the news media. No number was more important, I argued, than the percentage of people who trust the press to give them fair and accurate information.

That trust isn’t just vital to the survival of the news business, and newspapers in particular. No one needs an MBA to know that if you give consumers what they want, the chances go up considerably for financial success. Too many news organizations appear to miss that business basic. They are anguished over dropping revenue and the need to cut expenses, mostly in staffing.

At the Enterprise, we’re heading the other direction. In the past year, all of our business numbers are up – subscribers, advertisers, and staff. We’re appreciative that the people of Malheur County react so strongly to the chance to get fair and accurate reports that delve deeply into matters important to local people.

But building trust isn’t just about business success. More fundamentally, as I told the crowd in Olympia, is the need to serve the country and our communities. I am convinced that people hunger for solid information. I am convinced that readers want unbiased reports about what’s happening so they can decide whether to participate or speak out.

And I am convinced that people can come together for the common good and for the betterment of their communities – if they share information they believe and trust. In Malheur County, citizens can’t be expected to step up to civic responsibilities if they aren’t sure they can believe what they’re being told about an issue or a challenge at a school, a city, or a nonprofit.

At the Enterprise, we work very hard to earn your trust. We stumble with errors and omissions, of course, and we try to make amends and apologies and do better. But at the core, we are determined to inform you so you can act and take what role you want to improve life here.

We can’t change how the big national news organizations behave, though they need a speech or two themselves. At the Enterprise, we’ll continue to exhibit the commitment to truth intended to earn and keep your trust.

Les Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Enterprise. Contact: [email protected].