COLUMN: For The Enterprise, a good year of local journalism despite challenges of Covid

In Norway, a reporter listed herself as the local polar bear reporter.

That makes sense, since the Svalbardposten is the farthest north publication on the planet.

The beat has got to be fascinating, compared to covering a government meeting.

I came across this tidbit as the Malheur Enterprise got its 15 minutes of international fame in 2020.

Monocle, a glossy international magazine based in London, picked the Enterprise as one of three remote newspapers around the globe to feature. The other two were the Svalbardposten in Svalband, Norway, and a newspaper in Oban, New Zealand.

That your local newspaper in Malheur County came to the attention of magazine editors in London is a bit of a mystery, but the global attention was flattering. Our delivery person, Sheila Schroder, was included in the photo layout, adding to her fame.

The six-page spread in Monocle was just one place the Enterprise was featured because of our journalism serving Malheur County. Not along ago, NBC News included the Enterprise in its national report on how local journalists cover the pandemic.

For us, the year of 2020 was one with both severe challenges and great success.

Awards and honors in the journalism profession mean a lot to those who receive them. Those honors signal to readers and the community something about the caliber of journalism they are getting. Our peers judged us among the best.

The Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association cited the Enterprise for excellence in journalism across several categories – breaking news, features, profiles and enterprise. No other weekly newspaper in Oregon was more highly honored, bringing us the annual sweepstakes trophy.

I was curious about our record, so checked. Every reporter or photographer who has worked for us since 2015, including every summer intern, has won a professional award.

And I was personally profoundly honored at the national level, chosen by the Society of Professional Journalists to be an SPJ Fellow. The choice is for career contributions to the profession and it’s an honor I shared in 2020 with Marty Baron, editor of the Washington Post, and Nikole Hannah-Jones, a distinguished reporter for the New York Times. Only two other journalists from Oregon have been named an SPJ Fellow.

At the Enterprise, we worked hard through the year to advance our journalism. We concluded a one-year partnership with the national Report For America, we were picked by the Solutions Journalism Network for an experiment in revenue and journalism, and the American Press Institute included us for extra election reporting this year.

Those programs all brought resources and, in some cases, more staffing to the Enterprise.

Such was true of our intern program, which brings in top college talent for a paid summer of helping cover Malheur County. With donations from readers, foundations and journalism organizations, we put four temporary journalists to work. Bailey Lewis, Ardeshir Tabrizian, Rachel Parsons and Kezia Setyawan brought skill and curiosity and gave you coverage in word, photo and video that no other news organization could match.

We continue to learn how to perform what’s called solutions journalism – seeking answers and not just problems. Bailey and Ardeshir, for instance, produced an insightful piece last summer on how other communities provide for citizen oversight of police. That became an issue in Ontario following summer protests.

Pat Caldwell tracked down rural counties from other states who weren’t suffering from the pandemic as we were here, finding answers to what we could do in Malheur County to better tame the virus.

In the year ahead, we intend to expand on that approach with more such reporting. And we’ll soon be announcing the Community Solutions Fund, through which we as journalists will work in tandem with the community. We’ll turn to you to identify key local issues that need solutions – and devote reporting resources to finding those solutions.

Like every business, the Enterprise has suffered from the pandemic. Businesses that are closed don’t need to advertise – an important source of revenue for us.

Still, we leaned into the year to provide what we thought was vital community service. We made available for free some of our key reporting on Covid. We invested in translating local election news into Spanish – and making that material free. That’s just part of our duty to Malheur County, we figure.

Not every news outlet was as fortunate as the Enterprise to stay alive and keep going strong. Weekly newspapers in several communities across Oregon and indeed the U.S. shut down, strangled by the pandemic. The Argus Observer in Ontario cut a day from its newspaper schedule and watched its sister weekly newspaper across the river in Payette go dark.

What keeps us going is you, the subscriber. Our growth in subscriptions to our electronic service was strong through 2020, and we expect that to continue. That signals to us that we are, indeed, producing the kind of local news people like you feel is worth paying for and supporting.

I’m optimistic that this year will be better for all of us, if we can all hang in there another three months or so. Schools will open. The vaccine is coming. Businesses will resume normal operations. And cash sitting in personal savings accounts will start moving through the economy.

We’ll chronicle it all with the best news team around. We’ll continue focusing on reporting that is fearless and fair, that probes and praises.

Experience has shown that most of you want news that you can believe, that you want that instead of government PR and “fake” stories from sources you shouldn’t trust.

My promise to you is that, as long as we’re running, we’ll always keep in mind that we serve you and nobody else. I ask that you continue to support us in that ambition.

Les Zaitz is publisher and editor the Enterprise. Reach him by email at [email protected]

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