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Malheur Enterprise wins national award for fighting secrecy over rail reload center

The Malheur Enterprise has won a national award for fighting secrecy as it reported on the Treasure Valley Reload Center.

The First Amendment Award was given to the family-owned newspaper by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a national journalism organization. The award cited the work of the Enterprise to obtain public records related to the faltering Nyssa rail project in the face of obstruction by Malheur County Development Corp. and its manager, Greg Smith, and Malheur County officials.

The honor went to the staff of the Enterprise for “reporting about Malheur County’s lack of transparency and the effect and importance of the paper’s lawsuit against the county to enforce state public records law.”

Judges said the work was “a fantastic example of a small paper doing big work to effect real change in the local community.” 

The panel added that while the paper did not use “multimedia coverage,” it did “provide different angles – reporting on the lack of transparency, reporting on the after effect, and providing commentary to explain the importance to their community.” 

The judges said noted the reporting was essentially “the work of just one person makes it incredibly deserving. It profoundly changed how public records are viewed in an Oregon community.”

“This honor is incredible for a small rural newsroom,” said Publisher Les Zaitz, whose family has owned the Enterprise since 2015. “Our readers have come to count on our team to ensure government officials are held to account for their conduct and their use of public money. That is not always easy in a small community ­– but it is our duty.” 

Poynter officials announced the honor on Tuesday, April 23, among awards across 10 categories focused on “aspects of writing, reporting and leadership.”

The First Amendment Award recognizes “the best example of protecting or advancing the principles of freedom of information,” according to the announcement.

Finalists for the awarded including the Washington Post and Newsday of Long Island, N.Y., one of the country’s largest newspapers. 

Jennifer Orsi, the contest director with Poynter, said the contest honors “some of the best and most impactful journalism across the United States last year.” 

The organization received over 500 entries from over 300 news organizations across the U.S., including digital news sites, newspapers, television, and public media.

In September 2022, the newspaper sued the county and the development company to enforce the state’s public records law. 

Last May, the county and MCDC settled the lawsuit by paying the Enterprise $40,000 for its legal costs, training county employees on public records law and acknowledging the Nyssa rail project could have been “better structured to promote transparency.”

Attorney Dan Norris, former Malheur County district attorney, represented the newspaper in the court proceedings and settlement talks.

The Enterprise used public documents to report on the financial mismanagement and project delays. Zaitz and reporters Pat Caldwell and Steven Mitchell produced a series of stories chronicling missteps and the eventual resignation of Smith as project leader.

This was not the first national award for the Enterprise for safeguarding the public’s access to government information.

In 2018, the Enterprise won a Freedom of Information award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, a national journalism organization. The award, the first ever awarded to a weekly, recognized the newspaper’s reporting on the history of Anthony Montwheeler, a local man who murdered one of his ex-wives and killed a Vale man and injured his wife while eluding police in January 2017. 

The Enterprise news team determined in subsequent reporting that Montwheeler had been released from the Oregon State Hospital three weeks before the murders despite warnings from doctors he was dangerous. Later reporting found that Montwheeler was released after claiming he had been faking mental illness to avoid prison in a 1996 kidnapping case.

 In 2018, the Enterprise was named a finalist for the national Freedom of Information Award issued by Scripps Howard for the newspaper’s coverage of the Montwheeler coverage. 

Orsi said journalists and the public all too often face obstacles in accessing records that are “legally theirs.” 

“The First Amendment award recognizes efforts by journalists who persist in making sure the public’s business is indeed public, even when some try to hide it,” she said. 


County, MCDC settle Enterprise lawsuit over records, promising more transparency
Commentary: Citizens are winners in Enterprise lawsuit over public records
Smith says under oath he had contract for reload project – but ‘no records exist’
Smith agrees to pay Malheur County $70,000 over mishandling of public records

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