Malheur Enterprise Editor Les Zaitz makes a phone call earlier this year. (E.J. Harris/East Oregonian.)

Again, the Malheur Enterprise’s aggressive turnaround under owner and editor Les Zaitz will be honored with a national award.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues announced Tuesday that Zaitz was nominated for and won the 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award for the rigorous pursuit of local journalism.

"This is more recognition that our staff is serving up national quality journalism to Malheur County," said Zaitz. "We continue to invest in local journalism because it's so important to the communities and people here. Our entire staff shares this honor."

Link to announcement: Rural Journalism blog

The institute, based at the University of Kentucky, cited the “Deadly Decisions” series as one reason for the selection. Zaitz, along with reporters Pat Caldwell and John Braese, investigated why state officials freed Anthony Montwheeler despite warnings he was dangerous. Weeks later, prosecutors have charged, he killed his ex-wife Annita Harmon by stabbing and Vale resident David Bates in a head-on collision.

When the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board sued the newspaper to block the release of records, Zaitz and the Enterprise started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the legal challenge. Gov. Kate Brown later ordered the board to drop the lawsuit and release the records.

“That’s one reason Les Zaitz and the Enterprise are such a good choice for the Gish Award,” said Institute Director Al Cross. “Doing good journalism in rural areas often requires more courage, tenacity and integrity than in cities, but the same state and federal laws apply, and Les knows how to use them for the public good.”

Earlier this year, that work won the 2018 Freedom of Information Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, making the Enterprise the first weekly selected for the national recognition that has previously gone to larger organizations like The Oregonian and Wall Street Journal. The judges wrote that the reporting showed “you don’t need a large staff and deep resources to move the needle on open records.”

That award will be presented next week at IRE's national conference in Florida.

Zaitz learned the ins and outs of Oregon open government laws over five decades as a reporter.

Zaitz began writing for Oregon newspapers while still in high school. In 1976, he joined the staff of The Oregonian, where he worked as an investigative reporter and editor until retiring in 2016. He was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 1987, he bought the Keizertimes in Keizer and served as its publisher until 2000. The paper is still owned and managed by his family.

Five times he has won Oregon’s top award for investigative journalism, the Bruce Baer Award. In 2016, the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association granted him their career achievement award, which had not been given since 2010. Gov. Brown also appointed him to serve on the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council.

Zaitz, along with his wife Scotta and Lyndon, bought the century-old Malheur Enterprise in 2015 to keep it from closing.

They have increased the newspaper’s circulation and the size of its reporting staff, emphasizing explanatory and investigative reporting that provides the community critical information they won’t find anywhere else. This year, ProPublica choose the Enterprise to be an inaugural member of its Local Reporting Network, enabling the paper to hire reporter Jayme Fraser. She is using the public records freed after the legal fight over Montwheeler documents to investigate how Oregon handles criminal insanity cases.

Earlier this year, the Enterprise also launched a new website and online subscriptions with the goal of making the newspaper sustainable for future generations.

The Tom and Pat Gish Award is named after a late couple in Kentucky who similarly fought to bring important news to their small town. As publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., they "became nationally known for their battles with coal operators and politicians, and the firebombing of their office by a Whitesburg policeman.”

Their son, Ben Gish, now publisher of the Eagle, is on the selection committee for the award.

“Given the tenacity, courage and integrity Les Zaitz has shown during his career, it would be hard to find a more deserving winner of the award named in honor of my parents,” Gish said. “I find it more than just a little interesting that his father and my father ran statehouse bureaus for United Press [International].”

Zaitz will receive the award in July at the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in Portland.

Past winners of the award have been the Gishes; the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Texas) Record; publisher Jim Prince and former publisher Stan Dearman of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler, columnist for The Oregonian, for her work in rural Kentucky and Texas; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin for their newspaper work in Yancey County, N.C.; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in western Kentucky; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in Española, N.M.; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.; and the Cullen family of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa.

Jayme Fraser: [email protected], 541-473-3377.