Les Zaitz, publisher and editor of the Malheur Enterprise. (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)

The editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise has been cited nationally by the Society of Professional Journalists for his "extraordinary contribution" to journalism.

Les Zaitz, publisher since 2016, was recently named a fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists — the highest professional honor given by the national organization of journalists.

In addition to Zaitz, the 2020 fellows are Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post; Nikole Hannah-Jones, known for creating The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project; Jorge Ramos, anchor for Noticiero Univision since 1986; and Gwen Ifill, who was the moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week” and co-anchor and managing editor of “PBS NewsHour” until her death in 2016.

The award, according to a press release from SPJ, is awarded to journalists “for extraordinary contribution to the profession of journalism.” SPJ started the Fellows of the Society program in 1948 and names three or more fellows every year. This year’s SPJ fellows will be honored at a virtual conference on Sept. 12-13.

Zaitz, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, joins many journalism legends who were honored as fellows in previous years, including Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. He said he was “stunned” when he found out he had been chosen.

“This is an incredible career honor and makes the years of hard work and my decision to persist after retirement seem like good choices,” said Zaitz.

He is only the third Oregon journalist chosen for the award. Past Oregonian fellows include former editor and publisher of the Oregon Statesman Charles Sprague, chosen in 1966, and former editor of The Bulletin in Bend Bob Chandler, who was chosen in 1993.

“At this moment in the country’s history, the work of the press to regain the trust of the American people needs to be a priority for every single journalist,” said Zaitz. “I earnestly believe we can do so by doubling down on the ethics and standards so well represented by SPJ.”

Patricia Gallagher Newberry, SPJ National president, said the process for choosing fellows starts with their Awards and Honors Committee creating a list of recommended journalists to be chosen, which is then given to the board of directors, who choose three to five from those listed.

Newberry said Zaitz, in particular, was “an interesting pick” because he brings geographic diversity to the fellows chosen. Newberry said before she even spoke with Zaitz, she had to Google where Malheur County was.

“I had to Google that because I knew that he had a long affiliation with The Oregonian, and I know where that is, but I'm thinking where the heck is Malheur?” said Newberry.

But Newberry said it wasn’t Zaitz’s geographic diversity that got him chosen but his “very storied, long career” at The Oregonian, his “important investigative work” and continued contributions to the field of journalism.

“I think it's really important at this moment in time that we acknowledge what he's continuing to do for journalism,” said Newberry. “After that long career with a major daily in the great Northwest, he could have said, ‘Well, I've paid my dues, I've done my time. I'm going to just, you know, be a gentleman rancher now and take my leave.’ But instead, he was willing to carry on and continue on as a journalist.”

Further, Newberry said in a world full of “news deserts” — communities that have no journalists serving them — the fact “that Les has been willing to stay in the game and cover the entities that make the decisions that impact the lives of his friends and neighbors is really remarkable.”

Journalism runs in Zaitz’s family, and he credits his father for getting him involved as a child in the weekly newspaper he owned. He also credits those he has worked under, who were “some of the top editors in the country.”

“They pushed me, gave me room to run and helped instill that passion for excellence,” said Zaitz.

Zaitz is an Oregon native and started his career in journalism after graduating high school in 1973 as a reporter for the Salem Statesman Journal. He attended the University of Oregon and joined The Oregonian as a reporter from 1976-1987.

From 1987-2000, Zaitz served as the owner and publisher of Keizertimes, but returned to The Oregonian in 2000, serving as a senior investigative reporter and later the investigations editor before retiring from the newspaper in 2016. His investigative work at The Oregonian looked into corrupt public officials, the Rajneesh sect and Mexican drug cartels, and he led the newspaper’s coverage of the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

Therese Bottomly, editor of The Oregonian and former colleague of Zaitz, said his choosing for the national honor was “well-deserved.”

“Les sets the standard for local journalism not just in Oregon but nationally, through tough watchdog reporting but also engaging with the community his newsroom serves,” said Bottomly.

Zaitz became editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise when his family bought it in 2015, saving it from closure. In 2018, he co-founded the Salem Reporter, an online news service, and is the CEO and editor.

Since taking over, The Enterprise has won various state, regional and national journalism awards, has had partnerships with ProPublica, Report for America and the Solutions Journalism Network, and hosts interns partly sponsored by the University of Oregon and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

He has also spent decades in the journalism field as a trainer, coach, conference speaker and has served on a variety of community boards. Zaitz is an expert in Oregon public records law, and twice served on state councils examining reforms of Oregon’s law and was one of only three press representatives appointed to the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council by Gov. Kate Brown in 2017.

Juan-Carlos Molleda, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication dean, said Zaitz has been a “committed supporter” of the school’s Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism, “provided career-building internships for many talented journalism students” and is a selection committee member of its national Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.

“Les is a champion of local news that matters to the community and helps people make decisions about their lives,” said Molleda.

His long and successful career in journalism has resulted in his winning of many state, regional and national journalism awards for over 40 years. Zaitz is a five-time solo winner of Oregon’s Bruce Baer Award, the state’s top award for investigative reporting. In 2007, Zaitz was part of a team that won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. He was also a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2014.

He was awarded the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association’s highest honor for career achievement in 2016 and awarded the Frank McCulloch Award for Courage in Journalism by the University of Nevada-Reno Journalism School in 2017. In 2018, Zaitz was given the Gish Award from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

When he is not running two news organizations, Zaitz runs a small ranch with his wife Scotta Callister in eastern Oregon.

News tip? Contact reporter Bailey Lewis at [email protected].

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