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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Feb. 25, 2024

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Dudley: Local news needs leaders

Small community papers struggle to find worthy owners, staff


After nearly 50 years in the business, local journalism hero Les Zaitz is ready to retire and lean back into his hammock. But like scores of rural and small-town newspaper publishers across the United States, Zaitz faces an uphill battle to find a buyer for his labor of love, the Malheur Enterprise in Eastern Oregon.

Finding a new generation to lead America’s small but essential newspapers will be a challenge unless something changes to improve the industry’s prospects.

The Enterprise is an exemplar, with strong community support, a profitable operation, shelves full of reporting awards and a national reputation for hard-hitting investigations.

But no qualified buyers came forward after Zaitz put the paper up for sale early last year. “I had a couple of serious ones but they just weren’t qualified,” he said.

Zaitz, a former Oregonian reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, bought the Enterprise in 2015 with his wife, Scotta Callister. They revived its fortunes with top-notch reporting and became a destination for journalism students from top schools doing internships.

Now, having just settled a major public records battle, Zaitz will try again to find someone willing to carry the torch.

“We’re pretty realistic,” he said. “The universe of people who want to move to a rural county seat in a poor rural county is a pretty small pool, regardless of how good the journalism is.”

The difficulty of finding buyers is one reason America is losing so many local newspapers — an average of two a week are closing, according to research by Northwestern University’s Medill School.

Most of the 2,500 papers that closed since 2005 are weeklies, largely in rural and suburban areas. Dailies also cut back coverage and circulation in these areas, leaving millions with little to no local news.

It’s difficult to sell any business facing an uncertain future and formidable competition. Tech giants take most advertising dollars nowadays. Although surveys find Americans trust local news, people increasingly get news from social media and spend more time and subscription dollars on digital entertainment.

There are also fewer journalists — newspaper staffing fell nearly 70 percent over the last two decades.

Plus, there’s a lack of local capital in rural towns and counties, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. Cross hoped that people who left or lost jobs at bigger papers would be willing to become entrepreneurs and buy rural ones.

Medill’s research found around 550 digital news startups nationally in 2022. A cluster of philanthropic organizations is working to seed more such ventures, primarily nonprofits. But Medill found most of the digital outlets are in metro areas, and closures across the industry have outpaced startups.

Cross believes journalism veterans are less likely to acquire small papers nowadays because fewer are willing or able to live on the $50,000 a year they may eke from the business.

“The idea of busting your butt to serve the public and not making a lot of money is no longer appealing to many young people,” he said.

Zaitz, who turns 68 soon, won’t sell to just anyone.

“It’s going to have to be someone who believes in some core community journalism values,” he said.

One offer that was rejected was a lowball from Greg Smith, a state legislator whose role in a troubled railroad project was doggedly reported by the Enterprise. The paper sued Malheur County and a public economic development company that employed Smith for failing to enforce the state public record law.

In a strong settlement reached in May, the agencies agreed to pay the Enterprise $40,000 and require county employees to be trained on the records law.

These newspapers and the service they provide must continue somehow. The best hope is legislation, such as the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act proposed in Congress, to help smaller papers negotiate better deals with the companies monopolizing online advertising.

Until then, “it’s difficult to make it work,” said Fred Obee, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

“I don’t know what to do,” Obee said. “If you can’t make it pay then it’s a difficult business proposition to make.”

Brier Dudley is columnist for the Seattle Times.