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March 31, 2022, 12:25 p.m.
Business Models
Reporting & Production

A local newspaper in Oregon punches above its weight. A politician it investigated wants to buy — and change — it.

“I was tired of getting poked in the chest for not doing anything wrong. And it was like, ‘You know what? If you want to keep poking me in the chest, let me purchase this paper for what it’s worth.'”

It’s not every day that someone reaches out with an offer to buy the local newspaper. It’s perhaps rarer when that offer comes in as a “P.S” at the end of an email.

But for Les Zaitz, publisher of the weekly Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon, the strangeness of the situation didn’t end there. The person making the offer was Oregon’s longest-serving House of Representatives member, Greg Smith, who has been in office and representing northeast Oregon since 2000. (He is running again in this year’s election and is unopposed). Smith, a member of the Republican Party, has long been the subject of critical reporting by the Enterprise.

The dwindling local news landscape has made plenty of news, but stories of small papers thriving are less common. The Malheur Enterprise, which Zaitz bought in 2015 and has led ever since, may be one such happy story. And so news of a buyer — not just a buyer, but a politician who’d been the subject of critical reporting by the very same paper he was offering to buy — raised concerns, as well as questions about what the role of a local newspaper actually is.

It’s true that Zaitz, pictured at right, has been looking for a buyer for the Malheur Enterprise. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and veteran of the journalism industry — most notably at The Oregonian — Zaitz says he is ready to retire. “Next year marks year 50 in this profession [for me],” Zaitz said. “I’ve done my duty. It’s time for me to exit stage left.”

Smith also thinks it’s time for Zaitz to go. “We’re a small-town area. We’re a Toyota, he’s a Ferrari and they just don’t mix,” Smith said.

Over the course of a lengthy conversation, Smith told me his intention in making an offer to Zaitz was to return the paper to local ownership. Zaitz lives about 100 miles away, in neighboring Grant County. “I just saw an opportunity for the Malheur Enterprise to be returned to local roots,” Smith said.

(In response, Zaitz said: “The performance of the paper and its service to the community is what’s important, not the mailing address for anyone who’s associated with the paper.”)

The Malheur Enterprise was established in 1909 to serve the city of Vale and surrounding Malheur County in Oregon. Now published weekly on Wednesdays, the paper — which is available both digitally and in print — has a combined circulation of roughly 3,000 among the nearly 33,000 people who live in Malheur County, which is one of the poorest counties in Oregon. The paper has six employees.

But the offer from Smith was a surprise, and Zaitz initially thought it was a joke.

The idea that locals were “begging” for Zaitz to sell the paper was also news to him. So he went to the Malheur Enterprise’s Facebook page, shared details of Smith’s offer and asked, “Would you like new owners for this 113-year-old paper? Should Greg Smith’s offer be taken seriously?”

More than 80 comments poured in, all with an overwhelmingly similar message: Do not sell the Malheur Enterprise. And especially don’t sell it to Greg Smith. The paper published a two-page spread highlighting the comments.

To many people, Smith’s attempt to buy the Malheur Enterprise seemed suspicious.

The Enterprise had published award-winning reports critical of Smith, and especially of Smith’s intersecting roles in the public and private sectors. Smith is the owner of the privately-held Gregory Smith and Company, which provides business and financial consulting services. But through his committee roles in the legislature, he has overseen decisions that have meant state-funded projects have been awarded to Gregory Smith and Company.

This seemingly dubious — though legal — practice of Smith’s contracting company being the recipient of state-funded work has made Smith a lot of money. It also made him the subject of scrutiny at the Enterprise, especially since Smith also serves as the director of the Malheur County Economic Development Department and has been in charge of overseeing local projects, some of which were sitting undeveloped.

In 2019, Smith and other Malheur County officials tried to get the Malheur County sheriff’s office to open a criminal investigation into the paper. They said Enterprise reporters, phoning Smith’s employees too frequently, might be in violation of Oregon’s “telephonic harassment” law. (The Washington Post also covered this affair.)

That investigation was closed two days after the Malheur Enterprise reported on the development, when the Malheur County sheriff said that the newspaper hadn’t broken any laws in its effort to seek answers from Smith and his employees.

“My employees don’t have the same level of sophistication of dealing with the media, and they were scared,” Smith said when I asked him about this. He said his office and employees have received upwards of 300 public records requests in the past three years.

Zaitz says that Smith’s continued refusal to respond to questions and fact-checks or to sit down for interviews meant that filing requests was the only way for the paper to get answers. “We don’t lay out a public records request because we have nothing else to do,” Zaitz said. “It’s the only way that the newspaper [can get the information] but more importantly, it’s the only way the community can learn the truth about [Smith’s work].”

Nigel Jaquiss, an investigative reporter at Willamette Week in western Oregon, offered some more perspective. “What’s really different here is that there are very few small newspapers the size of The Malheur Enterprise who have somebody with the horsepower of Les Zaitz,” he said.

Jaquiss, who wrote a 2019 profile of Smith investigating his many public and private entanglements, noted that investigative reporting is time-consuming and expensive. Coupled with the potential risks involved in challenging powerful people, “Those factors discourage small papers that may not have the money or the resources or the experience or the aptitude or the appetite from doing what Les is doing,” Jaquiss said.

To Smith, Zaitz’s investigative journalism is relentless and, in some cases, inappropriate.

“He’s the guy that brings a sledgehammer to put a tack on the wall,” Smith said. “What do we do with that in our small little world?”

In early March, The Malheur Enterprise published a story — based on a six-month investigation — entitled “Economic development: Malheur County officials struggle to tell what $900,000 bought” — looking at what nearly $1 million in funds since 2013 to Smith’s private company did for the area.

The comment that Smith provided was based on, as the article describes it, an involuntary, court-ordered interview during which Smith was “combative and insulting, cutting off the interview after 30 minutes.” The Malheur Enterprise then asked Smith for comment for a related editorial. It was during that email exchange that Smith dropped his offer into a postscript.

“I was tired of getting poked in the chest for not doing anything wrong,” Smith said. “And it was like, ‘You know what? If you want to keep poking me in the chest, let me purchase this paper for what it’s worth. And let me put it into local control.’”

Smith’s offer to buy the paper struck many people as a form of intimidation rather than a good-faith attempt at responding to Zaitz’s call for a buyer.

“It reeks of ‘I don’t like this paper’s coverage of me. So I’m going to buy it and they will no longer ask me some questions,’” said Andrew Cutler, publisher and editor of the East Oregonian (which is local to Umatilla County, another county Smith represents).

Smith claims his intention wasn’t to shut down the paper or to manage it on a day-to-day basis. “I have no desire [to run it],” Smith said. “I don’t have the skill set.”

He also said that while his initial email said “no employees included” — and a subsequent email to Zaitz shows that he said he had “staff in place that would run the paper quite well” — he would have rehired at least some current Enterprise staffers. He was strictly evaluating the Enterprise’s financial assets, he said, and didn’t take employees into account. “That’s where I made a mistake because I’m a businessman and my thinking was very business-oriented,” he said.

Smith envisions returning the Enterprise to one of “those small-town papers that reported on football and volleyball and basketball,” he said, a paper that talks about “local events of the day, rather than placing stories that occur hundreds of miles away at the state capitol, or in Washington, D.C.”

The community, he said, “is not looking for [Zaitz’s] editorials on what a dirty dog everyone in the county is. They’re looking for stories about what’s going on with the Future Farmers of America. What’s going on in the gymnasium? What’s going on at the local city hall? You have this gentleman who’s extraordinarily recognized but he’s running a small town newspaper like it’s the Wall Street Journal. And folks don’t appreciate it.”

The paper used to publish “refrigerator stories,” as Zaitz called them, about local happenings, but since he took it over, the paper has consistently published not only stories about local school sports and Future Farmers of America meetings, but also deeply reported pieces that pull back the curtain on local politics. A series of stories in 2021 into a former city councilman ultimately led to that person being ejected from the council.

Asked if he sees a role for accountability journalism at the local level, Smith agreed. “Most definitely we need that. We want journalists to dig into why the community college did X or why the county approved a contract for Y,” Smith said. “We want questions being asked. We just don’t want someone speculating to the negative.”

Zaitz doesn’t see it that way. “The Enterprise is going to go to someone who has experience in journalism, who wants to take this newspaper to the next level and ensure this doesn’t become a news desert,” he said.

And despite his imminent retirement plans, “We’re in no hurry to sell,” Zaitz said.

Photo of a recent issue of The Malheur Enterprise featuring a story on Greg Smith courtesy of Madi Scott/The Malheur Enterprise.

POSTED     March 31, 2022, 12:25 p.m.
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