Salem, Oregon is getting a new online news site. ‘I’m pretending there’s no other media there.’

The first time the businessman called Les Zaitz to pitch the idea of an online news organization for Salem, Oregon, Zaitz was driving through onion fields in Malheur County.

“I laughed, of course,” said the publisher and editor of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon. Zaitz also worked at the Oregonian as an investigative reporter before retiring in 2016.

But Larry Tokarski was persistent. The two have known each other for about 30 years, Zaitz said, but more than a year ago, he wasn’t too into starting a news organization.

He got another call this spring, and this time, Zaitz said, if he was going to do something like this, he’d have to do it right.

“I’m not doing it for charity.”

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On Sept. 17, the Salem Reporter will go live with Zaitz as CEO and editor and three full-time reporters who will cover “local government, schools, business, nonprofits and state government,” according to a press release.

Zaitz isn’t revealing the amount of Tokarski’s investment to get the Salem Reporter up and running, but Zaitz expects the for-profit site, which will have a paywall, to be subscriber-funded.

“You have to pay to get the news,” he said.

A monthly subscription will cost $10 and a yearly subscription will cost $100. The Reporter will accept advertising, and Zaitz is looking at founding sponsorships, “but I forecast zero dollars from either one of those.”

What will it take to make the Salem Reporter sustainable?

The market has about 400,000 people, Zaitz said.

“I need a fraction of those for this to be not only sustainable but to be able to expand.”

He will be running the Reporter mostly from his ranch 300 miles away, but he grew up in Salem and nearby Keizer and knows the community well, he said. His brother is the publisher of a weekly in Keizer.

The new reporters — Rachel Alexander, Aubrey Wieber and Troy Brynelson — will move into their new office Aug. 13, and will have a month to get up and running.

In figuring out what the Reporter will cover, Zaitz sat down with a whiteboard and started sketching things out, he said, based on his own experience and judgment. He hasn’t modeled the Reporter after anything, and he isn’t worried about the other media in town, which include the daily Statesman Journal, the Salem Weekly and the Salem Business Journal.

So how will the Reporter be different? Zaitz isn't worrying about that. The Reporter won’t choose what it covers based on holes left by other media outlets, he said.

“I’m pretending there’s no other media there, let’s put it that way,” he said. “Otherwise you handcuff yourself.”

He is using experience from 45 years of reporting, he said. And from that time he thinks only two things really matter.

“One, content is everything. We have to deliver quality news that serves the local community and not be worried about the clicks, not be worried about having some cat video go viral because it brings people to the site.”

The other: credibility.

Zaitz wants to know, when he retires (again), that he tried to do everything he could to help journalism and society.

“I expect this will work,” he said. “If it doesn’t, at least I tried. I didn’t just sit back and chip my teeth and bemoan bad fortunes.”


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