Wanted: Newspaper Buyer. Conditions Apply.

From a story on poynter.org by Angela Fu headlined “Wanted: Rural newsroom buyer. Conditions apply.”:

The Malheur Enterprise, a weekly paper based in Vale, Oregon, is up for sale. But if you want it, you’re going to have to prove it — with an essay.

Owners Les Zaitz and Scotta Callister are adamant that the 113-year-old paper, which they saved from closing in 2015, go to a locally minded buyer who will continue to develop the Enterprise as a resource for the community. They do not plan to sell the paper to a chain or newspaper group.

To find the right person, Zaitz and Callister are asking potential buyers to submit an essay by March 1:

For those interested, we’re asking for a confidential essay on your background, your ambitions, and what you learn independently about the Enterprise that makes you interested. Describe in general terms your financial strength.

They will then invite top candidates to sign a nondisclosure agreement to receive detailed financial information about the Enterprise, including the price. Candidates who are still interested can put forth an offer, and talks will proceed from there.

“A news outfit like this will better serve the community with owners and operators who are focused only on their community and not trying to contribute to a larger corporate mission,” Zaitz said.

With consolidation within the news industry growing — in 2018, the largest 25 companies controlled nearly a third of all papers in the U.S. — Zaitz said he suspects there may be people who are eager to “get out of the corporate news game” and invest their talents in local journalism.

Now is the optimal time to find a new owner, Zaitz said. Interest in supporting local news is growing, and national and regional organizations are launching initiatives to do this work.

“This is a really interesting time for local news. (There are) all these initiatives for funding, for collaboration, for solutions journalism, for community engagement that I think hold a lot of promise for local news,” Zaitz said. “This is really a great time to hand this over to someone to take it to the next stage, taking advantage of all those developments.”

Plus, after nearly 50 years in journalism, Zaitz is ready to give retirement another try. He bought the Enterprise shortly after retiring from his position as an investigative reporter at The Oregonian, where he was twice named a Pulitzer Prize-finalist.

The opportunity to acquire the Enterprise will be open to those who lack business experience, and Zaitz said he will work to make the transition seamless. He plans to arrange the financing so that it is not burdensome on the new owner and will help them understand what it takes to operate and sustain a business.

“I’m not going to just hand the keys to someone and all they’re going to see is my taillights,” Zaitz said. “We’ll be there as a support system to give them every opportunity to build on what we’ve done and to be a success.”

This is not the first time a paper has held an essay contest to find a new owner. In 2016, Ross Connelly tried to give away The Hardwick Gazette, a weekly based in Hardwick, Vermont. He wasn’t able to raise enough money via contest submissions, but he did eventually find a new owner who “conveyed a passion for community journalism.”

Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds said the approach is not unprecedented as some independent owners care about finding a buyer who will serve as a good steward of their paper. He pointed out that some larger publications like BusinessWeek and the New York Daily News have changed owners for a dollar.

“There is still some romance in running a small-town paper,” Edmonds said. “The hitch for a buyer is that you may need to absorb some debt or pension obligations. And you definitely need to cover any continuing operating losses. Still, it is nice that there are still people out there willing to put in the hard work and with a degree of optimism.”

In reviewing the applicants, Zaitz said it is “absolutely critical” that the new owner be committed to maintaining and strengthening the credibility of the Enterprise. During his tenure as publisher and editor, Zaitz doubled the paper’s circulation and built up its investigative reporting capabilities. The Enterprise has won awards for its work and has partnered with organizations like ProPublica and the Solutions Journalism Network.

Though Zaitz will leave the editorial direction up to the new leaders, he said he hopes that the paper will continue to serve as a watchdog and that the new owner will seek ways to meet the information needs of communities traditionally underserved by the media.

“We’ve become a role model for local journalism, and I’m proud of that,” Zaitz said. “I hope someone will see the value of that and want to pick up the baton and take it for a run around the track.”

Here’s the announcement:

A rural news operation in Oregon is for sale – and it will be a good deal for the right person. Here’s why. The Malheur Enterprise, based in Vale, is a family-owned operation that has built a state and national reputation after being rescued from near-failure in 2015. Today, the Enterprise publishes a weekly newspaper, operates a robust digital subscription service, and produces high-quality specialty publications. This is the right journalistic enterprise and business for someone looking to escape big-city life and corporate machinations and put skills and ideas to work for a community that appreciates quality local news. What you should know: •The Enterprise was founded in 1909 and operates from the county seat. It operates with five F/PT employees, with one FT news opening. •The news operation scrapped the traditional weekly newspaper model, building a successful business model off strong enterprise and investigative reporting. •In an area unaccustomed to hard questions, the Enterprise has made potent use of the state public records law, assisted in some instances by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. •When county officials wanted $875 for public records – a stiff price for a small newsroom – the Enterprise asked for community help. In days, more than 60 people donated over $4,000, demonstrating the journalism practiced by the Enterprise has strong community support. •The operation has at times partnered with ProPublica, Report for America and the Solutions Journalism Network – all aimed at innovative news coverage. •The reputation has allowed the Enterprise to operate a robust summer internship program, with four paid interns now each summer. They come from some of the best schools in the country – University of Oregon, USC, Oklahoma, and UNC-Chapel Hill. There’s more to be done – and opportunity to continue the innovations in community and rural journalism and serve as a model. The business has been owned since 2015 by Les Zaitz and Scotta Callister, an Oregon journalism couple with decades of experience in daily and community journalism. They are ready to turn over the Enterprise for its next stage. But this won’t be an ordinary sale. First, they’re seeking new owners who will personally manage and develop the Vale operation. There is no intention to sell to a chain or newspaper group.

Second, a qualified buyer will get a great deal of help to move in. Financing to fit the operation’s ability to pay will be part of the deal. The entry cost will be manageable, to preserve capital for a new owner to operate successfully. And there will be consulting, especially on the business side, so those with journalism but not business experience can feel comfortable stepping in. We want a new buyer to dream and let us help make the dream happen. Here’s how this will work. For those interested, we’re asking for a confidential essay on your background, your ambitions, and what you learn independently about the Enterprise that makes you interested. Describe in general terms your financial strength. This is journalism, so there is a deadline to express your core interest – March 1. The essays and supporting information will be reviewed and top candidates will be invited to execute a nondisclosure agreement to proceed. With that agreement in place, you will get a detailed business package – financial statements, the price, financing terms and other information any potential buyer should have to make a wise decision. Those who want to proceed will be asked to move forward with an offer to initiate talks about putting a sale agreement in place. One last word. It’s axiomatic that journalism is in trouble in the U.S. The fact, however, is that local journalism, well done and keenly focused by engaged practitioners, is successful. The Malheur Enterprise may be just the place for you to put your own ambitions, ideas and energy to work. Questions? Reach out to Publisher Les Zaitz ([email protected])

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