As we set up our Salem Reporter booth last weekend, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Salem Saturday Market is a community fixture where people shop for artisan bread, flower bundles and fresh vegetables.
People probably don’t head to the market intending to talk about news.
But they sure were ready to chat.
From the moment we opened for business, a steady stream of people kept us busy. Joining me for the morning were Rachel Alexander, our managing editor, and Ardeshir Tabrizian, our criminal justice reporter.
Getting out into the community like this is invaluable. Normally, during the work day, we’re hustling all day long. We don’t have much time for casual conversations.
On Saturday, we got important insights into what people think about the work of Salem Reporter.
We had the chance to explain what Salem Reporter is and what we do. You could detect the folks who hadn’t heard of us before. As they strolled by, you could see them eye our banner and watch their puzzled look develop.
Readers said they appreciated that we pressed ahead with our reporting. That involved some tough fights over public records.
Time after time, though, we’d explain our story. And time after time, people would say they were eager for a local news source. We gained a number of new subscribers – so crucial to our plans to expand.
In my time out front, I met four categories of people.
Being a longtime Salem resident, I saw many friends. The most surprising was encountering my best friend from primary grades, James Howe. I lived on Summer Street then, and his family was a block over on Capitol Street – just a couple of blocks from the Saturday Market site. We attended Garfield Elementary School, now an office complex. We hadn’t seen each other in decades, and it was a joy to see him.
The second category was one I mentioned already – those who didn’t know Salem Reporter but were willing to learn.
The third was those who had story ideas and tips for us. Rachel and Ardy took down plenty of notes for future work.
And the fourth was the most heartening of the day – the people who stopped to thank us for our work on the DEA agent charged with killing a Salem bicyclist. Since that awful day in March, our team, led by Ardy’s work, has dug in to hold local police accountable for how they were handling the matter.
One after the other, readers said they appreciated that we pressed ahead with our reporting. That involved some tough fights over public records. That involved asking officials challenging questions. And that involved pointing out unexplained practices by police.
These comments solidified my views about Salem news. They confirmed the high interest in Salem Reporter’s role as a journalistic watchdog over government. They confirmed people in Salem want and expect such journalism.
Those sidewalk conversations were matched by a steady stream of email messages sent to Salem Reporter about this topic. They flowed after we broke the news that the DEA agent had been charged with criminally negligent homicide.
Here’s a sampling:
• “It was an upsetting occurrence, and I’m convinced that there would have been no accountability without SR’s reporting.”
• “Excellent reporting and I’m sure your digging into this uncovered a lot of things the public would have never known about was going on behind the scenes away from public view. Heck, I doubt if the guy would have even been charged if not for your dogged pursuit of the facts. Good job.”
• “I especially appreciate your tenacity in methodically following up/investigating the horrific accident involving a bicyclist and on-duty DEA agent.”
• “In detailing the timeline, and the gaps and gaffes committed, the coverage does more than lay bare the facts of the case. It points to a culture of conspiracy – the blue code – and undermines the trust necessary for a police department to gain traction with the public.”
• “Thank you for your commitment to covering this. I appreciate your work.”
We are committed to pursuing this story. We have asked, for instance, for records on what agreements are in place between prosecutors and the DEA agent to surrender. Prosecutors so far won’t even tell us basic information, such as when the agent is expected to first appear in court.
At Salem Reporter, we’re committed to delivering other key news.
We added a new feature this week, thanks to Rachel. We are providing the neighborhood associations across Salem a chance to share what’s new in their area and with their organizations. The first collection just ran, and associations should reach out to Rachel ([email protected]) to join in.
The message from our time at Salem Saturday Market was clear. People do want local news. They do want someone watching out for citizens.
That’s why we’re here, and our intent is to add subscribers as fast as we can to hire another reporter or two and provide more local news.
To those who dropped by last weekend, thank you – and we’ll see you again!
STORY TIP OR IDEA? Send an email to Salem Reporter’s news team: [email protected].
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Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.