November 04, 2003 11:00 pm

If this column can lay claim to anything resembling a regular reader, he or she will recall that at its inception I said I wanted to give a strong local focus to The Observer's business page.

I explained that I needed help to accomplish that goal, and I asked the readership to call in story ideas. I wasn't disappointed. I received a huge response.

The response was so huge, in fact, that management of the business section became a bit of a problem.

At first, I tried doing fully developed feature stories on the businesses I heard about.

That's an approach that works well in a very small community, but I soon learned it's not practical in a coverage area as large as The Observer's.

There were too many story ideas to follow up on, and the problem was compounded by the fact that if I did one story in favor of another, somebody got mad at me.

Also, while most people submitting ideas understood the difference between a news story and an advertisement, some did not.

There were some people who thought the purpose of a business section was to carry price lists and detailed descriptions of their product lines, by brand name. Again, a few became angry when I declined to approach stories that way.

And I'm just like everybody else in the world. I toss and turn in my bed at night when I know somebody's mad at me. I lose sleep.

So, for several weeks now, I have been diligently searching for a way to carry a lot of news about small independent businesses, without sacrificing journalistic integrity.

For what it's worth, I've come up with a feature called Small Business Happenings. Depending on response, it will either replace the weekly Shoptalk column, appear in addition to it, or rotate with it. The new feature will resemble Shoptalk in that it will contain news briefs, but there will be one major difference: it will be devoted strictly to Northeast Oregon's small business community.

Happenings chronicled there will include start-ups, business awards, and personnel changes including hirings and promotions. The accent will be on start ups, for it is, after all, a local paper's traditional duty to welcome new businesses to the community.

I truly hope newborn entrepreneurs and already-established small business owners will take advantage of the feature and call the business desk with items like those mentioned above.

It's been said many times before: small independent businesses form the backbone of the local economy. There's no arguing with that.

For the rest, The Observer's business page will continue in its efforts to develop stories that track local business issues and spotlight people and projects that significantly contribute to economic development. We'll also continue to carry success stories, stories about unique approaches to business, and business stories with a strong human interest angle.

Bill Rautenstrauch is The Observer's business editor.