How the Agora Journalism Center Supported a City-Wide Conversation on Housing

by Andrew DeVigal


“One Issue, Many Perspectives” started as an experimental 12-month project in Portland, Oregon, to convene and capture conversation on a single issue — housing — from various perspectives. The participants in this project ranged from legacy to independent media, from ethnic media to communities of interest, and specific points in between.

Rebranded to Open:Housing, we created a platform, a network, and a set of strategies aimed at strengthening the information ecosystem that supports civic engagement around housing issues. Journalists, housing advocates and experts, and Portland residents came together with a shared interest: to create inclusive, informed public conversations that drive solutions to the Portland region’s housing crisis.


Project Goals: The goals of Open:Housing were to create an inclusive, informed public conversation to drive solutions to one of the Portland region’s big problems: housing. To this end, we planned to:

  • Host face-to-face gatherings and engage with the community to give the public new, inclusive avenues for engagement on housing issues.
  • Create a common platform,, to bring together diverse stories, perspectives, and conversations related to the Portland region’s housing crisis.
  • Coordinate local news coverage on housing tied to principles of engaged journalism to bring focus and depth to public discussion of key housing topics.
  • Support a knowledge network for outreach, technology, and training that to help housing experts, housing advocates, journalists, researchers and data geeks share access to the same housing knowledge and data.

Tools and Technology: We used Medium to curate previous and current stories as well as publish original content. We used a public Facebook Group to further aggregate local and national stories about housing.

Impact: We formed a community advisory council and initiated a journalism collaborative to identify gaps in the local news and information system and to inform independent news reporting on overlooked facets of the housing crisis. At the end of the experiment, the collaborative produced over two dozen stories initiated by the community and published by our primary local media partners, The Pamplin Group and KGW.

Organization Background: The School of Journalism & Communication’s Agora Journalism Center, the gathering place for innovation in communication and civic engagement, aims to build on the resources, public outreach, and central public mission of the University of Oregon. Not simply responding to changes but being a catalyst for the highest quality in media research, education, and practice, the Center strives to be on the forefront of how communication professionals and the public create, distribute, access and share information. Most of the center’s operational funding is supported by a private endowment.

Project Resources: This work was made possible in part through a $50,000 grant from the local Jackson Foundation awarded in the summer of 2015.

Here’s how it happened

By forming the community advisory council and launching a journalism collaborative to identify gaps in the local news and information system, we produced and published original content initiated from the public. We did this by:

  1. Hosting community events that gathered diverse community stakeholders who are highly knowledgeable about and/or impacted by the housing situation in Portland. These gatherings helped us see the need to cultivate collective ownership and leadership among those closest and most committed to the issue.
  2. Creating a Community Advisory Council, based on what we learned, to clarify our city’s information needs and guide the collaborative work. Facilitating in-real-life meetings and conducting online surveys with the Community Advisory Council to narrow down the questions to address and the issues on which to focus that would make the most difference for the city. These decisions informed the Journalism Collaborative.
  3. The Journalism Collaborative, made up of subject matter experts, media partners, and freelance journalists, commissioned original journalism to fill the gaps in local news coverage that were outlined by the Advisory Council. (It’s fair to note that the visualization above is still partly aspirational. So far, The Pamplin Media Group and KGW are the two media organizations involved.) Examples of stories that came out of this process include From protest to a place of their own (Portland Tribune) and Straight Talk: Families struggle to afford homes in Portland (KGW). All of the stories are captured on Open: Housing.

Here’s what worked

1. Convening the local community of housing stakeholders

On the belief that the people closest to a problem are best poised to identify the solution, we gathered a group of individuals from the community to help us identify their information needs and drive the coverage. This group, hungry to connect with each other and interested in strengthening the local information ecosystem on housing, attended, were engaged, and sought data–driven solutions.

2. Forming the Open: Housing Journalism Collaborative (OHJC)

Through the council, we generated a story list and series of questions, followed by editorial planning meetings involving a different, targeted group of participants and housing stakeholders including staff and freelance journalists. We fulfilled the project principle of hiring freelancers to create an original series of inclusive, solutions-oriented stories informed by historical context and solid data/theory. Providing insight into the thorny policy issues by not oversimplifying the topic, the stories also reflected the questions that the council proposed and raised.

3. Partnering with collaborative local media outlets to better use on- and off-platform content

We were initially focused on being accountable to media partners with the idea that at some point we would coalesce the interests of the community members into some support or advisory role. But (a) those most consistently interested were the community-based organizations and the community-based journalists, not the more general media partners, and (b) we realized that we were creating a journalism project rather than an information health project. Identifying the media partners that were open to this type of collaboration allowed us to leverage their resources and distribution channels.

Here’s what could have worked better

1. Make the story-selection process with the council more seamless

Build community relationships first–but provide policy-specific information and context for community members, and provide incentives for journalists to show up. No one seemed very interested in identifying and allocating stories via an online platform that aggregated and re-published existing housing stories, but people, especially the community members and community-based journalists, kept asking for more face-to-face opportunities. Focus on the gatherings that people want, and other ways to build the community, and then develop the technology to support that community and the conversation that people want to be having in it. We also learned that forming the council is a job for a committee rather than an individual; we leaned heavily on a single project curator to form and communicate with the council, but the work would have been far easier if more people had shared the work. Expand the council to include more people with policy experience and established relationships in the housing community, as well as journalists.

2. Spend less time chasing local media partners

Partnering with local media outlets can be a great way to improve coverage of an issue, but it’s not the only way. If media partners are reticent to collaborate because of competing priorities or other institutional challenges, chasing after them can be a misuse of precious resources. A more effective approach is to “work with the willing” and focus your energies on local partners who are most excited about the project — whether those partners identify as traditional journalists or not. Coverage is driven by the information that the people who have the most at stake on the issue say they need, whether housing advocates or people who are suffering in the housing crisis. Journalists may be in the room, but rather than inviting news organizations, journalists would be coming “without their colors,” in other words, bringing a journalist’s point of view, not with an organizational point of view. Leadership, ownership, and involvement in an engagement project depend on the long-term commitment to building that particular healthy conversation. It doesn’t happen unless people do feel there is something at stake, which explains why Open: Housing didn’t get traction with the media partners because the housing issue is not their primary commitment whereas the housing folks in the community media folks are motivated. Also, the smaller and more independent media producers are more nimble, responsive and adaptive, which larger institutions are slow to change and rarely produce sustained innovation.

3. Refocus on different technology platforms and purpose

We realized that the conversation is already happening in some places (for example, on Facebook), and that just consolidating and trying to influence coverage was only part of how we could be engaged in and supportive of that conversation. Facebook is the place where the conversation seems to be happening, and occasionally put our voice out there in a critical role as facilitators. We pivoted the purpose of the Medium publication away from being a coverage and conversation consolidator to a place to analyze stories, emerging solutions, data, opinion and publish original stories and commentary. And we focused our attention on conversations that are happening elsewhere, especially on Facebook and at community events to amplifysome of our housing partners’ work. This purpose is consistent with the original principles of the project – solutions-oriented, cross-sector, diverse, informed, contextualizing. News outlets’ contributions to the Medium platform was time consuming and challenging to coordinate. In short, the Facebook group became the place for contributing and aggregating stories. The Medium platform became the platform for our original publications.

Here’s what else you should know

  • Filling gaps: Boiling down the richness of community conversations without losing the richness; providing access to the community that journalists may not have developed; seeding the ecosystem with community experts and writers steeped in the local knowledge. These are all functions that bridge organizations like the Agora Journalism Center can serve to help strengthen local journalism.

Learn More

For more information, check out the Open:Housing Medium page or contact Andrew DeVigal.

Andrew DeVigal is the Chair in Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC).

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