by Emily Poole
In 2018, the University of Oregon’s Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI) launched their Sustainable City Year Program (SCYP) in La Pine, Oregon, which is designed to help communities develop more sustainable futures. In order to carry out the program, the UO created a series of classes that engaged students and faculty in SCI sustainability projects. One of the classes UO offered was an engaged journalism course—the first of its kind at the UO—which proposed and developed a community engagement plan to support the information needs as well as the information health of the community.
Project Goals: Andrew DeVigal, professor of the engaged journalism course, says the main goal for the project was to give the students hands on experience connecting with the community. “The goal of the class was to expose students to techniques of engaged journalism and have them think critically about how journalists can connect and engage with members of a local community,” DeVigal said. Another goal of the class project was to understand La Pine’s information ecosystem: how residents were consuming information, what type of information they were consuming, and how they were sharing it.
Tools and Technology: The class project used Facebook to promote community events and disperse an online information needs assessment, which was used to gauge the current information needs of the community.
Impact: The project several areas of impact, as described below.
- The class project involved community members in the information gathering process. The La Pine community was supportive and eager to engage with the UO students. “A part of that support is because we were a part of the larger SCI SCYP program, which did the work of coordinating and engaging with the city manager of La Pine. As a result, the chamber of commerce, city officials, and community organizations were generally aware and expected our presence. That was a huge advantage,” DeVigal said. The class was able to conduct more than 70 information needs assessment surveys and host two successful community events, which invited La Pine residents to share their information concerns.
- The engaged journalism class project identified information gaps. The class was able to analyze the assessment survey responses and deduce information needs within the La Pine community. For example, a majority of the survey responses indicated that there wasn’t sufficient information available for the youth of La Pine, so the lack of content and coverage for La Pine youth was recognized as an information gap. The respondents indicated that information about youth activities and opportunities was important to them because it would engage the La Pine youth.
- The class produced an information health assessment report. Once the students gathered enough data to make an appropriate assessment of La Pine’s information ecosystem, they developed an information health assessment report. The report included an overview of all the data that was gathered through interviews and surveys, as well as key findings about the information gaps. Based on the class’s finding, the report also included recommendations for the city of La Pine to consider. This report will be given to the city of La Pine, and city officials will discuss implementation.
Organization Background: The Sustainable Cities Initiative is co-directed by Nico Larco and Marc Schlossberg, both professors at the University of Oregon. SCI and SCYP serve Oregon communities to promote sustainability and liveability. The Sustainable City Year Program assigns UO students to a city in Oregon for a complete academic year. The UO classes work on projects proposed by the partner city to maximize sustainability and livability. SCYP launched its first small city pilot program with La Pine in January 2018. Previous SCYP partnerships include: Albany, Redmond, Gresham, Salem, Springfield, and Medford.
Project Resources: The engaged journalism project with SCI was considered a class project, which helped the class get funding from the university. The class was able to get additional financial support from SCYP. The city of La Pine also received funds from the Ford Family Foundation. The first step for the engaged journalism class was to conduct an information needs assessment survey with the local La Pine community. The class molded their project and information assessment off The Listening Post Collective Playbook, a guide designed to help newsrooms and journalists listen to and engage with local communities. The playbook suggested an information needs assessment, and the class used Internews’ “Getting Connected: An Assessment of Information Needs in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria” as an example. Deborah Ensor, Internews’ Senior Director of US Programs, helped the with the class project by organizing the assessment report content, making suggestions, and editing the first draft of the report. “It was such an awesome opportunity to support the University of Oregon’s engaged journalism class as they embarked on an ambitious semester-long project to conduct an information ecosystem assessment in La Pine. Collaborating with j-schools is one on the best ways to drive the engaged journalism movement – if students are exposed to these grass-roots methodologies early, when they hit the news rooms as young professionals they’ll have a huge advantage,” Ensor said. “They’ll have strategies for connecting with the communities they are there to serve, and they’ll be better journalists and stronger storytellers.”
Here’s how it happened
After SCI approved La Pine as a partner, DeVigal said the engaged journalism class was responsible for proposing and developing “a community engagement strategy to support the information health of the community.”
“Our first step to achieve this is to conduct an information needs assessment survey during our site visit,” said DeVigal.
The engaged journalism class made their first visit to La Pine in early January. The class hosted a community engagement session to learn about the most important information issues within La Pine. Over 25 people participated in the event, both city officials and community members. DeVigal led an engagement activity that focused on which issues the community valued most. During the activity, the engaged journalism students conducted interviews and surveys with the people of La Pine. Over the next couple weeks, the class continued collecting data from online surveys. The link to the online surveys was listed on fliers which the students had distributed around La Pine. In addition, a hyperlink was posted on the “What’s Really Happening in La Pine” Facebook.
The class’s next visit to La Pine was about eight weeks later. DeVigal and the students held a community workshop on trust to learn from the community about how to build and maintain trust in media. The participants were sectioned off into groups and discussed which qualities earned trust and how maintain it. After discussing in separate groups, everyone came together to have a conversation about what could be done in La Pine to promote truth and trust, which was considered in the student’s information needs report.
Here’s what worked
1. Use an existing framework
Playbook and Internews’ Puerto Rico Information Needs Assessment Report. DeVigal said using existing frameworks helped the class avoid potential interruptions and challenges. DeVigal said that interested classrooms should “avoid reinventing the wheel, especially when The Listening Post’s information needs assessment is readily available and applicable to the project.”
2. Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration
Having direct access to city and project leaders was a very important factor when facilitating collaboration. Working directly with UO’s SCYP project and the city of La Pine “helped to keep our focus on meaningful results,” DeVigal said. The constant collaboration within the La Pine project motivated the engaged journalism class because “the work we were doing would directly be a part of the conversations with policymakers.”
3. Backyard Partnership
The close location of La Pine made the project more personal. “When there are challenges to work on in our backyard, I’d argue it’s even more gratifying to know that we can address some local issues,” DeVigal said. “Although La Pine isn’t literally in Eugene’s backyard, it’s meaningful to tackle projects in our region to get a better understanding of our communities,” DeVigal added.
Here’s what could work have worked better
1. Plan beyond ten weeks
“10-weeks is hardly enough time to get started on such an ambitious project and authentically engage with La Pine’s citizens,” DeVigal said. Extending the 10 week limit would have allowed the students more opportunities to engage with the La Pine community and address more information needs. “Despite my goal to connect this 10-week course with a proceeding one, expanding the time requires radical collaboration and adjustment to the school’s curriculum,” DeVigal added.
2. Structure the term efficiently
With only 10 weeks for a class project, it is important to structure the term accordingly. The class visited La Pine in the beginning and end of the term, but DeVigal suggested that planning a second trip earlier in the term would have given the class more time for reflection. Planning a “follow-up visit earlier in the term to allow for more engagement throughout and give ample room for analysis and reporting on the tail end,” DeVigal said.
The engaged journalism class initially planned their second visit to La Pine for February 24, but weather conditions prevented the visit. Due to this set back, the class had to go the following weekend, which put time constraints on the project.
3. Keep the conversation going
During the class project, the students interacted and engaged with the community through conversations. The La Pine community was very cooperative and eager talk with students, but once the term ended, it was difficult to continue those conversations. “Consider using digital tools to keep the conversation going with people we connected with,” DeVigal said. DeVigal added that preparing post-project collaborative channels “allow people to connect with the project more seamlessly.”
Here’s what else you should know
- Community engagement takes time, so plan on it: Planning, organizing, and executing community engagement projects takes time and patience. A lot of preparation must be made to accommodate all the necessary things needed for community engagement. When planning a project in a community other than your own, it is important to explain your role and take time building relationships within the community because engagement is not always immediate.
- Successful academic model: “I’m hopeful that this is an academic model can lead not only to meaningful experiential learning for students but also a practice of engaged journalism that incorporates the voices and stories from community members into direct policy decisions,” Devigal said.
- Stay connected to communities: “I’ve worked in newsrooms all over the world, training journalists in some of the most challenging places on earth. I have seen over and over again that when local community media outlets are connected to their communities, local news has the power to make people’s everyday lives better. Working with the students at UO, helping them to see how important it is to honor the wisdom of communities in their reporting, felt very significant. Engaged journalism isn’t something new, but in an overconnected, virtual world, it’s something to be reminded of, and to intentionally embrace,” said Ensor.