Engagement: Communities and College Students

Undergraduates at the University of Oregon were responsible for conducting an Information Needs Assessment report for the city of La Pine. Photo by Payton Bruni.

At the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communications (SOJC), students are guided by the wise words of experienced professors and are taught the virtues of journalism. And while there is much to learn from professors and lectures, real-world journalism happens outside the classroom. As one of those SOJC students, I was taught a lot about journalism but had never actually done it myself. I wanted to get out of the classroom, dive into my local community and do the journalism I was always told about. But how?

In the winter term of 2018, the SOJC provided me with the opportunity to do just that. They offered their first Engaged Journalism class. The goal of the class was to bring student journalists into communities to foster collaboration and conversation. We participated in the Sustainable City Year Program (SCYP) in La Pine, Oregon. SCYP is a yearlong partnership with the University of Oregon that connects UO students and faculty with a city in Oregon to promote sustainability.

As a class, we were assigned the responsibility of exploring the information ecosystem of La Pine and identifying the information needs of its residents. This was an opportunity for students to explore the application of journalism, develop community relationships and gain real-world experience — all of which are difficult to execute from inside a classroom.

Co-Director Sustainable Cities Institute (SCI) Marc Schlossberg introduces SYCP. Photo by Payton Bruni.

On January 12, 2018, the engaged journalism class met for the first time while on our way to La Pine for the SCYP kick off. All 10 of us piled into the bus as professor Andrew DeVigal distributed hard copies of the Listening Post Collective’s Playbook. As the inaugural chair in Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement DeVigal understands the value of community engagement in journalism and uses the LPC playbook to explain and guide engagement strategies.

Everybody on our team was given a small stack of short, information needs assessment surveys. We set off in pairs to conduct interviews with La Pine residents.

La Pine residents were asked how they access and share information locally and what topics or issues they needed to know more about. Our class’ responsibility was to better understand La Pine’s information ecosystem.

La Pine is the newest city in Oregon, incorporated in 2006. Understanding La Pine’s information ecosystem is important because access to accurate information directly relates to the civic health of a community — and that is especially important for this still emerging city.

Our class went back to La Pine in early March to conduct another round of interviews and surveys. This time we distributed fliers with a QR code to a digital version of our survey so more La Pine residents had access to it.

DeVigal presents to the La Pine community during a workshop on trust in the La Pine Public Library. Photo by Payton Bruni.

We also hosted a community workshop at the La Pine public library to discuss a key theme from the first survey round: trust in media. The workshop was led by Andrew DeVigal who asked community members to share specific ways media outlets gained or lost their trust.

We captured enough data to develop our Information Needs Assessment and then shared some of the insights we learned with city officials, local media outlets and residents so all of these important stakeholders can contribute to a healthier local information ecosystem.

Here’s a list of what stood out to us from our research:

  • Residents in La Pine are significantly more likely to trust local media outlets over national ones.
  • 71 percent of the survey responses indicated that access to local news and news on local development was the most important type of information for La Pine residents.
  • Locally focused news and lack of political polarization in local media earns the trust of La Pine residents.
  • At 63.3%, KTVZ was the most trusted local media outlet, and at only 27%, Fox News was the most trusted national outlet.
  • La Pine residents are community focused and prioritized information that captured that same focus.

And based on these insights, we provided La Pine stakeholders with a few recommendations:

Build relationships with community members.

If La Pine is to have a healthy information ecosystem, local news outlets should strive to build stronger relationships with the people they cover. The people of La Pine want more access to breaking news, stories that reflect their interests, and news that welcomes a two-way conversation. To achieve this, crowdsourcing story ideas, inviting community members along for the reporting process and hosting community discussions are possible methods.

A need for more information for La Pine youth.

This was a huge find for us because while the city itself is relatively young, the La Pine population trends towards retirees.

We, as a class, recognized this gap and wanted to connect with the La Pine youth to learn more about their information experiences and help increase their representation. Fortunately for us, we met 16-year-old Rylee Butterfield who works as a sandwich artist and was eager to talk about the lack of information for youth. Rylee was the only person younger than 40 who participated in the workshop we held at the La Pine library. She was such a valuable resource because she provided insight into the youth’s information experience in La Pine. She explained that La Pine has so much to offer but the lack of information for young people is a reason why so many young people leave. But Rylee didn’t want to leave. She told me that instead of leaving she wanted to do something to make the situation better. The lack of information for youth inspired Rylee to become a student journalist. She hopes to get involved at the high school newspaper to address the lack of information for youth outside the school.

Rylee Butterfield stands with her trust certificate at the trust workshop in the La Pine Public Library. Photo by Payton Bruni.

Rylee’s experience and willingness to connect with our class left an imprint on our final report. Rylee showed us that the youth in La Pine want more relevant information and are willing to take the necessary steps to achieve that. Our final report is intended to be a tool that Rylee and other youth could use as a guide for fulfilling their information needs.

As students, this class provided us an amazing opportunity. It’s rare that we get the chance to be in a class that allows us to gain hands-on professional experience. This experience helped us grow as students, journalists and people. It was inspiring to get out of the classroom work with actual people, understand actual problems and actually help solve them.

But it was even more inspiring working with the people of La Pine. They didn’t treat us like inexperienced UO students — they treated us like equals. The La Pine community genuinely welcomed our ideas and collaboration to promote information sustainability their community.

The entire process involved a lot of time and effort. But, we found that time is the only thing that allows engagement to work. We have to earn trust and build relationships with community members before we can advance engagement, and that takes time.

At the end of our 10 weeks with La Pine, we were able to demonstrate our strengths as engaged journalists by presenting the findings of our Information Needs Assessment to La Pine City Manager Corey Misley.

Our class was lucky enough to have the guidance of Deborah Ensor and Jesse Hardman of Internews. Both Ensor and Hardman connected with the class and shared their experience with engagement. They were able to offer advice that helped shape and carry the engagement project. Ensor even took the time help structure the report and organize the information assessment report with the class.

The Engaged Journalism class gathers for a group picture after the SCYP kick-off. Photo by Payton Bruni

I am so proud of what we accomplished as a class and what were able to contribute to the La Pine community. The class inspired me to continue learning the engaged journalism approach of covering and collaborating with communities. I have found a passion for community engagement and feel it is a journalist’s true calling to invest time into their communities to uncover the information gaps that need to be bridged. La Pine is one of many communities eager to engage and express their information needs. I have incorporated what I have learned from this class into my own approach to journalism and can’t wait to see what’s in store for the next engaged journalism class at the UO.