Professor sees a rebirth of journalism using new approaches

Quality journalism is experiencing a boon as a result of the election and first months of the Trump administration, said Regina Lawrence, executive director of the UO’s Agora Journalism Center and George S. Turnbull Portland Center and a scholar on the role of the media in politics and campaigns.

If true, it seems reports of the death of journalism have been greatly exaggerated. There is evidence for growing engagement in the news, Lawrence said, because it’s so much more important now for people to feel they’re staying on top of what is going on. It may not take the shape of traditional journalism, however, as different approaches are utilized that center more around community involvement, solutions-based and visual storytelling.

And that’s exciting, Lawrence said. She calls it  good news, not only for the state of the profession and the function of the media, but also for innovative journalism centers like UO Portland’s Agora Center to explore and research new forms of journalism and apply them in what has turned out to be a critical yet hopeful era of the news industry.

But the resurgence of the news in people’s everyday lives is not that simple. It’s complicated, Lawrence believes, mainly because of partisan divides and the tendency for readers to gravitate toward the viewpoint that most matches up with theirs.

“Quality journalism also happens to be the stuff that is attracting some partisans from the progressive side, so that’s an interesting problem for journalism,” she said. “I think outlets are having to figure out now where they want to be in terms of the partisan side and where they want to be in terms of this presidency.”

And that means that approaches, methods and strategies are changing, too, not only in the delivery of the news but in how it’s covered.

“It’s a crucial moment in part because our journalism students are entering a fundamentally different world than 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and even four or five years ago,” Lawrence said. “Our students are entering journalism and storytelling at a critical time when a lot of things are up for grabs and open to change and evolution and experimentation, and I think that’s really exciting.”

She believes that editors, journalists and newsrooms need to become more reflective, not only about what they’re covering but what role they play in shaping the public’s understanding of issues. For example, she said, the School of Journalism and Communication’s multimedia journalism master’s program in Portland is offering workshops and course work for students in explanatory journalism, a data-driven type of reporting that employs visualization, as in videos, that help people understand the issues more clearly.  

“Here’s an issue,” she said as a matter of example. “Let’s turn it over and look at it from a couple of different angles, here’s some data to consider. This is an ideal time for that because things are complex, and thoughtful citizens are not sure where to turn. They want to be informed, but they are not sure who to trust.”

Solutions journalism, another method in which the Agora Center is quickly becoming a national leader, is not “feel-good journalism,” Lawrence warned. “It’s an approach that says let’s take the same critical investigative approach that we do toward problems and turn that toward solutions.”

She cites Open Housing, a partnership created between the Agora Center and local news organizations to create more well-rounded, solutions-oriented coverage of Portland’s housing crisis. The one-year project centered around creating collaborative reporting and community engagement to identify the issues and the personal stories around housing that weren’t being covered by traditional media.

And it is this engagement/solutions journalism approach that Lawrence is most excited about. She sees it as a way to use journalism to its fullest while building a bridge between the news and the community simultaneously.

“We can know best what’s happening in a community and how to cover it by talking and listening to the community, which always strikes journalists a little strange, because reporters might say, ‘But that’s what we do,’” she said. “But there is an art, there are techniques, for closer listening within a community.”

Last year, the Knight Foundation  awarded the school a grant that helped create a platform called “Gather,” which will soon be launched publicly. Its goal is to become a network and a meeting place for journalists who are practicing engaged journalism and provide them with resources, “a tool kit of case studies and resources,” she said.

It is these new approaches of storytelling and engagement that have Lawrence hopeful about the future of journalism, something that had seemingly been lost in the last decade.

“This moment, I think, is accelerating,” she said. “The work is already being done. It’s just increased the sense of urgency and the importance of reinvigorating engagement between the public and the news.” 

By Laurie Notaro, University Communications