In Eugene, Oregon, the newspaper takes on an issue 'in a way that couldn't be told from the outside'
When Nicole Dahmen opened her Sunday paper early last month, she found something she wasn't expecting. On Feb. 12, The (Eugene, Oregon) Register-Guard announced the start of an ongoing editorial project on homelessness.
"Living in the Northwest, living in the West Coast, living in Eugene, homelessness is the problem," said Dahmen, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.
The Register-Guard already regularly covered homelessness. But staff decided to devote editorials to the issue, the people impacted and actual progress for a year for a few reasons. First, it's such a vast, complex problem, with many disconnected services in the community, that one shot wasn't going to be enough.
"We needed to do some kind of series and eat the elephant one bite at a time," said Jackman Wilson, editorial page editor.
Another reason: There's fatigue in the community and a sense that nothing's getting done. But that’s not true, Wilson said.
"There have been a lot of really smart and dedicated people working on this for quite some time and a fair amount of progress had been made."
Through the series, they plan to show what’s working, both in Eugene and elsewhere. They'll point out best practices, identify different segments of the homeless population and hopefully, Wilson said, offer ideas on how to replicate what's working.
Dahmen studies restorative narrative, a kind of journalism which focuses on a community's response to big news. She got excited when she saw the start of the series — not just because of the topic but how the Register-Guard was doing it. She emailed Wilson in support, then introduced him to a name for something the newspaper was kind of already doing – solutions journalism.
'We didn't really know that it was called that'
Wilson hasn't set an end point for the project yet, but he wants their work to go beyond criticizing public policy and into suggesting what might actually be improved.
When Dahmen reached out and offered to co-write about why the approach was a smart one, it was the first time Wilson heard the term solutions journalism, a kind of reporting that doesn’t just show the problem but also ways it’s getting fixed, locally or elsewhere.
"We didn't really know that it was called that, but that does seem like as good a label as any," he said.
Dahmen has seen people do this kind of work before without knowing there's a name, network and a real study of its impact. She recently finished a nationwide survey of 1,300 journalists, and many hadn't heard of the term itself but were actually doing it. She hopes that helping more journalists understand that it's a thing will encourage more of it.
"This is journalism that intends to make a difference," she said. "It's not doing away with the journalism tenets that we hold dear. It's just acknowledging journalism's role in a democracy."
Rachael McDonald, a reporter and assistant news director for KLCC, Eugene's public radio station, covers homelessness. She applauds their new project and hopes it means more reporting on the issue.
"I see the Register-Guard making this commitment and it makes me want to do more reporting also, so it's inspiring," she said. "I think at this time, in this climate, it's helpful to see journalists pushing themselves more to bring more stories to light and doing it in a way that maybe does make a difference.”
Paul Neville, St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County's public relations manager, worked at the Register-Guard as an associate editor until retiring in 2015. This winter, St. Vincent de Paul housed more than 800 people in emergency shelters. It has 1,400 units of affordable housing and day centers. Homelessness is a huge issue in Eugene, he said.
"It’s also one of the least understood, and The R-G editorial board’s willingness to tackle this complex topic and let what I anticipate will be a far-ranging discussion unfold over the course of the year is community journalism and leadership at its best."
A new approach to homelessness, with the old tools
Wilson has been at the Register-Guard, which is family-owned, for 31 years. It's a much smaller place than it once was.
"A lot of what we do is trying to deliver the kind of product that our readers expect with a lot fewer people to do it," he said.
The editorial department used to have four on staff, three full-timers and a clerical person. Now it has two full-time editorial writers and someone working part-time to handle letters.
There's also a lot more competing for readers' attention now than there used to be, Wilson said, but he thinks the Register-Guard's basic role remains the same.
"This particular project, for instance, there's no one else who can or will take something like this on,” he said. “There's no other source of information that reaches a double digit percentage of the community, so in that sense there's really only one place to have any kind of a discussion or conversation that involves a substantial portion of the community."
And while journalists have more tools than ever to cover their communities, Wilson thinks, at least with this project, it's the oldest tools that still get the job done.
"For this type of undertaking, it pretty much requires walking out into the rain with a notebook," Wilson said, "and that's always been what local journalism's all about."