Oregon has long been a desirable place to live. Renowned natural beauty – from stunning mountains and high desert to the Columbia River gorge, picturesque wine country, and pristine coastline – along with growing high-tech and creative industries, free-thinking culture, and forward-thinking infrastructure made Oregon a top destination for visitors and residents. Today Oregon ranks 22nd nationally among places to live in the U.S., as does its largest city, Portland.1 U.S. News & World Report, “Oregon” (accessed 25 August 2022); U. S. News & World Report, “Portland, Oregon” (accessed 25 August 2022).
But as Oregon grows, with a population projected to increase by over 41% by 2030 compared to the year 20002 World Population Review, “Oregon Population 2022” (accessed 10 October 2022)., its problems have multiplied. While the state continues to attract newcomers, many Oregonians have a sense that it is troubled. In addition to serious economic3Oregon Secretary of State, “Oregon’s economy: An overview” (n.d.). and social disruptions due to the COVID pandemic, we are a state seriously challenged by a history and a present4 Tiffany Camhi, “A racist history shows why Oregon is still so white,” Oregon Public Broadcasting (9 June 2020); Office of Oregon Governor Kate Brown, “Racial justice & equity” (n.d.). reality of racial injustice; by rampant houselessness,5 Oregon Community Foundation, “Homelessness in Oregon: A review of trends, causes, and policy options” (March 2019). climbing housing prices,6Abe Asher, “How will Oregon address its growing affordable housing crisis?”, Portland Mercury (26 November 2021). disappearing water supplies,7 Alex Schwartz, “Water is the ‘lifeblood’ of Oregonians. How will the next governor manage a future of drought?” Oregon Public Broadcasting (27 April 2022). and rising gun violence Claire Rush, “Amid spike in shootings, Portland unveils new initiative,” ABC News (22 July 2022).; by the effects of climate change8 Bradley W. Parks, “Climate change by the numbers, from 0.1 to 200,” Oregon Public Broadcasting (12 January 2021). manifesting in increasingly severe wildfires9 Hannah Hickey, “Study synthesizes what climate change means for Northwest wildfires,” UW News (1 April 2020). and record-setting weather extremes10 Kale Williams, “A year of record-breaking weather in Oregon as climate change leaves its mark on 2021,” The Oregonian (29 December 2021).; and by a deepening rural-urban divide – including efforts in some corners of the state to sever ties with Oregon altogether.11 Douglas Perry, “Rural Oregonians who want to merge with Idaho say they ‘no longer recognize’ their own state,” Seattle Times (9 June 2021). Not to mention the lingering effects of protests that rocked Portland in 2020, putting the city’s troubles front and center in the national news and damaging its national reputation.12Sra Cline, “Oregon’s biggest city has ‘a long way to go’ repairing its rep,” (29 October 2021), US News and World Report.
As Oregonians take stock of the emerging post-pandemic world, many perceive our state to be politically divided and on the wrong track. A survey conducted by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center (OVBC) in September of 2022 found that 75% of Oregonians were worried for Oregon’s future, with 35% saying they were “very worried.13 Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, “Social and political change-making,” (28 July 2022).” The sense of crisis has been particularly intense in the state’s largest city, where frustration among many Portlanders boiled over in an early 2022 survey that showed 88% agreeing that “the quality of life in Portland is getting worse.”14 KATU Staff, “Poll: Most Portlanders say quality of life in the city is getting worse,” KATU (31 January 2022).
How will residents of this state become better informed and empowered to work together for positive change?
Oregon is also a state with a proud tradition of citizen involvement in civic affairs and policy-making. The “Oregon System” of citizen ballot initiatives and referenda dates back to 1902, and the state’s largest city has long been recognized for its “strong tradition of neighborhood involvement and a culture of participatory democracy.” The scholar Robert Putnam included Portland as a case study of a highly civically engaged community in his 2017 book Better Together. But Oregon is also a growing state, and with that growth comes an increased challenge of forging and maintaining community connections.
How do communities around the state come to understand local issues, to hear from and understand the experiences and perspectives of their fellow community members, and to see one another truly as neighbors?
As voters prepare to elect their local and state leadership in the fall of 2022—including the first gubernatorial election in a generation that will not include an incumbent as candidate—and as Portland voters will be asked whether to change the city’s system of government, the time is ripe for a holistic assessment of the health of Oregon’s news and information ecosystem. The complex challenges our state faces will require deep citizen engagement and healthy lines of communication among communities and with elected officials.
How well-equipped are leaders and citizens around Oregon to meet our state’s challenges with well-informed civic engagement? And how well-equipped are local news media to provide leaders and citizens with the information they need?