Press Pass: What is the Rogue Valley's Public Square?
“What are the physical spaces where people come together and share information in your community?” That’s one question from a new report about access to information in Southern Oregon. It’s being published in April by researchers and students at the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center.
If you don’t have a clear answer to that question about where you’d go to physically learn about your community, you’re not alone. While the final report came out after the printing of this issue of the Jefferson Journal, I had a chance to look at some of the initial responses from people in the Rogue Valley. They ranged from: “public libraries?”, “coffee shop,” “YMCA,” to “I have no idea,” “Not sure,” and “I still do not meet in groups after Covid.”
I asked Agora Journalism Center Director Andrew DeVigal, who is leading the Southern Oregon report, why he asked this question. “It reinforces this idea that a gathering place can constitute how people share information and learn about each other’s world and the news around there,” DeVigal said. As an example, he brought up another traditional information hub, this time from rural communities in Kentucky, affectionately called “liar’s tables.” It’s another name for the local cafes or gas stations where residents swap community news. “They call it the liar’s table because they push on each other’s beliefs and ideas,” DeVigal said. “It’s a way for them to engage with each other and share information.”
That idea of pushing on each other’s beliefs in a civil environment feels a little rare today. It’s a reminder of how unusual it is in our digitally informed lives to gather in person and create a shared sense of community; a place where we might even change our minds.
It would be unrealistic today to think that we will have a literal physical space where people debate ideas. The notion of the public square has long-since been taken over by Facebook and other online platforms. But, DeVigal notes that there are places that still emphasize the exchange of ideas in person, like the City Club of Portland which hosts debates and forums “about the future of Oregon.” Locally, the Jefferson Center in Ashland holds similar events.
This idea of respectfully pushing on one another’s beliefs is also a long-standing role of journalism. The Rogue Valley is in the midst of unexpected growth of local news. The demise of the Medford Mail Tribune in early 2023 created an opening for local journalism from the new Rogue Valley Tribune. Josephine County’s Grants Pass Daily Courier also moved into Jackson County to fill the gap. At their best, newspapers provide a place to debate ideas in the public square with editorials that hold up a mirror to communities and challenge established beliefs.
Public radio generally avoids airing editorials since it’s hard for listeners to distinguish between opinion and reported stories over the radio, without the “editorial” headline that’s printed in newspapers. But along with discussing local events and interviewing local thought leaders, JPR’s Jefferson Exchange is also a part of this public square by providing a venue to discuss what’s happening in our communities.
The UO report about the media ecosystem in Southern Oregon will come out in early April, so you’ll have to read it for yourself to learn what they found. The Agora Journalism Center has produced other similar studies of the information landscapes in La Pine and Hermiston, Oregon. For a small town, DeVigal says, Ashland has lots of potential for vibrant civic spaces. There’s the university, Oregon Shakespeare Festival theaters, Lithia Park and Ashland’s inviting downtown.
Between holdover pandemic isolation and our modern ease of working remotely, it’s easy to avoid the physical spaces that have historically served as the public square. But maybe there’s a venue in the Rogue Valley, physically or not, that can expand that role to move our communities forward while learning about each other’s worlds.