Cleveland Heights, Ohio--The HeightsObserver.org made its debut on March 5, 2008. A nonprofit venture in citizen journalism and participatory democracy, the web site will provide ultra-local community news and information to the 65,000 residents of Cleveland Heights and University Heights, Ohio.
Heights Observer idea takes hold
In early 2007 the board and staff of FutureHeights conducted a strategic planning process for the organization. According to former FutureHeights director Julie Langan, “The organization was moving beyond its infancy and we needed to re-evaluate our work to focus on the future. We had a number of important questions to ask. Was our mission still relevant? How were we impacting the community? In today’s tough economy, how could we more efficiently use our limited resources to provide the most “bang for the buck”? Given how diverse Cleveland Heights is, how could we become more inclusive? And, how do we sustain our work?”
After interviewing over 80 community members the group sat down to discuss what they had learned.
“What became clear," said Julie Langan, “was that access to information and people sharing ideas was very important in Cleveland Heights. Most of the interviewees identified that part of what FutureHeights had been doing all along as quite valuable to their ability to be stronger and more active citizens."
In response to their findings the board identified a nonprofit community news project as the most promising way for FutureHeights to deliver on its mission of promoting civic engagement. They met with the creators of the original CHUH.NET community news portal and Steve Wood of the CHUH Library, along with a number of other nonprofit representatives and community volunteers, who encouraged them to pursue the idea. The Heights Observer was born.
A local partnership serves two cities
“Early on in the planning stages there was no doubt the newspaper would serve both Cleveland Heights and University Heights, “ says FutureHeights director Deanna Bremer Fisher. “The two communities share a library system and a school system, both integral players in community life. This will create a third leg for that stool.”
With seed-funding provided by The Cyrus Eaton Foundation, The Domion Foundation, and The Katherine and Lee Chilcote Foundation, FutureHeights established a partnership with The Lakewood Observer to produce The Heights Observer over the coming year.
Lakewood, Ohio’s all-volunteer community newspaper was established in 2005 and relies on volunteer writers, photographers, and editors to produce its web site and bi-weekly printed edition. Additionally, the online forum has over 900 members and hosts lively community discussion on everything from development issues to lost pets.
What makes this different from a regular news operation? Jim O’Bryan, publisher of The Lakewood Observer says, “The Lakewood Observer project can be anything [people] want it to be, all they need to do is step up. Want some information out, send it in. Need help with a web site idea, just ask. Want to start a civic group to make a positive change, just ask. You will get support, the tools, even funding.”
It was the grass-roots spirit of The Lakewood Observer, as well as the idea of becoming a sister publication to a regional entity, that convinced the board of FutureHeights to sign on to its model according to Bremer Fisher.
Volunteer driven and citizen driven
The Heights Observer began its “Observatory” forum in mid-January and the web site went live on March 5, 2008. The first print edition will debut April 10, 2008. The print edition will be published monthly for a few months then become a bi-weekly publication.
“We seek neighborhood reporters, columnists, group postings and press releases, government and school information, and anything anyone would like to submit for publication,” says Deanna Bremer Fisher. “At some point we’ll be offering workshops to train citizen journalists, young and old, on writing stories for the paper.”
“The citizens will tell us what they want to read and what information they need to know. This is an opportunity for people to commit what Jan Schaffer, the director of the Institute for Interactive Journalism, calls 'random acts of journalism'.”
“Civic media is the wave of the future for grass-roots civic participation and The Heights Observer looks forward to working with anyone who would like to participate in this exciting and important project”.
To submit stories, articles, and photographs visit heightsobserver.org or call (216) 320-1423.
Sarah Wean is a FutureHeights trustee.