Lakewood Observer founder shares observations

Jim O'Bryan and his signature ride on Madison Avenue in Lakewood

It almost sounds like Cleveland Heights . . . about four years ago, the near-west-side community of Lakewood found itself embroiled in controversy over a plan to develop land overlooking the Rocky River--land that would have to be taken by eminent domain because some of the homeowners who lived there weren’t interested in selling. As the heated discussion took place on a community web site, three guys--one of them vehemently opposed to the project, another adamantly in favor, and a third remaining neutral--decided it was time to launch a community newspaper in which discussions such as these as well as other important civic matters could reach a broader audience than a web site could. The Lakewood Observer was born, a printed expression of that diversity of opinion.

Publisher Jim O’Bryan was one of those three (the others being printer Steve Davis and Lakewood Public Library director Ken Warren), recalls how the seeds of the idea took root. “The first web site permitted people to post under fake names. As election day approached, we started to see what they call ‘spiral dynamics,’ as someone would post a comment under one name, then log out and log on again under a different name to second their own opinion, and so on--pretty soon it looked like there was a big swell of opinion trending in a certain direction, because no one could tell that many of the messages were posted by the same person. Meanwhile, the Plain Dealer and the local Sun paper would show up every once in a while and do a shallow gloss type of story. None of that was helping. We wanted a way to get info to the masses that people could trust.”

“The first thing we did is launch a new site where we required that people post comments using their real names. That kept the conversation more civil. And then we planned right from the start to have a printed paper, because the only way you can reach as many people as possible is a printed version. Currently we print 17,000 papers, and there are 21,000 front doors in Lakewood. And we didn’t want to have to invest in a lot of office and production space, so we came up with a way to manage the flow of stories and pictures online. To me what really makes the paper work is that everyone who has ever written for the paper lives or has lived in Lakewood. These are your neighbors, just like a true community newspaper in the Old West might have been.”

To further the frontier analogy, the paper is, if not exactly a lawless zone, certainly a place where there is no overriding editorial perspective. You know the Wall Street Journal leans right and the Washington Post veers the other way, but the Lakewood Observer’s editorial slant is just the sum of the opinions divided by the number of writers. There isn’t a conscious slant, in other words. No more than Lakewood itself has an editorial slant.

Media critic Lauren Fine, the featured speaker at the FutureHeights annual meeting this April, refers to this as a “self-centering” publication, where one opinion is countered by another and eventually the accumulation of ideas starts to sort out into a few recognizable threads. The diversity of opinion corrects bias. If this idea sounds familiar, it’s the essential concept of Wikipedia--that if enough opinions are collected then a statistically valid measure of a general consensus will emerge. This “wisdom of the masses” approach may not inspire the same kind of intensely personal trust as hiring a team of crack editors and writers whose job it is to adhere to established standards of objectivity, but if your goal is to engage citizens in discussions about the life of their community, it’s hard to beat.

While all this was going on across the Cuyahoga River, FutureHeights was building its own brand of citizen engagement in Cleveland Heights. As FutureHeights evolved from its founding in 2000, it became clearer every year that a key role of the group was simply to identify important issues and convene citizen discussion. In a strategic planning exercise last year, a major proposed initiative for the coming three years was to establish a community newspaper and web site for the Heights. Within weeks of the completion of that plan, FutureHeights began conversations with the Lakewood Observer, which seemed to have just invented what FutureHeights was planning to create on its own. So here we are today.

Our own brand-new Heights Observer is a test-case for what O'Bryan and the newly-formed Observer, Inc. hope will soon be an extensive, interconnected network of hyperlocal news outlets. The model is very simple. Distribution of a hyperlocal paper is cheap because the distances traveled are very small. A healthy volunteer component keeps labor costs low and the internet-based “news room” keeps overhead expenses in check. Advertisers are favorably inclined because the paper is so specifically targeted to their local customers. In fact, the Lakewood Observer has been in the black since its very first issue. “Granted, there was a lot of volunteer labor and a lot of late nights for a few of us,” recalls O’Bryan, “but the fact is I was prepared to bankroll the first year’s publication and I never had to do it.”

Now the media company that basically started as a way for three guys to take their argument to the street has assumed a whole new identity. “We get 3 million web hits a month, with a quarter from outside Ohio,” says O’Bryan. “In what is one of the really surreal moments, the Lakewood Observer has been described as the ‘gold standard of community journalism.’ We’ve had people move in from Brooklyn and San Francisco and cite the Observer as one of the reasons they chose to come here. It’s certainly the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

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Volume 1, Issue 1, Posted 1:05 PM, 04.11.2008