The Heights Observer, one of several independent civic-journalism projects in Northeast Ohio
Recently, someone brought me a copy of the Healthy & Humane Observer and asked, “When did you start publishing this?” The fact is, the FutureHeights is not publishing any other newspapers. Healthy & Humane is one of several geographically-based or theme-based publications started by the Observer Group, but each one of us is independently owned and operated.
I sat down with Jim O’Bryan, publisher of the Lakewood Observer and founder of the Observer Group, to find out more about our sister publications.
“The Observer creates a digital town square. In its essence, it lays the town bare, particularly when it comes to public-funded projects,” said O’Bryan.
“Think about everything that is going on in a community,” he said. “A community needs to be comfortable in its own skin. The paper has to be as inert as a conference table where everyone has a seat. The table has to be so inviting that everyone feels comfortable coming to the table. They have to know that they will not be ridiculed or embarrassed for the questions they ask or the answers they provide.”
There are eight other geographic communities in Northeast Ohio that have Observer papers, and there are two theme-based ones. The Lakewood Observer is the oldest. It was founded in 2004 by a group of high school buddies who wanted a new way to get more information out to their community.
The Heights Observer followed in 2008. We were the first community group to approach the Lakewood folks and ask to license the proprietary software they developed, the Ninth Estate. We secured the Observer name and followed—more or less—Lakewood’s philosophy of community news reporting.
Then came the Westlake/Bay Village Observer, the Collinwood Observer and the Parma Observer in 2009, followed by the Euclid Observer in 2010, the Campus District Observer in 2011 and the Rockport Observer (Rocky River and Fairview) in 2012.
In 2012, the Observer Group helped establish the Great Lakes Courier, a countywide publication written by bicyclists for the bicycle community. The Healthy & Humane Observer followed in 2013. It’s a publication that is written by and for people who are involved in health, including such aspects as holistic medicine, exercise, preventative care and senior care.
According to O’Bryan, several other geographic and theme-based Observers are scheduled to start production this year.
Aside from the fact that we (often) share the Observer name and use the Ninth Estate software, each paper is independently owned and makes its own decisions about what to publish and when. Some publish articles exactly as submitted, some—like the Heights Observer—employ volunteer editors to make sure articles are accurate and easier to read. Some publishers are nonprofit, such as the Heights and Campus District observers; others are for-profit. Most publish every month; however, a few, such as Lakewood and Westlake/Bay Village, publish every other week.
Each paper secures its own operating funds from advertisers in its own community. Occasionally, there are advertisers that want to reach multiple Observer communities, and one of the individual paper’s advertising representatives coordinates a joint ad-buy with the others.
All share a common philosophy in community building. “The Observer is about civic-journalism, not citizen-journalism,” said O’Bryan. “For civic-journalism to occur, the participants must have a stake in the community. The writing is community-defining in that it describes who we are and what we are good at, not necessarily what someone else wants us to be.”
“The Observer is a tool for community sustainability. It invites conversation. It creates a vehicle that amplifies the good deeds in a town, but they are not always the same as what the powerbrokers think they are,” said O’Bryan.
A multiplicity of voices, taken together, is what gives a true picture of a community. Although we don’t control what goes into the other Observer publications, we value their contribution to the region and are glad to be a part of it.
Deanna Bremer Fisher
Deanna Bremer Fisher is executive director of FutureHeights and publisher of the Heights Observer.