The hardest issue we've ever produced
Of all the issues, the most difficult was August 2014, which covered the community’s response to the shooting death of Jim Brennan, owner of the Colony on Lee Road.
There were layers of grief—for the man, for the business and its employees, and the community itself.
The Heights Observer didn’t actually cover the crime, which had taken place on June 30—even as we were distributing the July issue. That's because the Observer has been different from other newspapers in three ways:
- It only comes out once a month, so when news happens, TV and the Internet will have the immediate details well before we get out the next issue.
- We don’t have a staff of reporters who are paid to cover stories simply because they happen. Our writers are volunteers—community members who typically write about things that have meaning to them. Meaning takes time to emerge.
- We’re non-profit and mission-based; the impact to the community of what we publish is always top-of-mind for those of us who work on every issue.
I raised my hand to write the main story in the August 2014 issue because somebody had to. It ended up being about the way we were dealing with the grief, including the “We are a Colony” campaign that put the Colony logo on T-shirts (I still have mine) and car magnets.
The headline on that story was Brennan’s ‘colony’ comes together over T-shirts and a beer. It’s what journalists call a second-day story—reflecting the realities of our monthly frequency and volunteer contributors.
It demonstrates the Observer’s optimism—a quality that doesn’t exist by design or intent, but rather as a reflection of the people who show up every month to fill its pages. There are some who feel this quality is a weakness—that newspapers should be more confrontational and less boosterish.
There are times when I agree. But the Observer is driven by its community. Our writers set the tone of our content, and I’m glad to live in a place where the default mood seems to be determined optimism.
That lead story wasn’t the only coverage the issue contained about Brennan’s murder.
Letters, essays and blog excerpts from community members talked about Brennan himself, about crime, about the coming together to share our grief, and about the narrative being spun reflexively by some other media—of Cleveland Heights as a city in unstoppable decline.
I still hold a grudge against the Plain Dealer for leading that charge, and today more than ever I think our volunteer contributors got the second-day story more right than the PD’s professionals. I've since come to realize how important it is that the Observer exists to tell our story authentically, continually, one drip at a time.
I knew Brennan only superficially, but I felt the loss as if part of my own family had been taken from me—and everyone else seemed to feel the same way.
Producing the issue felt very much like carrying on; it was something that had to be done, and that could be done.
Not every community could sustain an Observer as ours has for the past decade. It takes an advertising base of independently owned businesses that are as involved in the community as they are in commerce—because chains and franchises don’t buy advertising in community media. It takes a culture of activism, which we have in abundance. It takes a sense that there’s something here to fight for.
In August 2014, the Heights Observer showed ours as one of those communities that’s at its best right after its worst.
If you want to see it yourself, you can find it on our website, www.heightsobserver.org > Latest Issue (PDF) > Volume 7/Issue 8.
Cleveland Heights resident Bob Rosenbaum is co-chairman of the Heights Observer Advisory Committee, and is responsible for its advertising sales and market development.