One last look at the Observer's role in Issue 26
With the contentious Issue 26 campaign behind us, residents of Cleveland Heights seem dedicated to moving forward together.
But the purpose of this column is to provide transparency about decisions made at the Heights Observer. So at the risk of opening old wounds, here’s some background on the past several months.
We set out to serve as a forum for discussion about Issue 26 without inserting ourselves into the debate. It was easier said than done, and we weren’t fully prepared for the aggressive lobbying we'd receive along the way, or the pressure we'd feel.
The opinion pieces and letters to the editor started arriving in June and grew steadily in volume and intensity until well past the deadline for the Nov. 1 issue. Each was reviewed by Editor Kim Sergio Inglis and then edited by someone from our corps of editing volunteers.
Many of these pieces were straightforward—a meaningful point of view on one side or the other. Others were position statements from campaign leaders, which we felt a need to pass along even when they seemed repetitive or peripheral.
We also received responses to previous letters, and airing of grievances large and small about conduct on both sides of the debate.
There was too much to print all of it. What we couldn’t print, we published online. Some pieces couldn’t be published at all because they made no sense or made misleading claims that couldn’t be edited away.
More than occasionally, these decisions were viewed from the outside as bias. I understand why it may have seemed that way.
Here are big things that factored into decisions for handling every contribution we received:
Length: Long pieces squeeze out other voices, and readers tend to skip over them. They’re hard to shorten and put a big burden on volunteer editors. The longer the campaign went, the less patience we had for pieces that exceeded the recommended word counts in our written guidelines.
Authorship: We favored new voices.
Originality: We favored fresh ideas and new insights over those that had already been published multiple times.
Tone: We ran plenty of contributions that I thought were mean or snide, but we favored civility.
Factuality: We identified statements on both sides of the debate that were unsupported, exaggerated or not wholly accurate, and we asked the authors to clarify or eliminate them.
Clarity: Many pieces were confusing—sometimes by mistake and sometimes intentionally. In either case, we edited for clarity and leaned against publishing items that couldn’t be brought into shape with the author’s cooperation.
Innuendo: We favored submissions that said what they meant, rather than implying it between-the-lines.
Balance: In publishing the print edition, we tried to balance the number of opinions on both sides of the issue. But this was the last consideration after all others had been applied.
Overall, I think we got it mostly right. We found plenty of submissions from both sides of the issue to be problematic. But by Nov. 5, I believe we conveyed the substance of what there was to be said without taking sides.
Here’s a noteworthy example that I promised to share as soon as it became appropriate: On Oct. 18, four days after the article deadline for the November issue, a breaking news story was submitted from the campaign against Issue 26. Its hypothesis was that the pro-Issue 26 camapign wasn't a grassroots movement, but rather a conspiracy orchestrated by local politicos Cheryl Stephens and Janine Boyd.
In the context of politics today, it was just another campaign volley. It drew the most prejudicial conclusion possible from a given set of facts. It was written to be explosive, and submitted when it would have the biggest impact. If we published it, it would have come out on Nov. 1.
It put the Observer in a no-win situation. With a policy of being open to articles from untraditional sources, if we didn’t publish this one, some would view it as a notable exception and accuse the Observer of siding in favor of Issue 26.
If we did publish it, others would accuse the Observer of siding against Issue 26 by facilitating an “October Surprise.”
There was a lot going on at that moment. We were deep in production of the largest, most logistically complicated issue of the year. Everyone on the Observer team was fatigued and brittle. Rightly or not, I viewed the submission as an attempt to manipulate the Observer into taking sides at the moment we were most vulnerable to error.
We never published the article, either as news or as a campaign press release. It fell short of proving the accusation it made, and failed to meet some basic journalistic principles. So in the end, voters made their choice on election day after a thoughtful, four-month debate of issues—not because of a late-breaking, bombastic headline.
I wish all politics worked that way.
Cleveland Heights resident Bob Rosenbaum is co-chair of the Heights Observer Advisory Committee, and is responsible for its advertising sales and market development.