Concern about crime in Cleveland Heights is in the air. Some argue the city is falling apart; others say it’s fine. Some say we have too many police and they’re too aggressive; others want to see more on the street.
Opening The Observer
Like so many others, those of us who spend the most time working on the Heights Observer are weary of the superficial and negative coverage our community seems to get from Sun News, Cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer.
We’re tired of their police blotter obsession and the habit of putting every news item into the context of decline.
In October, a few local businesses declared they were done doing business with the Plain Dealer and Northeast Ohio Media Group (which controls Sun News and Cleveland.com). But there’s a sense of hopelessness in the gesture. “I don’t subscribe to it at home, I don’t read it online and I don't advertise in it," one business owner told me. "What more can I do if their business model depends on running us down?”
The biggest part of the Heights Observer's mission is to enable discussion of important community topics. Who decides what's important? You do, by choosing to contribute.
There are some boundaries. Topics must be relevant specifically in Cleveland Heights and/or University Heights. So you can discuss the merits of city council candidates, but we don’t make room for opinions on would-be presidents or governors. There are plenty of other outlets for those conversations.
There’s more than one way to contribute too, and this sometimes causes confusion. If you have something to say, here are your options:
Well into its seventh year, the Heights Observer has achieved a basic level of sustainability—it has repeatable operating processes in place, and brings in roughly the same amount of money each month that it costs to produce.
It’s a fragile balance that would fall apart quickly without the efforts of a large group of volunteers and a core of part-time employees/contractors, who perform the daily tasks you can’t expect people to do for free 77 months in a row, and counting.
Every month, nearly 10,000 copies of the Heights Observer are distributed at more than 250 locations around Cleveland Heights and University Heights.
With the possible exception of The Plain Dealer—which doesn’t provide city-by-city detail of its circulation—no other publication can claim that each issue is seen by as many people in these two communities as the Heights Observer.
But the Observer's contributors—community members like you—send in articles all the time, and you don’t have to wait until the beginning of each month to see them.
The Heights Observer, a citizen-based publication produced monthly by FutureHeights, welcomes all community news, announcements and information. The Observer was founded by FutureHeights six years ago, for the express purpose of publishing the hyperlocal Cleveland Heights and University Heights news that traditional media outlets tend to overlook.
With no full-time staff, the Observer invites and relies on community members—be they residents, or members or employees of Heights organizations or companies—to write and submit articles about the personalities, events and news that is happening in the Heights.
Many organizations are accustomed to sending press releases about newsworthy events or causes to media outlets, with the expectation that a reporter will then follow up, call the organization, attend the event, and take the next steps to turn the basic information into a news story.
The Heights Observer is intended to be community property—produced by the community, on behalf of the community. One of the main reasons for this column each month is to provide transparency about decisions made while trying to do that job.
Yet, while dozens of people contribute to the Observer each month, the handful of us who regularly put in the most time with it make all sorts of decisions that are never likely to be described, explained or even questioned.
It’s a small group. While we tend to communicate regularly (mostly by e-mail), we work independently. We often disagree with one another, but we are pretty good at trusting in each other’s competence, respecting each other's roles and making the best decisions we can based on the Observer’s mission.
In addition to publishing the Heights Observer, FutureHeights encourages civic engagement by hosting speakers and facilitating public forums.
On April 1, FutureHeights will host a public forum entitled “Snow, Sidewalks and Shovels.” In the past, we’ve published articles about keeping our sidewalks clear for pedestrians during the winter, and many residents have weighed in on the importance of doing so given our commitment to being a walkable community. This year, however, record snowfalls have brought the issue to the forefront.
How can we keep our sidewalks clear, efficiently and cost effectively? Whose responsibility is it to do so: the homeowner’s or business owner’s, the city’s, or a combination? Join us for a discussion on April 1, beginning at 6:30 p.m., at The Wine Spot, 2271 Lee Road.
For the past six years, FutureHeights, the community-building nonprofit organization serving Cleveland Heights and University Heights, has published the Heights Observer. The Observer is, without a doubt, FutureHeights’s most visible—and time-consuming—program. Yet, too often, the connection between the Observer and FutureHeights is lost.
The Observer came about six years ago, when the FutureHeights Board of Directors decided that publishing a citizen-driven newspaper was the best way to engage the citizenry and encourage community engagement, and to further FutureHeights’s mission: to promote a vibrant and sustainable future for Cleveland Heights and University Heights through innovative ideas and civic engagement.
I’m sure you’ve had plenty of invitations this holiday season. But before you settle down to a more comfortable pace in the new year, let me extend one more invitation: Become an observer in 2014.
We welcome submissions from all community members—no previous writing experience is required. The Heights Observer has no writing staff; it exists to publish your stories.
The Observer brings people together on important issues. It creates networks in our community and strengthens our capacity to remain vibrant in the future. Consider adding your voice to the diversity of voices in the newspaper.
Here are a few simple guidelines to get you started:
I often hear how much people enjoy reading the Heights Observer and how much they feel it is needed because of the recent contraction in local news coverage by other media. I explain that the Observer is something different—we have no writing staff, and we don’t cover news the way traditional media does; we rely on contributions from Heights residents. We print the articles our residents write and submit—about what they believe is newsworthy.
Another thing that makes the Observer unique is the unwavering support of our local business community. Each month, we decide how many pages we are able to print based on the amount of advertising support we have. When we began publishing the Observer in April 2008, we printed 16 pages. We are now able to print 28 pages, and occasionally more, almost every month.
The majority of our community’s businesses are independent and locally owned. They know they are reaching you with their advertising, but they also recognize that supporting the Observer is good for the community.
In its more than 10-year history, FutureHeights has never endorsed an issue on any ballot. We have often discussed issues and published articles to help inform the public and stimulate civic discourse. In the August Opening the Observer column, our executive director stated that if FutureHeights decided to advocate on behalf of an issue, the opinion would be clearly marked as such.
This year, the FutureHeights Board of Directors (FH) debated whether to endorse Issue 81, the school facilities bond issue. The question the board considered was: Should FutureHeights, as an organization, endorse Issue 81?
We recognize that a comprehensive school facilities project represents a large investment in our community’s infrastructure, the likes of which we have not seen in 40 years.
For the last eight years, FutureHeights has hosted a Best of the Heights contest to help Heights residents celebrate and appreciate the variety of locally owned independent businesses that enrich our quality of life. Each year, a committee of FutureHeights board members meets to select the categories. The committee changes the categories each year in order to enable different businesses to win.
Over the years, we’ve also tried various methods of ensuring a fair contest. For example, for the past two years, we required that each ballot have at least half of the categories filled out in order to be valid. We hoped that this would discourage ballot stuffing and ensure that people were voting for a variety of businesses in keeping with the spirit of the contest. We also required that each voter provide his or her contact information on the ballot to ensure that a person votes only once.
Municipal elections are coming up this November. This is the third local election cycle that the Heights Observer has been through since its inception, and it’s an important one. Cleveland Heights residents will vote for five of seven members of city council this year. University Heights residents will vote for mayor and four of seven members of council. Residents of both cities will vote for three of five members of the CH-UH Board of Education. In addition, a school facilities bond issue, the first since the 1970s, will be on November’s ballot.
I am always amazed when I sign in at the Heights Observer’s Member Center—where Heights residents contribute stories and we organize the production of the website, weekly e-news and monthly print edition—and I find a story from a new contributor. Often, it’s someone I’ve never met who brings a new perspective and tells me about something going on in our community that I otherwise wouldn’t know about.
We now have more than 800 people who have signed up to contribute to the Heights Observer, and they are essential to our success. With our small staff of a part-time publisher and a part-time editor, we couldn’t possibly produce a newspaper of 24–32 pages each month without the contributions of these volunteers.
Our contributors represent all facets of our community. Some are public relations staff employed by our major institutions. Others are the heads of local organizations or volunteers for their churches or neighborhood groups. Still others are engaged citizens with an eye for the news who want to help tell this community’s unique stories.
In addition to community members, we occasionally have unpaid interns who gain valuable experience in journalism and community organizing by working with us. We have been fortunate over the past year to work with several students.
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.
Is too much good news harming our community? That is the contention of a few critics of the Heights Observer. The stories in these pages don’t seem important enough, or critical enough, in their view.
This April, FutureHeights celebrates the fifth anniversary of the Heights Observer, which we unveiled April 10, 2008, at the FutureHeights annual meeting.
The Observer was a result of a 2007 strategic planning process led by consultant Gina Cheverine (later a board member and president). “For years, FutureHeights had agonized about what its proper role was,” said Greg Donley, former member of the FutureHeights Board of Directors. “As part of this strategic plan, one idea rose to the surface: that a big part of our job was not just to educate citizens about issues of planning and design, but more simply to provide a forum for citizens to voice their opinions and stand for their values.”
Too many times, I’ve heard people complain about how the Heights is portrayed in the media. It’s the bad things that get all the press—a string of break-ins occurs in our neighborhoods, a violent “flash mob” erupts during a street festival, a dog is shot in our park. Are these the things that define us?
These days, most newspapers are cutting pages or going online entirely, but so far the Heights Observer is bucking the trend. Our pages are growing, not shrinking, and we are committed to our monthly print edition. You can visit our website, www.heightsobserver.org, to see more up-to-date news and sign up to receive our weekly e-newsletter, but many people still prefer to read the news in hard copy form.
From day one, we’ve been committed to the print issue because we serve all members of the community, even those who don’t have easy access to a computer. For some, that may be a preference; for others, their modest means may not allow it. Whatever the reason, the print newspaper provides a physical connection to the community.
As we start our sixth year of publishing the Heights Observer (the first issue published on April 10, 2008), I’m amazed at how much this little paper—a community-building project of FutureHeights—has grown. I see people picking it up at a local restaurant or bank. I see people reading it. Some even tell me that it is the only publication they read.
Why? I ask. The news isn’t particularly timely. It comes out only once a month. But, somehow, it encapsulates more of what our community truly is than any other news source.
I think that its authenticity, the fact that it truly is of the community and for the community, is what makes it a good read.
The title of this column—Opening the Observer—has always had two meanings for me. The first has to do with transparency, as in opening the newspaper to the scrutiny of its readers. We tell you how we operate (primarily through the work of dedicated volunteers). We state our editorial policy (no political or other endorsements, just the facts). We provide information that affects our community, and a place to air your concerns.
The second meaning concerns the contents if each issue—what you can expect to see when you open an issue of the Heights Observer.
“And so Cleveland Heights sits on a fragile fault line of demographic inversion. It has its location, its shady streets, and big , comfortable houses that almost anyone would want to live in. And it is afflicted by painfully high taxes, obsolete working-class bungalows, a violence-prone transient population, and schools with a troubled reputation. Right now, the burdens seem to outweigh the advantages.” –Alan Ehrenhalt, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City.
That’s one person’s view of the current situation in Cleveland Heights. Ehrenhalt’s new book examining population shifts in American cities devotes most of a chapter to our city of 46,121 people. A FutureHeights member called the book to my attention. I read the Cleveland Heights chapter first, then went back and read the entire book.
Although Ehrenhalt gets some of the details wrong—he refers to Coventry Road as Coventry Street, for example—he may have gotten it right overall. I believe that the health and vitality of our city is fragile, and the reputation of our schools is an important factor. Many people choose where to live based on the availability of strong public schools, whether or not they intend to use them, because schools affect property values. As Superintendent Douglas Heuer said at a FutureHeights meeting last year, he’s never seen a strong community that didn’t also have strong public schools.
Other communities may have places where you can walk; but the Heights has places you can walk to. These places are the unique local businesses that line our neighborhood commercial districts, and being able to walk to so many different places—restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops, bookstores, hardware stores, barber shops and salons—is one of the things that makes living in the Heights so enjoyable.
I’ve been writing news stories now for five years, but I still consider myself a nonprofessional. I didn’t train to be a journalist, and never thought I’d end up running a newspaper. Because I lacked professional training, I knew I’d better find some folks who knew what they were doing—and quick.
Members of the Heights Observer Editorial Advisory Committee are those folks. They are my go-to group. Whenever I need advice on something in the newspaper biz, usually one of them can help.
Much has changed in the Heights this past year. Both Cleveland Heights and University Heights have new police chiefs, our public schools are going through a master facilities planning process, there are new faces on our city councils, neighbors are banding together to form new neighborhood organizations and revitalize old ones, and Cleveland Heights is even giving free parking a try. Positive action through citizen participation is what makes the Heights community such a wonderful place to live.
The Heights Observer is your voice in the community, and your voice is important. Through the Observer, you provide information about what is happening in our community, educate your neighbors about the significance of these events and advocate for changes that you think will help move us forward.
Soon after FutureHeights launched the Heights Observer in 2008, it developed a partnership with the Heights Chapter of the League of Women Voters, Cuyahoga Area (LWV) to produce the reports of city council, school board and library board meetings that are published in the newspaper. As a citizen journalism project, the Observer relies on contributions from the community, and the reports of this well-respected organization seemed like a natural fit.
The construction of new and renovated public schools in Cleveland Heights and University Heights may represent the single largest investment in our communities over the next several decades. This is an important issue—one I’ve been following since summer 2010, when the school district asked me to join the Citizens Facilities Committee—and it is a good example of how FutureHeights uses various tools to encourage civic engagement. (Full disclosure: I am the parent of a CH-UH kindergartener who will be affected by this process.)
The Heights Observer has a new editor-in-chief, Kim Sergio Inglis. Kim, who served as an enthusiastic volunteer editor and writer for the Observer for the past several years, is now on board in an official capacity. I am thrilled!
As the executive director of FutureHeights, a small nonprofit organization, I wear many hats. When we launched theHeights Observer, in April 2008, we decided to delay hiring a dedicated editor. So the task of coordinating volunteer writers and editors to publish a monthly print newspaper fell on me.
I admire people like Adam and Susan Fleischer. By opening The Wine Spot on Lee Road, they have gone all-in on their dream and their community.
They’re not alone. For two years I’ve been the volunteer who plugged every new business listing into the Heights Observer’s local business directory. I’m in awe that so many people choose to stake out a future by serving residents of this incredible and quirky area.
Almost every day, someone mentions to me how much he or she appreciates the Heights Observer as a positive force in the community.
On the days when that doesn’t happen, someone is sure to contact me about an idea they’d like the Observer to pursue on behalf of the community.
For those who like what the Observer does, I remind them that it is operated by FutureHeights, a nonprofit organization dedicated to citizen engagement in Cleveland Heights and University Heights.
On Tuesday, Oct. 18, a press release arrived at the Heights Observer. It was sent from Hennes-Paynter Crisis Communications, a Cleveland Heights public relations firm representing First Interstate Properties.
The press release said that First Interstate—the company behind the controversial retail development planned for the South Euclid parcel of the former Oakwood Country Club—had completed its purchase of the Cleveland Heights portion of the property.
The Heights Observer is published by FutureHeights, a community-building organization with 501(c)(3) status, which means that the IRS recognizes it as not-for-profit/tax-exempt. As such, neither FutureHeights nor the Observer are permitted to endorse any individuals running for public office.
I mention it now because with municipal elections coming early next month, it is the time when many civic-minded people and groups choose to express their opinions about candidates. The Observer, in its role as a forum for sharing information about the community, welcomes the opportunity to publish those opinions.
Here’s the answer to a question that, to my knowledge, nobody has asked: Why doesn’t the Heights Observer run police blotter items?
The police blotter is a series of one- or two-sentence media reports on arrests and other activities by local police. When reported in the news, a blotter item looks like this:
Theft: An Elm Street man reported his 2001 Chrysler broken into sometime between 6 p.m., Aug. 20, and 8 a.m., Aug. 21. His iPod and connector were taken along with his wallet containing, among other things, his driver’s license and a debit card. The man had left his car unlocked.
The Heights Observer exists to provide information and air issues of interest to anyone who lives and works in Cleveland Heights and University Heights. With a print newspaper, an e-mail newsletter, a website and a collection of blogs, it is missing one vital element: an online forum where people can fluidly discuss topics of their choice.
We initially launched a forum four years ago—when we began publishing the paper. But that forum never achieved the critical mass to take on a life of its own, and participation dwindled. We recently took it offline.
I don't know precisely why the forum failed to fly the way it has in other communities. But when I’ve asked people why they stopped using it, their answers all fall in among the following themes:
In November, four seats on the Cleveland Heights City Council and four seats in University Heights come up for election.
The Heights Observer does not make endorsements or recommendations. We do, however, make it easy for anyone in the community to publish his or her opinions on issues and candidates. If you have something to say, please go to the Heights Observer Member Center (http://heightsobserver.org/members/login.php), register as a user, and start contributing.
Contributors may include the candidates themselves, a number of whom—since our founding four years ago—have used the Observer’s editorial and advertising opportunities as a strategic cornerstone of their campaigns.
One reason FutureHeights began publishing the Heights Observer was to provide an easy and affordable way for local businesses to reach potential customers.
This issue of the Heights Observer contains an ad that is likely to raise some eyebrows in the community. You can’t miss it; it’s the largest ad we’ve ever run.
The advertiser is First Interstate Properties, the Lyndhurst-based development company that’s planning to develop the former Oakwood Club property in South Euclid and, later, Cleveland Heights.
This month, the Heights Observer begins its fourth year of publication. It’s an underfunded, seat-of-the-pants community news organization managed essentially by one staff person, compiled by a few dozen regular volunteers, and written by contributors numbering in the hundreds.
Considering all that, I’m not only impressed by the impact it seems to have, I’m also amazed that it comes out month after month. The Heights Observer is clearly getting stronger.
Our first issue ran 16 pages and had 10 advertisers. This issue—our largest to date—consists of 24 pages supported by more than 50 display advertisers (not including classifieds).
After three years, the regular operations of the Heights Observer newspaper are running as smoothly as you can expect for an all-volunteer publication. But news happens more than once a month.
So we’ve turned our attention to other ways of providing a full, flexible and timely platform for the discussion of issues that are important in University Heights and Cleveland Heights.
In January, we started posting news to the Observer website (www.heightsobserver.org) on a daily basis. Now you no longer have to wait until the beginning of next month to find out what’s been happening.
The Heights Observer is now on Twitter.com. We started Tweeting in early February, and send out messages when new stories go online, or if we stumble across anything of local interest to Cleveland Heights and University Heights.
Is there a blogger in you waiting to get out? Can you write with insight and passion about Cleveland Heights and/or University Heights?
The new Heights Observer/Blogs is looking for people to offer regular commentary, analysis and musings on the people, places and events that define the Heights.
At a party not long ago, I met a woman who, after hearing my name, said, "I want to get involved with the Observer."
"That would be great," I replied.
"There are all sorts of things that go on here that people ought to know," she said, waving her arms, "and I’m not afraid to say any of it."
The Heights Observer is happy to accept and publish letters to the editor.
We don’t get very many of them. Maybe that’s because letters to the editor usually represent the only way an ordinary resident can contribute to a newspaper. But the Observer’s articles and columns are also written by residents, and with so many ways to contribute, letters may somehow seem unnecessary.
But they have an important role. Letters represent the community dialogue that the Observer and its parent organization, FutureHeights, seek to encourage.
News articles and opinion pieces don’t really count as a conversation until someone else responds. That’s the purpose of letters.
We’re pleased to announce that the Observer has launched the only online business directory dedicated to Cleveland Heights and University Heights.
Offering listings from accountants to variety stores and everything in between, the directory is one more way the Observer facilitates the connection between residents and the businesses that serve them.
The directory is available through a link in the left-hand menu at www.heightsobserver.org, the Heights Observer website.
It has been launched in support of the new Heights Independent Business Alliance (HIBA), of which I’ve written before. HIBA was founded with urging from the Observer’s nonprofit owner, FutureHeights, to help keep local, independently owned businesses foremost in the minds of residents.
There are two noteworthy events related to the Observer this month.
First is the FutureHeights Auction. It’s one of the primary fundraisers for the organization that produces the Observer each month. FutureHeights is all about civic engagement, and the Observer is its largest project–giving voice to anyone who wants to lead or participate in dialogue about the community.
The auction is conducted online, so you don’t need to dress up or put on a party smile. The bidding runs from Oct. 15 to Nov. 21, at www.BiddingForGood.com/FutureHeights. If you appreciate the Observer, then please support FutureHeights and the auction. There’s some neat stuff to bid on, as well.
The Heights Observer, published by FutureHeights, is about engagement: helping to keep residents of University Heights and Cleveland Heights informed, and providing a platform to actively share information about community issues and organizations.
It’s a chicken-and-egg proposition: The greater the engagement, the more contributions the Observer receives—and the better informed people will be.
I observe two common barriers to this process:
- People don’t want to take the time.
- People don’t know how, or don’t feel qualified, to contribute.
There’s not much the Observer can do about the first barrier, except perhaps to convince people that sharing their knowledge doesn’t take a lot of time. We’re addressing that, and tackling the second barrier in depth with a series of Tuesday-evening workshops to help residents figure out what, and how, to contribute information to the Observer.
Retailers spend the year preparing for the holiday shopping season. For accountants, the big month is April. For newspapers, it’s whenever there is a major election–which is how I’d classify the selection of Cuyahoga County’s first county executive and its new 11-member council.
The election is in two parts: a partisan primary on Sept. 7, and the general election Nov. 2. Voters will cast two ballots – one for the county executive, and another for a single district representative. Cleveland Heights is in District 10; University Heights is in District 11.
As an entity that relies almost solely on submissions from community members, we’re not covering the election like a traditional newspaper, which would present a “comprehensive package” of interviews and insights on every candidate.
When in the course of human events, it becomes appropriate for communities to assert their independence, to denounce uniformity and celebrate their uniqueness, a respect for freedom and human creativity requires independent businesses and peoples to declare those elements which make them interesting.
Some of these lists are small—15 or 20 people. Others consist of a close circle of people who are likely to share similar viewpoints, because what’s more gratifying than a one-sided debate?
The good news is the bad news: The Observer now receives many more contributions each month than the print edition can hold.
Until now, that situation has been handled by trying to prioritize the importance of each submission, which inevitably leads to the conclusion that they’re all important. And editors are instructed to cut large portions from dozens of stories to fit the available space.
Such cutting has been a necessary evil as contributions have continued to multiply, but it isn’t an acceptable long-term approach. It’s tough on the writers, who feel their hard work is being disrespected; it’s tough on the editors, because cutting stories by half or two-thirds is difficult and unpleasant. It’s also tough on the readers and the story subjects, because the nuance of the information can get lost.
This issue marks the second anniversary of the Heights Observer.
A few months ago, working with two marketing classes at John Carroll University, the Observer conducted a readership survey. Here are some highlights of what we learned from the 172 respondents.
One reason FutureHeights launched the Heights Observer was to encourage community dialogue and engagement among Heights residents—engagement with the local government, community and businesses. Another reason was to serve those businesses.
The local commercial base is a big part of what gives the Heights its unique character. By helping those businesses thrive, the thinking goes, FutureHeights helps maintain the community’s charm.
Perhaps the most frequent compliment I hear about the Heights Observer is that so much of its content is worth reading and important to the community.
For those who have been most involved in producing the Heights Observer, one frustration arises every month: Readers have a lot of great suggestions for topics we should cover, and we want to pursue them.