Celebrating five years of community-based news in the Heights
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.”
For several years, FutureHeights had published a quarterly newsletter for its members. It focused on city planning, design quality and historic preservation issues—areas in which board members had expertise—and reached a limited audience of about 600.
“It was more of an ‘insider’ communication that circulated among influencers, and hopefully influenced them positively,” said Donley. “We like to think, for example, that the simple act of publishing the findings of our Lee Road charrette raised awareness of design and planning issues, and helped make the Lee Road streetscape evolve in a better direction than it would have had we not published it.”
The board’s Community News Committee began to explore how to expand the scope of the newsletter and its role as a catalyst for positive change. “There wasn't a fixed plan for how to do it, though we did talk of starting a community newspaper eventually,” said Donley.
Meanwhile, the committee became of aware of the Lakewood Observer, a community-based website and print newspaper. Committee members found Lakewood’s mix of civic pride, hyper-local focus and community participation to be a winning combination, worth replicating in the Heights. They convinced Jim O’Bryan, one of its founders, to license the software and committed to launching the Heights Observer. (The Observer group now consists of several local community-based and independently owned and operated newspapers.)
At the same time, FutureHeights founding executive director Julie Langan resigned and moved out of state. The project took a brief hiatus as the organization searched for new leadership. I came on board as executive director in January 2008, and at that point, we made some key decisions: we would spend the next six months to a year focusing on the Observer project to ensure its success; we would begin by publishing once a month and consider expanding from there; we would work on building community participation, starting with key institutions.
Our first issue was 16 pages and featured the front-page article “Why citizen journalism?” by Michael Wellman, chair of the Community News Committee. Other board members contributed articles, including one on the importance of shopping local by Trevor Gile, board member and an owner of Motorcars in the Heights, who also signed on as an advertiser.
We recruited volunteers to serve as writers, editors and “newsies”—those that help us deliver the Observer each month. Steve Tichenal, a founder of www.chuh.net, a precursor of www.heightsobserver.org, signed up to help us get the Observer out to four neighborhoods in northern Cleveland Heights. He’s one of several dedicated volunteers whose support from the beginning has greatly contributed to the Observer’s success.
On Thursday, April 18, we’ll celebrate the Observer’s first five years. In that time, it’s become a trusted source of community news and information—written and produced by the community—that many Heights residents look forward to reading. We’ll honor some of the many people who have been part of the project. And we’ll look to the future, as Peter Pula, founder of Axiom Media, introduces us to the concept of Generative Journalism, an approach to news that enables communities to tell stories about their strengths and provide a catalyst for action.
Join us for our annual meeting at 6:30 p.m. on April 18 at the Cleveland Heights Community Center. The event is free and open to the public. Then, celebrate with us at a ticketed fundraiser for the Heights Observer at Rockefeller’s Restaurant immediately following the meeting. Learn more, and RSVP, at www.futureheights.org. I hope to see you there!
Deanna Bremer Fisher
Deanna Bremer Fisher is executive director of FutureHeights and publisher of the Heights Observer.