The nuts and bolts of producing the Observer

Assembling a publication like the Heights Observer is a puzzle. An average 20-page issue contains about 23–28 articles of varying subjects, length and immediacy; 60 ads in a dozen configurations; and a number of standing components that all need to be meshed into a neat and readable package.

Our deadlines are set up to allow a small, remote, part-time staff to follow a smooth and thoughtful production process. Still, it’s reasonable to wonder what goes on in the typical two and a half weeks between our article deadline and the day the issue gets distributed.

Here’s an outline of how an issue of the Observer comes together.

The first deadline for each issue is the article deadline. It’s always on a Monday, and is available for all to see at > submission instructions.

As soon as that deadline arrives, Editor Kim Sergio Inglis begins to review all the articles, letters, opinions and columns that have come in through our online submission system. She categorizes them by topic, considers the immediacy and impact of each—and its relevance to the Heights. She notes the length, and begins organizing where each contribution belongs in the upcoming issue—front page, opinion section, community news, schools, etc. She also begins contacting some of the writers for clarification, additional information—whatever is needed.

At the same time, she assigns some of the articles to a small group of volunteer editors, who have a few days to go over their assigned articles for inconsistencies, unanswered questions and other concerns.  

On Thursday, four days after the article deadline, we close advertising sales. By 10 a.m. Friday, we'll set the size of the issue and jump into production.

Issue size is mostly a financial decision. We aim to publish a paper that’s 60 percent editorial and 40 percent advertising (for-profit publications typically reverse this ratio). If we’ve sold the equivalent of 10 pages of advertising, that indicates a 24-page issue.

If we have a lot of timely articles or some big community debate going on, we may add pages to accommodate more voices in the paper. It happens most often around elections. 

Four pages is the smallest increment we can add due to the way printing presses work. It increases our cost, but more important, with a press run of 8,000 copies, it adds 32,000 pages to the eventual waste stream. 

With the page count set, our two-person layout team creates a blank template for the paper using InDesign publishing software. They place all the ads first, while the editor maps where in the layout each article will begin and end.

Over the next two weeks, the puzzle takes shape. Things move around a lot for a lot of reasons: Ads arrive in a different size than expected, revisions change the length of articles or the size of photos, some anticipated articles fail to come through, and late news arrives that we need to accommodate.

Each article is an individual project—fitted into its assigned spot, with byline, photo credits, and writer bio added, and headlines crafted to fit the space available. 

There may still be holes throughout the paper at this point. Articles that arrive after deadline are still considered for publication right up until the last space has been filled. In the case of a too-full issue, worthy articles might unexpectedly need to be cut from the paper.

Proofs of the paper are generated three times throughout the production process—10 days after the article deadline, two days later, and then once more in the final week of the month. After the third proof has been reviewed, the digital file is immediately uploaded to the printer.

Twenty-four hours later, a van shows up at FutureHeights with the new issue for our delivery volunteers to distribute throughout the community.

Bob Rosenbaum

Cleveland Heights resident Bob Rosenbaum is co-chair of the Heights Observer Advisory Committee, and is responsible for its advertising sales and market development.

Read More on Opening the Observer
Volume 16, Issue 3, Posted 11:09 AM, 02.28.2023