The benefits of citizen journalism

A discussion with the Lakewood Observer's Jim O'Bryan

As part of our series of articles introducing the Westlake | Bay Village Observer to the community, I wanted share with our readers the successes of a similar publication in Lakewood. I sat down with one of the founders of the Lakewood Observer, Jim O’Bryan, to discuss the positive developments his city has seen as a result of citizen journalism. Jim is a lifelong Lakewood resident and is active in various community groups. As the Lakewood Observer celebrates its five-year anniversary, I talked to Jim about the project’s impact on the city. I hope that this article will provide a glimpse at some of the benefits that citizen media can bring to a community.

Jim’s passion for citizen journalism is evident - and his enthusiasm is contagious. Listening to him talk about the kinds of stories found in the Lakewood Observer and the people who are writing them could inspire almost anyone to pick up a pen and join in. One of the greatest advantages of citizen journalism is that anyone in the community can have their voice heard.

“Everybody has at least one story to tell and most people have hundreds of stories to tell,” Jim explained.” Every person is a gardener, a photographer, has traveled to someplace nice, has a niece or nephew. The stories are limitless. Some of the people in Lakewood who I thought were the most boring and mundane had the most fascinating stories to tell. Everybody has a story. And everybody likes to read a story.  If there’s one thing the paper does, it creates an endless stream of ‘refrigerator articles’ for the entire community. This is what most papers can’t bring to a community because they’re not hyperlocal, they’re commercially sensitive, and in fact, they are not born, owned or come out of the community.”

He went on to say that city residents from all walks of life are taking part in the Lakewood Observer. Since its inception five years ago, over 3,300 people have contributed in some manner to the project. That includes those who have written articles, taken photographs, delivered papers and participated in editing and production. The youngest contributor was three years old. “She took a beautiful photo of her father,” Jim said. “Probably one of the most beautiful photos we’ve ever published.” At the other end of the spectrum, the Lakewood Observer’s oldest participant was a 93 year old writer who penned a regular column about logic entitled, “Minding the Issues.”

The Lakewood Observer also has a strong relationship with the city’s schools. Students are encouraged to write stories, and several have been rewarded by colleges for their efforts. So far, eight area high school students have been offered scholarships based on their portfolio of articles written for the Lakewood Observer and the Heights Observer, another citizen-written newspaper serving Cleveland Heights/University Heights.

Aside from being a forum for members of the community to report news and discuss local topics, citizen media can have a profound effect on local organizations and governments. “I have letters from the mayor, most members of city council, the school board and the director of the library [saying] that it is probably the best thing that has ever happened to the city,” Jim said. Through stories printed in the Lakewood Observer, community groups, city leaders, churches and the library have been able to extend their reach. Attendance at public events and collections by non-profit fundraisers have skyrocketed. Ticket sales at the Beck Center for the Performing Arts and events put on by the schools have climbed dramatically, as much as 30% from before the paper. Library programs have seen an even greater increase in public support. “The library used to have a 10-15% occupancy rate for their programs. It’s been standing-room only for the past 3 years,” Jim said. “Every program is filled to capacity with people checking it out.”

Not only can community newspapers strengthen existing organizations, but they can also help to spur new ones. Jim discussed several different community groups that were direct spin-offs from the Lakewood Observer, “tackling issues from biking to gardening to food security to business.” The group that he is most proud of, however, is Lakewood Earth and Food Community (LEAF), a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group that allows members to buy food straight from local farmers. “It began with 13 members,” Jim recalled. “And through articles in the Lakewood Observer we found more and more like-minded, “green” people coming forward. It is now the largest CSA in Ohio, with over 530 members.”

Participatory media outlets like the Observers are also very effective tools to increase the dialogue between city governments and residents. Jim related a recent example of how this type of open communication helped to facilitate a major change in Lakewood. In 2008, the mayor of Lakewood, Ed FitzGerald, proposed the elimination of “one of the last sacred cows” in Lakewood - backyard trash collection. A lively discussion on the Lakewood Observer’s online message board followed. Some residents threatened to move out of the city if the plan went forward. Others researched the equipment that would be required and presented their findings. City workers offered other money-saving suggestions for collecting trash. And throughout this discussion, Mayor FitzGerald monitored the comments and responded in kind. As Jim explained, “At the end of about 3 to 4 days we had completely vetted the idea. It was everybody talking together at one huge table, everybody with an equal voice.” Mayor FitzGerald finished the online discussion by thanking all participants, detailing the information he had gathered and explaining how the project was going to be implemented.

Judging by the examples cited by the Lakewood Observer’s Jim O’Bryan, the power of citizen journalism reaches every corner of a community. From residents of all ages, to college-bound students, to city governments, libraries, non-profits and churches - all can benefit from the open exchange of thoughts and ideas. Participatory media is thriving not just in our area, but across the country. I hope that with continued hard work and the involvement of others in our community, we can write our own success stories in Westlake and Bay Village.

Asked if he had any final thoughts at the end of our conversation, Jim gave me a message to share: “The people who take part in the Westlake | Bay Village Observer will control the destinies of the project and the cities, hopefully for the good. It is truly the most empowering project I’ve ever done in my life.” The potential of a hyperlocal media resource that is written and produced by city residents is limitless. I hope every person reading this will get out into the community and write about what they find. Everyone has a story to tell; we want to hear yours.

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Volume 1, Issue 1, Posted 11:53 AM, 08.22.2009