Citizen Journalism At Its Finest
This week, my Free Times media column is about Jane Wood, a 66-year-old Shaker Heights retiree who, for the last three years, has produced what I'd consider perhaps the leading example of citizen journalism to be found anywhere in Greater Cleveland during that time. The good news is that since she began her weekly email newsletter, This Week in Shaker, she has been joined by such fine, noble efforts as the Lakewood Observer and Meet the Bloggers. The bad news: she is moving back to her native California and her newsletter, even if it survives, will have to do without her. I simply can't conceive of how she could be replaced, even by a half dozen people. But I hope I'm wrong.
I've watched Jane with some fascination, mostly from afar, for nearly 20 years. For most of that time, I knew her only as the editor of a singularly excellent publication, Shaker Magazine, which seemed all the more amazing because it was a house organ of the internationally renowned suburb. And I knew that as a city employee, she was on the hot seat, with mayors and city councilpeople breathing down her neck, trying to dumb down the pub in all the usual dreary ways. And yet, month after month for many years, she somehow ran that gauntlet, protected her independence and produced a well-written, attractive and (this is the really surprising part) fully credible piece of work that didn't sound like your normal, stilted house organ dreck.
Instead, it was smart and inspired. It had a warm (if at times formal, even occasionally starchy), knowing voice that's always lurking just beneath the surface of every good publication. It ended with a witty, literate column, Shaker Man, written by a fine writer, John Brandt. Reading it all made you think Shaker was the best kind of city, a community so confident in its excellence and uniqueness as to publish a real magazine, not the usual high-concept PR garbage with nice photos and no soul. It actually reminded me a bit of how a number of top-flight universities (like Notre Dame, for example) invest in and support first-rate publications with real intellectual depth and a fair measure of independence. They somehow avoid seeming like the usual shills for the sponsoring institution--generally because of the talent, professionalism and especially the professional confidence of the editors themselves. Done right, it can become the best possible kind of advertising for an institution.
In the meantime, she was an especially admired figure, by all accounts. For years, one of the main things I heard about her from other writers was how encouraging and supportive she was, how much of a fine mentor she had been to successive waves of Sun newspaper reporters on the Shaker beat. They had every reason to be suspicious of if not hostile to a city flak; they came to have every reason to love and admire Jane, who was anything but.
As it turned out, she was only getting started. When she retired from the city three years ago--perhaps in part because of pressure from then-councilwoman, now mayor Judy Rawson's hammering on the line item in the city's budget for the magazine, according to some accounts--they recognized her career by establishing an award in her honor. The Jane Wood Award for Outstanding Journalism annually goes to the Shaker High student who displays talents on the school newspaper. Contributors to the fund, which has grown to at least $5,000, included the likes of former Cleveland mayor Jane Campbell and county commissioner Peter Lawson Jones.
But she saved her best act for last: her fiercely independent email newsletter, begun in April '03, applied what can only be called a proctological form of attention on the city she knows best, and which she continued to care about, now as a citizen rather than merely an employee. She became the fully engaged eyes, ears and even conscience of a suburb steeped in history, charm and the racial and other complications that come with being an inner ring suburb. And she did so with a level of detail, institutional knowledge and insulation from interference that puts even the best newspaper to shame. There's just no easy way to lavish so much serious attention on and space for coverage of a single suburb, at least not as major metro papers are presently constituted.
The larger point, of course, is this. The media organizations that will thrive in the new era will be those that best figure out the business model for how to fill this void and hunger for hard and reliable information on the kind of basic governmental services that Jane Wood so ably provided, but which most papers have increasingly abandoned. Coverage of the myriad government offshoots and all their sometime mind-numbing banality and complexity don't show up well in reader focus groups, and many younger-generation journalists look down on this stuff as blandly incremental "process" stories, in any case. You don't win many awards and you certainly don't rise up journalism's career ladder these days by giving your life over to it, even if our democratic institutions depend on this scrutiny.
While even good newspapers are being forced to continue to soften their coverage with lifestyle features and other frilly fare (the New York Times, unbelievably, recently hired a "fragrance" editor), that doesn't mean citizens have stopped craving the meat and potatoes. The need for an informed citizenry demands that we somehow get to the bottom of this conundrum. And Jane Wood certainly provides a hell of a roadmap worth contemplating.