finding their voice: a new community newspaper becomes the voice of the unheard

By Lee Chilcote

Fresh Water Cleveland, 1/13/11

Josette Compton grew up within walking distance of University Circle’s lofty museums, hospitals and private colleges. Yet her own modest, struggling East Cleveland street felt like another country. As a teenager, she fantasized about escaping — to New York, D.C., anywhere — to pursue her dream of becoming a journalist.

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” says Compton. “I even started my own newspaper, The Children’s Enquirer, when I was 10 because I didn’t like what Teen Beat was saying about my favorite artists. My mom, my cousins and I sold it for fifty cents.”

After attending Regina High School and graduating from Howard University in Washington D.C., Compton moved to New York, eventually fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer. She landed a plum job with Entertainment Weekly, interviewing and writing about music’s top performers like Salt-N-Pepa and the Wu-Tang Clan.

But then the recession hit, and she suddenly found herself without a job. Like thousands of other laid-off journalists, she had to ask herself, “What’s next?” Suddenly, New York no longer seemed like a dream come true. Compton moved back to Cleveland and began freelancing, saving money to eventually return to New York.

A year later she was hired as editor of the Greater University Circle Neighborhood Voice, a free community publication with a social mission. The hyper-local monthly newspaper covers University Circle and the surrounding neighborhoods.

“I tell people it’s the voice of the community,” says Compton. “Our goal is to provide information so people can use it to improve their lives and don’t feel excluded.”

The Voice was created by the Cleveland Foundation as a part of its Greater University Circle Initiative, an effort to improve the low-income, minority neighborhoods that surround University Circle. The initiative aims to leverage University Circle’s institutions to help the seven neighborhoods that surround it, which are Hough, Fairfax, Glenville, East Cleveland, Little Italy, Buckeye-Shaker and Central. The newspaper, which has pages dedicated to all seven neighborhoods plus the Circle, is largely written by volunteers. It also employs high school and college student interns.

The greatest challenge, says Compton, is convincing residents that the Voice is “their” newspaper. She aims to chip away at the towering wall between University Circle and its down-at-the-heels neighbors, who say they’ve seen little benefit from the Circle’s economic success.

“For decades, University Circle institutions have been seen as trying to push us out,” says Vicky Trotter, a Glenville resident who owns Trotter’s Dry Cleaners. “Our reaction was, ‘yeah, you want to make our neighborhood better, alright — without us.’ ‘

Despite being a skeptic, Trotter, who serves on the Voice’s advisory board, says that the newspaper is a genuine effort to help neighborhoods like Glenville. “If the Voice does what it’s supposed to do” — build bridges between University Circle institutions and the surrounding community — “it can heal wounds,” she says.

A more basic challenge lies in finding stories and the volunteers to write them. “We do a lot of the editing and writing ourselves,” says Sam Allard, the Voice’s Online Editor. Community papers often devolve into glorified newsletters, he says. “We want to uphold some kind of journalistic standards while helping people to tell their stories.”

There’s also the issue of getting advertisers at a time when newspapers are folding left and right, and local businesses are struggling. “We’re barely surviving,” admits Compton.

At present, ad revenues cover printing and distribution but staffing expenses are covered by a $100,000 Cleveland Foundation grant. The Voice shares office space at the Foundation as well. Compton would like to wean the paper off grant dollars by the end of 2011. The long-term goal is for the Voice to create living-wage jobs, joining the Evergreen Cooperative, the foundation’s portfolio of successful employee-owned businesses.

Freelance writer Mansfield Frazier, a Hough resident that served as editor of the City News for six years, says the Voice’s success will depend upon its ability to garner advertising dollars from major institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic. “It’s going to be tough for the Voice to be self-sustaining in this economy, but it’s possible,” he says.

When asked about ads from the institutions, Compton stated it was too late when the paper launched in September, but she’s “confident they will come on board in 2011.”

While it will take time for the Voice to become successful, Vicky Trotter says that residents will get on board because the paper fills a critical need. “Newspapers like the Plain Dealer don’t have the pulse of the inner city,” she says. “Citizen journalism gives us a say.”

As an example, Trotter cites an interview that she recently completed with a 12-year-old girl who was sentenced to serve time in the juvenile detention center for stealing. “Our kids are being influenced by everything except adult role models,” she says. “I think it’s important for stories like this to be told.”

Angel Moss-Parkham, one of three interns at Voice and a senior at John Hay High School, says the paper is already generating buzz among her peers. “Students are reading it because it’s about us and our neighborhoods,” says the budding journalist. “I think it’s a great idea, and I’m learning a lot from being there. We don’t have a school newspaper.”

Since the September launch, Compton and her team have published four issues, covering stories ranging from rotten food at an East Cleveland grocery store and successful teenage entrepreneurs to the legacy of Langston Hughes. The current print run is 30,000. The Voice’s long-term goal is to publish twice per month, expand its online presence, and bring in enough revenue to hire additional student interns.

For Compton, the launch of the Voice has brought her full circle, back to the east-side neighborhoods where she grew up. Her experiences growing up in a single-parent household have made her determined to succeed, no matter what the obstacles are.

“My mom, who worked full-time as a secretary and wrote plays at night, was always hustling, making money out of no money,” Compton says. “That’s my attitude. We can’t wait for other people to change our neighborhoods — we have to do it for ourselves.”

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