By: Raanan Geberer
WHEN ASKED TO name New York City’s daily newspapers, most people would list the biggies: the New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post, and, maybe, the Wall Street Journal.
People more familiar with journalism would name a few more specialized and trade newspapers: the Journal of Commerce, the New York Law Journal and Women’s Wear Daily. And, of course, there’s always the foreign-language press.
But few people outside the mental health and social service communities would name Fountain House Today. That’s because it’s largely put together by, and for, client-members of Fountain House, a Manhattan settlement house complex for the mentally ill, serving about 400 residents and 800 non-residents.
A weekly edition, containing the feature stories from the past week, goes to similar mentally ill “clubhouses” in 39 states and 16 countries, from England to Russia to Japan.
Fountain House, says community relations director Anne Sommers, was the first establishment for the mentally ill, to take the clubhouse approach. It focuses heavily on job training and education, but also has activities you might find at any neighborhood YMCA, such as horticulture, a theater club and trips to sports events.
“Almost all Fountain House members have been hospitalized and are still taking psychiatric medications,” Sommers points out.
Fountain House Today, which has published since the early 1960s, typically has eight pages, and is printed on 8-inch by 11-inch paper, giving it more of a newsletter appearance. However, members classify it as a newspaper because it comes out five days a week.
Often, reports on house meetings serve as lead stories. But members also write stories of nationwide importance: about new Social Security Disability regulations, changes in tax laws that affect the mentally ill, and increasingly ? demonstrations against cutbacks to mental health services.
“Generally, the same person whom Fountain House sends to the demonstration will then write the story,” says Sommers.
And just as mainstream daily newspapers pick up stories from Associated Press or Reuters, Fountain House Today regularly reprints articles from smaller publications put out by other “clubhouses.”
The Feb. 21, 1995 issue, for example, carried an item from Venture Voice, of Venture House in Queens, on a Mental Health Awareness Week seminar in Long Island. The main speaker was CBS-TV newsman Jim Jensen, who described his experience with substance abuse.
“Listening to Mr. Jensen,” wrote Ronald Singh, “brought those of us attending . . . the magnitude and nature of what it is to be mentally ill regardless of the reason.”
The “TEP (Transitional Employment Program) Report,” an inside feature by Michael J. Donohue, is a roundup of short-term, part-time job assignments for Fountain House members. For example, in the Jan. 30 issue, Donohue wrote about one member, “In 1992, he worked at McGraw-Hill as an indoor messenger. In 1993, he worked at Dow Jones as an indoor messenger. As of now, he is working at Time Warner as an office assistant.”
To Fountain House members, these job placements are a big step forward. Fountain House Today is rounded out by profiles of new members, a calendar of events, the day’s dining hall menu, and occasional sports articles.
The paper itself is produced on PCs, using a desktop publishing program called News. Its appearance is rather unusual: ragged right columns of green sans-serif type on a yellow background. Computer graphics are liberally used, although there are no photos.
While a conventional newspaper’s masthead might list 10 names at the most, Fountain House Today lists a staggering 70, including 10 feature writers, 11 “special feature” writers, 8 typists, 10 “computer workers” and a host of others. Clearly, the goal is to make members feel their work is recognized.
“And the people you see are just the regulars who volunteer, week after week. If we listed everyone who volunteered, we’d have five times as many names,” said Margie Staker, a staff worker, and one of six coordinating editors. “The newspaper is a vital part of the communication system here.”
In addition to Fountain House
Today, Fountain House boasts a videotext-type service, where members can see messages about upcoming events and dining hall menus flash across the screen. It also has a daily 15-minute cable TV show covering similar topics to the newspaper. Both are supervised by audio-visual coordinator, Tony Hall.
“The members do everything: dubbing, videotaping, editing,” said Hall, a native of London who decided to use his AV skills to help other people. “Our goal is to teach as many of them to do as much as they can.”
The equipment, which looks impressive to a nontechie, is actually largely obsolete ? testimony to the tough budgets that social service organizations face nowadays.
Neither Staker nor Sommers knows of any member who went on to a full-time job in journalism after working on Fountain House Today. (Hall mentioned one who is taking audiovisual courses at Manhattan Community College.)
But clearly, working on a newspaper, however small, can teach people, who haven’t been in the job market for a while, valuable skills about meeting deadlines, working together and organization.
As the back page of every issue of Fountain House Today says, “By becoming involved in this sharing of information and experience, we hope to strengthen ourselves and our relationships.”
?(Gerber is a freelance writer) [Caption]