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Crowd sourcing in Des Moines in the old days

COMMENTARY | November 27, 2009

Reminiscing: An email exchange between Herb Strentz and Michael Gartner. Strentz, a contributor to Nieman Watchdog, is a distinguished news practitioner and teacher. Gartner has had a long, illustrious career in journalism.

An email Nov. 26, from Herb Strentz to a number of people:

Probably much ado about nothing, but bear with me:

Michael Gartner and I had an email exchange that got me to thinking in a new way about “crowd sourcing” or “crowdsourcing” — namely that the Cowles family and the (Des Moines) Register enjoyed crowd sourcing 50 or 60 years before the Register began trumpeting it under Gannett ownership, and before the term came into vogue on the Internet.

Our exchange dealt with the death of a former Iowa legislator, newsworthy here but escaping the attention of anyone at today’s Register. Michael said probably no one at the paper recalled him. Another angle would be that today’s papers often are so disconnected from their communities that no one who knew about the death of Phil Hill thought about contacting the paper. (It’s not an isolated instance, of course; there are so many times when institutional and community memories fail newspapers today.)

Here is where crowd sourcing comes in. People in Iowa used to be connected to the Register, thought of the paper as their own. So if they knew of something newsworthy, it was almost second nature to them to figure the Register should know about this, or I should make sure someone at the paper knows about this.

That kind of crowd sourcing, relying on a wide base of customers, clients and the public to support your enterprise, or contribute to it, was commonplace in newspaper communities decades before the internet and the newspaper industry invented the term — not to keep people involved — as another way to cut employee costs.

Having forfeited community identification through paid obits, paid social notes, cutbacks in coverage, etc., today’s industry tries to reinvent community ties by heralding crowd sourcing as a new device or gimmick. It is not; journalistically it is a pale substitute for the affection and identification that people used to feel for their hometown papers.(Much of crowd sourcing today, as evidenced in the Register, is self-serving stuff about fund raisers or a daughter's soccer team and not about news of general community interest, like the death of a once highly respected legislator.)



From: Michael Gartner
To: Herb Strentz and others

   Sent: Thursday, November 26, 2009.
   Subject: Re: On crowd sourcing

Herb --

There's more to it than that. When I was the editor of The Register, there were no guards or gates stopping people from coming into the building and to the newsroom. So there was a steady parade of folks coming in -- Rep. Neal Smith always stopped by when he was in town, and others regularly came in, wandered to my desk and, often, had some pretty interesting information.
(That old Ames professor who was the chairman of the Board of Living History Farms ... regularly came by; once, he wandered in, notes and papers falling out of his old tweed sportscoat, and said, "Is it okay with you if the Pope comes to Living History Farms?" "Sure," I said, laughing. "I know a guy who knows a guy who knows the Pope," he said. "Great," I said. About a year later, Jim Gannon told me he had a spectacular story in the paper for the next day, so secret he didn't want anyone to know. "Great," I said, "just don't tell me that it's the Pope coming to Living History Farms." He turned white. That was the story, and the Pope came.)

Some just wanted to chat; a few wanted to complain (they were always welcome), and others wanted to tell you something that "ought to be in the paper." Usually, they were right. When I was the editor and owner in Ames, I didn't have an office, just a desk in the little newsroom, and I'll bet 10 to 15 people a day would wander in -- city officials, gadflies, funeral directors, students, politicians. They were major sources of information. So the problem today is not just the fact that editors and publishers are transients who don't know their communities, and don't have genuine affection for them, but also that they are isolated by guards and gates and security codes and the like.

I defy you to get to the Register newsroom without (a) having to identify yourself to a guard; (b) having to "sign in," and (c) having to be escorted up by whomever it is you are going to visit. You can get through airport security in Des Moines faster than you can get through Register security. I don't know if The Register checks your purse or briefcase, but I wouldn't be surprised. Explain to me why ANY security is needed at the Register or other newspapers. It's another example of walling off the public instead of embracing it.



Newspapers or everything
Posted by McNarney
11/27/2009, 07:39 PM

A question for Strentz or Gartner, if either are reading this: Do you think the security trend is exclusively in newspapers? Or isn't a reflection of a larger change in society? My wife, who has been covering schools for years, points out that you used to be able to walk into schools. Now you have to be buzzed in, badged, etc. Courthouses and city halls are making it harder and harder for reporters -- or anyone else -- to just wander into the mayor's office, for example, to see what's going on.

I agree 100 percent that it's bad for newspapers and bad for readers, but don't think newspapers have a monopoly on the trend.

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