3 questions with a Community Engagement Manager at We Create Here

Sarah Binder - Community Engagement Manager at The Gazette Company / We Create Here

You can connect with Coralville resident  on Twitter or in lots of places in the Creative Corridor but she's most often hanging out at "the new (and beautiful,  and complete with full café) Cedar Rapids Public Library.

What is We Create Here and what do you do there?

We Create Here is a small team within The Gazette Company’s combined newsroom (including The Gazette and KCRG-TV9) that is looking to remake local media for the 21st century.

Ok, that’s a loaded statement. I’ll try to keep it short here:

The traditional value proposition of journalism went something like this: “I was there, you weren’t; let me tell you about it.” This worked when information was scarce (If you couldn’t personally make it to that school board meeting, your local paper was your best and/or only way to find out what happened), community was strong and, frankly, local media had a monopoly.

Today, almost the opposite is true: information is overwhelmingly abundant and communities are fragmented (raise your hand if you know more about members of the Startup Iowa Facebook group than the people who live next door to you).

So, our team believes the biggest challenge facing local papers isn’t the Internet, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what our role is and what our audience needs. We need to change how we talk with our communities. (MUCH more about this on Chuck Peters’ blog – Chuck is the president and CEO of the Gazette Company.)

Our three tools to tackle this issue are intentcollaboration and context.

Still with me? Whew.

Within this framework, I focus on entrepreneurship and innovation. I’m a journalist with an eye for community building, and I get to work with awesome community builders who have a soft spot for journalism. It’s a good thing.

My area is a little bit different because there already is such a vibrant conversation around entrepreneurship and innovation in Iowa. There’s Megan at Silicon Prairie News, Marco at the Des Moines Register, you (Geoff!) and I covering it on a daily basis, and most traditional media outlets in the state are at least realizing that entrepreneurship is “a thing” and covering it periodically via profiles on founders or coverage of big events like Startup Weekend.

And, thanks to SPN, our entrepreneurial community is used to having media that comes with a point of view and with community building baked in. It’s not shocking, coming from them. For The Gazette, a traditional paper that has placed a high value on being “objective,” simply stating that our team is pro-entrepreneurship sent waves through the newsroom. 

The other initial focus areas on our team are diversity and inclusion, the regional economy and neighborhood vitality, so when you think of those, it might be easier to see how the three tools of We Create Here make us different than “journalism as usual.” For example, diversity is a topic that is chronically under-represented in all types of media. To have a journalist working full-time on fostering a conversation around diversity in Iowa and partnering with key players means a huge potential to make real change.

What’s the best event that you’ve covered in the Creative Corridor?

So much has been said about the awesomeness of Startup Weekend Cedar Rapids, I almost want to say something different on principle – but it has to be Startup Weekend Cedar Rapids. The event was a little more than a week ago and you can still feel the energy.

My first Startup Weekend was in Des Moines in 2012, as a reporter. The excitement and passion of the attendees was contagious. That was when I knew I wanted to write about entrepreneurship and innovation. So that was very meaningful for me.

This one was special because it was my first time participating. The We Create Here framework allowed me to step out of the observer role and into an active role, and it was a whole different type of eye-opening experience.

Beyond the pure excitement aspect, Startup Weekends are great because they always seem to bring more people into the community. Marco astutely noted the potential impact of Rockwell Collins engineers getting involved in these events. We saw participants from about every major employer in the region, from the non-profit world, from at least four colleges and a few high schools, and more. I hope Startup Weekend has the same impact on some of them it had on me. I hope they stay involved and our community keeps growing.

You’ve covered startups from both Central Iowa and Eastern Iowa, how do you compare these two parts of the state?

The call for regionalism (“Iowa’s Creative Corridor”) has been gaining momentum for a few years now, and I really do think people here act like one inclusive region. Of course there are people who skew more toward Iowa City or more toward Cedar Rapids, but overall it seems like one connected entrepreneurial community. When I was living in Ames and covering Des Moines, I didn’t feel that, even though it’s the same distance between the two.

I used the word “inclusive,” and that’s a bit tricky. We could be more inclusive in terms of diversity and accessibility of our startup community, as I think most places in Iowa could. What I mean is something a friend of mine might describe as “layers of awesomeness.” Here, I see support for entrepreneurship at every level – local government, the traditional economic development organizations and chambers of commerce, big companies, banks, the University of Iowa and other schools – all are very interested in the startup scene. Again, not something I noticed as much in Des Moines, though maybe that’s changed since I moved out here. I’m constantly amazed by how willing everyone is to help each other out.

Photo Credit: Headshot via Twitter, Startup Weekend CR photo via Vault on Facebook.