Hearne: WaterFire Organizers Sucker Star into Reporting Inflated Crowd Count

Let’s talk about, oh, investigative journalism for a minute…

Specifically WaterFire, of KC’s most over-hyped non-event, event. Think of it as an outdoor, New Age send-up featuring “55 floating braziers” in Brush Creek with a mix of performances by local arts groups, fire eaters, jugglers and the like.

WaterFire’s sixth incarnation went down Saturday and was covered Sunday by intrepid Kansas City Star  “hot fuel” expert Steve Everly.

But wait…

While Everly has forged a career in recent years guesstimating consumer losses of less than one to two percent on gasoline sold during summer months and in warmer parts of the country, he missed the boat by as much as 75 percent in reporting WaterFire’s “expected” crowd.

With no fact-checking or skeptical examination whatsoever, Everly reported that the event was expected 30,000 to 35,000 attendees.

Nor did Everly bother to attribute that number to WaterFire organizers who’ve inflated its attendance from Year One.

Very sloppy…embarrassingly so.

Years ago then Star editor Mark Zieman issued a dictum to reporters forbidding them from publishing crowd estimates in all but the rarest instances when an unimpeachable count could be verified.

That after the Pitch embarrassed the newspaper by calling into question its light crowd count at a Plaza anti war protest in which the Star’s reporter swung by early and dramatically low balled the crowd size which later grew in size as the day went on.

Then there was the time Waldo businessman Gary Evert and a team UMKC statistics students conducted a crowd count at the vaunted Plaza Lighting Ceremony, reducing previous media estimates of as many as 300,000 people to 30,000 and change.

The Plaza declined to challenge Evert’s count and admitted it had never conducted its own count (nor did it know of one having been conducted). It hasn’t put out an estimate since.

Raising the question of why organizers issue inflated crowd counts in the first place.

Well, anybody remember the Million Man March?

It’s quite simple, actually.

Exaggerating the crowd counts at an event enables organizers to raise sponsorship money, attract vendors, sell advertising and ramp up media coverage.

I didn’t attend this year’s WaterFire, but if you recall, I took my teenage daughters and their friends a couple years back and they were bored to tears. Oh, and it was obvious that the event didn’t come close to drawing a Plaza Lighting Ceremony size crowd.

Local photograph Eric Bowers did attend and captured some amazing photos of the event.

Bowers take on Waterfire 2012’s crowd size compared to a Plaza Lighting crowd:

“My rough guess would be about a quarter to a third,” he says.

Back to you, Steve…


Photographs by Eric Bowers.


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18 Responses to Hearne: WaterFire Organizers Sucker Star into Reporting Inflated Crowd Count

  1. Rick Nichols says:

    Crowd estimates can be tricky. If you’re the reporter, don’t do it yourself but instead try to get an estimate from a neutral third party (e.g., the police/fire chief). Pre-event estimates should be attributed to someone directly connected to the event.

    • admin says:

      You are correct, sir.

      The funny thing here is that the event had already happened when Everly reported on it and he still used an unattributed “pre-event” estimate from the worst source imaginable, the organizer.

  2. chuck says:

    Eric Bowers is a pretty talented guy.

    His website has some amazing pics of the city.

  3. harley says:

    I went to one of them and it got cancelled.. But there were probably 20,000
    people down there….it didn’t make any difference because weather was not
    so Hearen why don’t you andyour daughters go down and count the crowd
    yourself..i think the crowds have gotten smalleras the things gone on…
    not real exciting but its free and its probably a way to get people down there
    at a time when traffic is light. I will tell you this…the time i went traffic
    and parking was terrible..almost like the plaza art fair.
    so…when are you going to give us an article on the attendance of the plaza
    art fair…that would be interesting.

    • admin says:

      The Plaza Art Fair would be a tough one because it’s like a three day affair with a constant inflow and outflow.

      I’m afraid you’re being quite charitable on your 20,000 guesstimate. You can pretty much count the people on the banks of Brush Creek and estimate the people wandering the nearby food vendors.

      Nowhere near the Plaza Lighting but the lady running the deal has been inflating the attendance from the beginning. She wrote – and the Star published – a letter from her after the event a few years ago crowing about a ridiculous, unsubstantiated crowd count.

      Crowd counts for events are kind of like “Best Of” surveys. Organizers use the inflated numbers to make the event seem more important and the Pitch, KC Magazine, even the Lawrence Journal World use the best of awards to create a buzz and/or sell ads.

      Trouble is, there’s never an actual count made to back up the attendance numbers and the last thing that will ever happen on the best of surveys is an independent source will conduct the count and the actual vote tabulations will be published.

      It’s seriously ridiculous in many, if not most cases, how few people it takes to win a best of award. Publishing the numbers would reveal what a joke they are – even though the winners are often deserving.

  4. Bella says:

    “Let’s talk about, oh, investigative journalism for a minute…” Ok, but let’s talk about something important. Inflated crowd count??? This IS pretty serious. You should dig deeper into this story. There’s something very fishy going on here and I want someone to get to the bottom of it!! Nevermind, I guess you just did.

    • admin says:

      So I’ve gotta spell it out for you, Bella? No problem.

      The point being made was here is a reporter who has staked out a position based on his investigation of “hot fuel” who is totally guilty of doing zero investigation in this instance and violating the Star’s policy on crowd counts.

      Is it the end of the world? Of course not.

      It is indicative of sloppy journalism and calls into question other reporting at the newspaper.

  5. gerald bostock says:

    Reporters are told to get a crowd estimate from an “official” source, but the flaw in that thinking is that people like police chiefs and fire chiefs have no idea how to estimate a crowd and couldn’t care less. When they are asked, they do a quick scan of the area, pause for maybe three seconds to work through some secret algorithm, and announce, “50,000” or “1 million.” Edison would be inspired to see this scientific method in action.
    Plus, for a city promotional event, like Plaza Lights or Firewater, a police or fire chief is not a neutral third party. The desire to inflate the crowd size is another examples of KC’s need to exaggerate its importance and accomplishments–“Look at how big our St. patrick’s day parade is, we really are big time.”
    It’s safer for reporters not to use a specific number if they can’t count or estimate themselves–nobody really cares, especially after a day or two has passed. But the reality of the situation is you have editors back at the office far removed from actual reporting and fretting about a deadline; they demand a number and don’t care if it’s accurate, only that is comes from a defensible source so that the newspaper/tv station can CYA.
    All that being said, Hearne’s obsession with KC crowd sizes as if it were the equivalent of the Iran-Contra coverup is just further evidence of his “unique” view on what constitutes news and journalism.

  6. Chuckish says:

    Yes, let’s talk about investigative journalism in your article that only presents second hand accounts and speculation. Those UMKC students and photographer really blew this story wide open.

  7. Super Dave says:

    Hey you moved to Lawrence so why do you really care what happens in Kansas City.

    If the locals want to gather on Brush Creek and watch a little fire and listen to music so be it. Rather 10 people or 10,000 people show up isn’t an issue you should be concerned with. Remember you hate it, said so yourself right here. So until you can prove what a crowd size expert you are, you don’t really have any right to trash another’s opinion. But then we all know how you like to trash what anyone from The Star has to say. If dealing with misquotes and un-proven facts is something that excites you then you need to go no further than a Glazer story.

    • admin says:

      Hey, Lawrence is a suburb of Kansas City in my book and I’m in KC at the very least three to five days a week.

      Read a little closer, I’m not trashing Everly’s opinion, I’m pointing out a careless violation of the Star’s crowd count policy by carelessly using inflated numbers from an organizer who has been trumping up the crowd counts from the get go. Including when I’ve been in attendance.

  8. the dude says:

    Approximately 50 bazillion attended. Where do I get my check?

  9. harley says:

    okay hearne….10 peoplewere there. are you happy.
    The first time there were lots of people. i counted everyone and there were
    20,000 people.
    Next time you’re someowhre at an event count the people and report back
    to us….inquiring minds wnat to know!

    HC: Thanks, Wildman. Will do.

  10. Pat McGroin says:

    ….and somwhere in the distance, a dog barked.

  11. Brian Rush says:

    This rag reminds me more and more of Tom Leathers’ Squire — returning to the same tropes over and over.

  12. Dear Hearne,

    Long time no see-um. Say, this last event was pretty cool. Lots of different music. I sang with a string quartet this time. It was super-cold by the end of it. We had a cool massive finale, with all of the artists involved in the event playing a part of the piece, from opera singers and chorus, to Eddie Delahunt to Jazz, Quixotic and Brandon Draper and his percussion group playing a huge taiko drum.

    I asked you last time and you never answered, what music do you like? We are always looking for ways to get a great variety of artists showcased and if you had an idea about it that would be cool.

    I truly wish that there was some way to make you feel good about the event. I’ve always felt like I’ve gotten to grow a little bit as an artist each year and have done something different every time, even last year bringing in my friends to play some rock and roll with me.

    Maybe you just report, and that’s fine, but you are a truly creative soul and I wish you could contribute to making a positive impact on what constitutes as a great showcase for the performing arts.

    Next year is going to be cooler I think (though hopefully not as COLD!), as we integrate the all LIVE aspect with a deeper collaboration with the artists.


  13. admin says:

    Hey Nathan, good to hear from you.

    Come here more often and you’ll see we have quite a bit of positive stuff going on. And as you know, I admire and respect your singing and Brandon Draper and many other artists who appear at Waterfire.

    My music tastes veers toward the more contemporary and is a little harder edged. Thought you knew that.

    This column though is primarily about the gross exaggerating of crowd counts by an organizer – whom we both know – who while well-intentioned overall, is tossing out silly, exaggerated numbers to make the event seem more important than it is.

    The Plaza did it for decades and I went through all the old news clips that charted its over-the-top crowd counts year by year almost. At one point even the Star’s editorial board joked that they were silly and unfounded.

    And when I did my first piece, the editors promoted it on the front page of the newspaper.

    Tom Leathers relived many older stories in his later years. While this column did indeed involve the topic of bogus crowd counts, the subject at hand was brand new and only days old.

    Uh, there is a difference

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