Cedar Rapids company under state review after complaints

Genealogy blogger blasts archiver

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June 22, 2014 | 3:14 pm

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office will investigate a Cedar Rapids company that digitizes newspapers and other documents after complaints from across the country about “deceptive and misleading” practices that include charging subscribers for involuntary donations to a charity run by the company’s founder.

Heritage Microfilm and NewspaperArchive.com, 855 Wright Brothers Blvd., Suite 2A, are accused in dozens of complaints filed with the state and the Better Business Bureau of not allowing subscribers to cancel services, refusing to grant refunds and failing to answer calls or emails.

Albuquerque, N.M., genealogist Kerry Scott blasted NewspaperArchive.com in a May 2 post on her blog, www.cluewagon.com, that garnered 169 comments.

Scott said the company renewed her subscription against her wishes and charged her credit card for “donations” to a charity, Global Way Makers, because Scott hadn’t seen a box online where she had to opt out.

“They might be doing great things at Global Way Makers, but this just isn’t an appropriate means of financing your whole change-the-world thing,” Scott wrote in her blog. “If you want to raise money, do it the right way.”

Sixteen people filed complaints about NewspaperArchive.com and Heritage Microfilm with the Attorney General’s office in 2012 and 2013. State officials helped complainants get a total $1,600 in refunds during that time.

The Better Business Bureau has given the company an “F” based on 135 complaints in the past three years. Most complaints were about billing practices.

GENEALOGY CRAZE

Christopher Gill, 54, started NewspaperArchive.com in 1999 after buying the microfilm division of Cedar Rapids-based Crest Information Technologies in the mid-1990s. NewspaperArchive.com continues to bill itself as the world’s largest online newspaper database.

“NewspaperARCHIVE contains tens of millions of newspaper pages from 1759 to present, spanning almost 3,000 newspaper titles and 762 cities,” the company said in a 2009 news release.

Unlike other companies that digitize legal files, church records or census reports, Newspaper Archive Inc. focused on scanning newspapers for online access. This decision helped the company tap into a new generation of genealogists.

Instead of ordering reels of microfilm from a local library and spending hours searching for an obituary, researchers using a subscription services such as NewspaperArchive.com or GenealogyBank.com can search scanned historical documents by keyword or date, Scott said.

“Newspapers are an extremely important resource for genealogists,” she said. “In the era before 1910 to 1920, the only surviving record of a person’s birth or death might be in a newspaper.”

Eileen Kozman, chairwoman of the Linn County Genealogical Society’s computer committee, uses NewspaperArchive.com through the Cedar Rapids Public Library. She likes digital searches to hone in a record’s location, but then seeks out the original document.

“They’re very expensive,” she said of personal subscriptions.

PRACTICES QUESTIONED

Scott purchased a one-year subscription to NewspaperArchive.com in February 2013 for $71.88. When she got her credit card statement, she saw she was actually billed $95.88.

Scott decided the subscription was too expensive and emailed the company to say she would not renew the following year.

In February, the company charged Scott $105.95. She was frustrated by the auto-renewal and wondered why she was charged more than the listed $99.95 subscription rate.

“I did some digging back then, and saw that when you sign up for a NewspaperArchive.com membership, there’s an ad for a charity at the bottom,” Scott wrote in her blog. “If you look very closely at that ad, you’ll see that they’ve auto-checked a box for you, giving your consent to a donation to a charity called Global Way Makers.”

Global Way Makers is a registered not-for-profit organization that shares an address with Newspaper Archive Inc. Gill’s wife, Debora, is listed as the group’s executive director on 2012 tax forms, and the couple’s photo is prominently featured on the organization’s website.

The group raised $198,000 in 2012, up from $13,500 in 2006, tax forms show.

“Funds raised and contributed directly to global disaster relief, childrens (sic) orphanages and micro-business financing helps tens of thousands of individuals,” Global Way Makers wrote.

The 2012 form has no other description of how the money is spent. Global Way Makers has no mission statement or impact summary on GuideStar.com, an information service that reports on not-for-profits.

Bill Brauch, director of the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, said his office will investigate NewspaperArchive.com’s billing practices and the automatic donations to Global Way Makers.

“We’ve taken a very dim view of pre-checked boxes that obligate you to a financial responsibility,” he said. “We very likely have some misleading practices here.”

Richard Koontz, executive director of the Waterman Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center, based at the University of Iowa, agreed the automatic donation shows questionable ethics.

“It throws into question whether you intended to make a gift,” he said. “You could raise it as more of an ethical issue.”

COMPANY CHANGES

Newspaper Archive Inc. and Heritage Microfilm had 80 employees at one point in Cedar Rapids, but now the office houses a half-dozen people. The company laid off about 20 people in early 2009 and moved the bulk of its digitizing operation to Mexico.

While Gill touted himself as founder and owner of NewspaperArchive.com as recently as 2009, communications from the company now just say “the owner.” His LinkedIn profile lists him as owner of Heritage Microfilm.

The Gazette could not reach Gill directly.

Gill’s mother, Marilyn Gill of Marion, called her son when a Gazette reporter was at her house, but Gill declined to be interviewed. An email to Gill and a message left with NewspaperArchive.com’s general manager were not returned.

David Glenwinkel, an Auburn, Calif., tax preparer, was listed as the company’s president, vice president and treasurer in a 2012 report filed with the Iowa Secretary of State. The company’s 2014 report has not been filed.

Glenwinkel’s company, Executive Management Solutions, based in Auburn, Calif., prepared Global Way Makers’s most recent tax return and its California phone number is the only one listed for the not-for-profit.

Calls to that phone number were not returned.

SERVICES STILL IN DEMAND

NewspaperArchive.com still has many Eastern Iowa clients, including The Gazette.

Gazette Communications Inc. signed a five-year contract with Heritage Microfilm in August 2009 allowing the company to make microfilm of the newspaper and then digitize the material for TheGazette.com and NewspaperArchive.com.

The companies share revenue from both sites.

The Marion Public Library has been a customer for years, but service has gone downhill, Assistant Director Jo Pearson said.

The company has digitized materials that include old city directories, but it’s very hard to reach company representatives and the bulk of the work has moved to Mexico, Pearson said.

“We’ve been trying to get out from under this onus, but we’re concerned about losing all that content,” Pearson said.

Newspaper Archive Inc. lost one book of Marion City Council minutes during a project to digitize historical records, City Clerk Wes Nelson said. The city paid the company about $6,000 to digitize 10 books of minutes. Officials received the digital versions, but one original volume went missing after the pages were scanned, Nelson said.

Despite complaints about the companies, their content is still in demand. ProQuest, a Wisconsin-based electronic publisher, announced last year it had signed a deal to distribute NewspaperArchive.com content to libraries and other institutions.

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