A conversation with the CEO and founder of GroundReport.
Question: What is GroundReport?
Rachel Sterne: GroundReport.com is a citizen news reporting site that allows anyone to publish their own articles, videos, and photos to a global audience and earn a revenue share based on their traffic. All of our work is vetted by our volunteer editors and you can reach an audience of millions, some of our big scoops have been the Beijing Olympics, the Mumbai Terrorist attacks, Taliban activity in Pakistan and then even in our backyard covering Obama's elections through the eyes and words of regular Americans, we have 5,000 contributors on the ground who regularly submits stories every day.
Question: Who reports for GroundReport?
Rachel Sterne: Building GroundReport's basis has been completely deliberate. It's not a typical Internet start up where you just want to get as many people as possible. We're looking for a very sophisticated digital reporter who is able to convey what's going on from the ground level. So we want two things. We want them to be savvy enough to use the digital reporting tools but also want them to be on the ground, hyper local to report exactly on what they are witnessing in their immediate vicinity. We don't want someone who is sitting at a desk in New York and writing about Pakistan. We want a Pakistani lawyer who was protesting the day before to be writing about Pakistan. So I've been very deliberate in doing outreach to journalistic bloggers, professional journalist retired or students in training and then also non-profits, a lot of people who happen to be witnessing some of the world most urgent issues there on the ground but lack the proper platform to get the board out.
Question: What is the editorial process?
Rachel Sterne: The vetting process happens at the report level so anyone can sign up and report immediately and submit reports, articles, videos, etcetera for publication but it won't go live until one of our editors takes a look at it. So anyone is allowed to do that. That way we don't miss the big scoops. We open up the door in that way but we need that layer of approval for it to really make sure that it's up to our standards and to be able to stand behind our brand name.
Question: Who is your audience?
Rachel Sterne: One of the biggest things about hyper-local news that is covering, covering issues and events at a level even more granular than the city level is that most of those topics are really most interesting to the other people who are living in that area. So of course a lot of GroundReport coverage that's specific will be interesting to people for instance American audiences and just audiences all over the world, who want to know what 's really happening in the world, who recognize that the international media is not serving its goal to really inform the public and so they are interested in this stories too and they rely on GroundReport to sort of aggregate and vet all of this information that is coming in and give you real picture of, okay here's what people on the Ground experiencing this event feel about it, here's what the real story is.
Question: Why do you insist on original reporting?
Rachel Sterne: The only thing that we mean with the original content policy is it means you must have the rights to distribute whatever you post on GroundReport. So we're very happy to work with people who are reposting from their blog or from independent new sourcing. In fact they're some of our most valuable partners. What we don't allow is copyright infringement or plagiarism which actually is pretty rampant on a lot of citizen journalism platforms and that's because our biggest value at GroundReport, and we've made our name on this, is by having sophisticated original content and original reporting and that also helps us to pursue a syndication model. We can't syndicate other people's content. It's also something that doesn't really serve us in the end and it's not the kind of contributors we are looking for so we're happy to adhere to that policy.
Question: Is GroundReport.com a response to undemocratic news media?
Rachel Sterne: I would actually say the opposite, that I think in recent years we've seen explosion in the democratization of media in terms of people having these tools, the tools to produce content or intelligent news reporting all over the world, the people who have internet access has completely exploded and the people who have the ability to distribute. So previously it really was not a democracy and I don't think anyone would have pretended it was in which you had a few large media organizations that control the means of distribution. So whatever they said would become the dominant narrative. Now, what we have with internet is everything is accessible and the democratization is there. And GroundReport sort of serves in the middle space which is we don't want to be complete anarchy, we do want to add some value by applying some of these really important journalistic practices to gathering, vetting, and distributing the news but at the same time want to make sure everyone has an opportunity to offer their views and whatever documentation they have of recent events. So I think the trend is definitely going in the right direction. What we need now is sort of this midway filter that is able to look at that information, apply filters, apply vetting so that it comes out in a more intelligent sophisticated manner where actually has value to the audience that's trying to serve.
Question: What are the challenges to having a more democratic news media?
Rachel Sterne: Sometimes, the vetting process can post entirely new challenges just because these systems have never been applied to such local breaking news events. The other thing that is one of the biggest challenges is basically a learning curve to explain to regular people and journalist alike, especially with professional journalists, it's difficult that they can post content independently on their own, will vet it afterwards, they you know people still be emailing articles to the site saying is this alright? They don't really understand that they can just go ahead and publish it. We want to keep that ball rolling as quickly as possible. So it's educating people that, yes this is okay. We want to encourage you to sort of be the master of your own work and be entrepreneurial and we'll do the rest.
Question: Is the professional journalist still relevant?
Rachel Sterne: I think that it's more important than ever. I think the first we need to recognize that many of the people who we consider to be professional journalist may have no credentials at all, may have really earned their chops by working and building work experience but that we certainly need to reward entrepreneurial journalists. I think now, more than ever it is very important to be a journalist who is able to innovate, who is able to be resourceful in a number of different ways by using all of this new tools and forms of media. So I think that maybe our idea of a traditional journalist, that is less important now, but the professional journalist is more important than ever. Another thing that we try to do to address this on Ground Report is that we distinguished between being a professional journalist and being completely neutral and objective and being perhaps a citizen reporter, a regular layman but being very transparent about your views, so we're focusing more on transparency than neutrality to say, okay maybe you do have biases somewhere but at least if you're expressing them on GroundReport if you're pointing them at in your profile, it's okay if there is a little disparity there.
Question: Has GroundReport found a viable business model?
Rachel Sterne: We're in the midst of our biggest information revolution probably since the printing press and yet we're seeing a total breakdown of how the media is going to be able to cover these events. I think that efforts that focus on hyper local news gathering and citizen reporting are going to be moving in to the space. I think they really need to learn from the lessons of vetting and news gathering and holding, holding all reporters to high standards that we can learn from the traditional media, so I think that there is a middle ground there definitely, what, I think the best thing that platforms and efforts like GroundReport has to offer is we show what can be achieved when you really cut cost, when you really removed all of the bloat and you're able to just get rid of the overhead and focus on people who are already there. So we have an incredibly lean, efficient, economical model that way that in fact is paying for itself right now and we hope to just scale that up and I think that if we can begin to build models that start with taking advantage of the incredible resources of millions of people around the world with all this power, we can start to build a model that will make sense.
Question: How does GroundReport share revenue?
Rachel Sterne: I think the GroundReport revenue share system in many ways is modeled on the way that microfinance works and that is we're rewarding people based on the fruits of their labor and hopefully they can invest that further and often people will, or contributors will write to me and say, you know, "I got this funding, I was able to get you know, a better mobile phone or I was able to get a better computer and now, we're going to create better reports" and they are very, very passionate about it. So it's something that, it's that important on so many different levels and not even just in the developing world, people are so amazed to be paid for their work especially since the rule online is so often that sites expect you to just give your, the content that you're creating for them for free while they build a business model off of it. We didn't think that was really fair. We also thought the best way to attract the people who are creating the best content online which is a very, very small percentage of the people who are engaging online is to reward them for what they are doing.
Question: What media innovations are you following?
Rachel Sterne: I think it's certainly true that when you're looking at the digital format, we have just begun to explore its potential. I mean, we're still sort of recreating newspapers on websites and that's, that's not really what it's built for. I think a couple of the biggest areas for innovation are again, Twitter which allows for the most immediate fast pace real time news updates. It's a tool that I use all the time and GroundReport to stay in the loop on what the most recent breaking news is. You can often get updates there before you can get on any major news website but also to recruit reporters who happen to be at those locations, it allows for really fast interactions and iterations there. On the flipside, there's no vetting and there's no filtering of that sort in terms of integrity especially when you're dealing resource you don't know and Twitter. So that's one problem. The other space is when you start to get into these new forms of media. so we've already seen some really great innovation with photos and photography online, I think where there's some of the next steps will be with live streaming video, GroundReport TV launch its channel a couple of years ago actually on the mobilist platform and it allows us to basically cover live events with video, using just an internet connection and a laptop as well as say, a huge Fox satellite truck that cost you know hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars and that's what we did this past weekend at the NASA shuttle launch for instance. The thing that we have to wait for there is for the 3G network that is necessary for all of our mobile devices to be able to send information that quickly and it's also still a technology that is limited to people who have access to the internet in general. So those are a couple of the places but when you look at things like the Nokia, N95, later models which can allow you to stream videos straight from your phone to a website, it's pretty incredible what the potential of that could be for a citizen powered 24/7 news channel.
Question: What new directions is GroundReport taking?
Rachel Sterne: Well, we certainly want to serve what people are really interested in. And clearly the global news category is much smaller than people who are interested in sort of you know, entertainment news but that's also a very, very crowded field. I mean, there are millions of players in that field that are trying to exploit that. It's something that with the write tone, we would accept on Ground Report but we're pretty focused on making, just building up our brand. I mean starting any kind of internet company, it's so difficult to define what you are looking for. In the beginning on GroundReport anything was allowed. People could post any kind of content and after a while it just, it started to dissolve what the brand was really about. So we need to stand behind that and say, okay we're about sophisticated global reporting from professionals or vetted by professionals or some combination of the two. What we are starting to do is to expand into specific verticals. So we might not do entertainment just yet but we might do something related to gender issues or we might start to do something related to travel and this also has to do with some of the sponsors who are interested in getting involved with our work and we're definitely going in those directions and we're looking to be a little bit more niche, a little bit more granular in those spaces, but still keep our general structure.
Question: What stories has GroundReport broken?
Rachel Sterne: Well, one of the stories that is most incredible to me is that, is the Taliban activity in Pakistan. GroundReport has been covering this for a year and a half. We've been getting almost daily reports of increased, you know, militant activity in this areas, we have a very strong constituent base there, that's been reporting to us. Lots of professional journalist and only just now has the American media woken up to the fact that, okay, we're in the midst of a major crisis here but if you had looked at GroundReport a year ago, you have seen all of the indications that was set to happen. I just mentioned that I was at the NASA Shuttle Launch live streaming with an Inmarsat satellite dish and a laptop and that's stuff that you can put in a knapsack. That was pretty exciting. Some of the other breaking stories that we've seen, let me try to think, in Zimbabwe we've been seeing lots of signs of unrest we have a lot of reporters there who are writing under pseudonyms to protect their identity but it will be anything from you know there is mutiny among Mugabe's soldiers, they want to break away, to general unrest among the public, things that wouldn't end up in a newspaper in Zimbabwe because people could be in danger but that we're very happy to publish and sort of counteract all the disinformation out there.
Question: Does GroundReport protect its foreign correspondents?
Rachel Sterne: We can't really take responsibility because our model is not really giving people assignments so much as allowing them to publish their own work. So in contrast to something like Current TV, we don't send reporters and pay for them to go places and equip them with all this tools although we will sometimes give people things like flip video cameras etcetera. We sometimes do outreach, when there is a breaking event but it's usually, nothing that requires someone to go the scene of an event and we're very cautious about, listen, and your safety is more important to us than anything else. So never compromise that in anyway. We're usually more, take the event and say, okay what are people thinking about, how do people feel about this, how have you been affected personally because that's, that's what sort of takes, takes the event and stops you from sort of glazing over and saying this is some big international issue and saying, wow! There is some emotional engagement there. That's a real person who has experiencing it.
Question: Do your reporters have better access than correspondents?
Rachel Sterne: Absolutely. That also plays into the safety question because you say, are you worried about being in Pakistan? Okay, these are people who have grown up in Pakistan and they are probably the safest that anyone will ever be because they have relationships there. So again, that's exactly the kind of mobile or digital or even citizen reporter that we try to recruit is people who already have their own networks, who are already very connected in that region, are able to speak to people in decision making capacities at the head of any event that takes place or able to sort of tell us, here is exactly what you know the head of the police is saying, here's what the head of the local political party is saying and maybe they're even part of those political parties, et cetera. These are the kind of people who really be able to connect us in a way that a foreign, a foreign reporter never could or foreign correspondent never could be, the other side of that is they can get an answer out of this people that maybe much more honest, much more revealing than a foreign reporter.
Question: How do you accommodate reporters who lack technology?
Rachel Sterne: Our goal for working with developing countries is more to acknowledge what the situation is with their technology and sort of take advantage of that in the best way we can, so for instance in a lot of these countries, the mobile phone penetration is enormous. So instead of pushing them to do live streaming video which is basically impossible because they won't have an internet connection that is fast enough, we'll push them to contribute via mobile phone or to post reports that way, so we're really focused on the mobile capacities, so when basically every region in the world, there is different ways that we interact in different tools that we encourage people to use.
Question: Where did you get the idea for GroundReport?
Rachel Sterne: It was inspired over a long period of time first by my work as a political intern at the US mission to the United Nations which I'd initially wanted to work directly for the UN but instead got an internship with the state department which ultimately was probably more access than I ever could have dreamed of in any role because of the incredible sort of influence of the US and so I was reporting daily on security council sessions which are confidential or close sessions basically, all the top ambassadors of the 10 members of the security council and watching first hand as foreign policy was made and basically the biggest issues in the world were debated and decided, here's what we are going to do. That Security Council is really the decision making arm of the UN, the only one that really carries weight and is able to carry out their actions. The issues at the time, some of the issues that I was covering was Haiti, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri and the Darfur crisis was really at its peak. It was really getting really bad. There was one day when then a secretary general Kofi Annan came into the council and addressed the council and basically, and basically sort of begged all members to do something, he said it is completely out of control and it really struck me and the thing that really bothered me it was the fact that even though the US had been one of the first to call it out as genocide, the Darfur crisis, we didn't really pledge anything beyond saying that. We didn't pledge any concrete action which if we had, knowing the dynamics of the security council, our allies probably would have responded 10 or a hundred fold in supporting us and that was something that really troubled me. One of the quotes that Kofi Annan used at the time was that the role of the UN is not to bring humanity up into heaven but prevent it from descending into hell and that was what is happening there. So I ended the internship at the term when it was done and it was a fantastic experience but I said, I need to be in the space where there is more innovation where things are more dynamic because there is just so much bureaucracy, sort of holding back that kind of innovation and I went to work for Lime Wire which is a file sharing platform which is totally different, but what was interesting to me was there I was helping them re-launch their websites and learning all about these really cheap but very powerful publishing tools and I realize, we could start to address this problem that had really plagued me at the UN which is that we can allow people to really know what's going on in the world because if the public is more informed, they can put more pressure on their governments to make responsible policy decisions and I feel very strongly about that. I do believe that and so the idea I had was instead of having this dry wire reports, why don't we let people who are actually there experiencing these things, this terrible atrocities or these wonderful events to in their own voice report the news or take a photo or publish a video and we'll aggregate it all together and we'll vet it with our editors and we'll make sure that it's, that we're giving everyone a chance to share their voice and reach this global audience and that was how the idea for GroundReport was born.
The funny thing is that, I had always wanted to do a job where I can do both international relations and technology and web stuff and so I'm sort of like a geek on one end but I majored in history on the other end and three or four years ago, none of these jobs existed and now of course all this projects are exploding all over the internet and GroundReport was just in its infancy when this happens. So I basically made it up because it didn't exist.
Question: What influence does GroundReport have in shaping policy?
Rachel Sterne: It's hard to sort of judge what the exact impact has been on public awareness, because how do you measure public awareness of an idea? So GroundReport has certainly brought attention to a lot of issues that people otherwise never would have heard of, but it's hard to see how that translates into something at the other end. We've had a lot of non-profits for instance riding under the name of their non-profit, published reports and later on they were eventually able to you know gain key legislation. One interesting example is my home town of Dobbs Ferry was able to get a historical distinction from congress for being one of the sites that George Washington visited on, you know, on his campaign and they had published the local historian have publish numerous research reports and updates proving this. So those are a couple of examples of you know I don't know if there is a direct causation there but certainly, certainly it contributed. Then we have other issues where we've seen more humanitarian based results that are really wonderful. So for instance we have an Afghani reporter who reported on a young woman about I think 16 or 17 who has attacked by her husband who she was married to through an arranged marriage, I think he was on his 60's or 70's and she was disfigured and she was burned with acid and it was really terrible and unfortunately this is a fairly common story but because of it was on GroundReport, because it was on English language source, the reporter was contacted by an aid organization that ended up covering all of the medical cost and I didn't even hear about this until like a month after it took place and I know this because the reported had put the follow up report on GroundReport and so the other thing we do is we just, we allow people to connect amongst themselves and not just pushing one overall agenda but we allow all these little connections to happen that in little ways help to improve society.
Question: What is the biggest lesson you have learned from GroundReport?
Rachel Sterne: I think the biggest thing that I've learned because I was coming at this not from a media or journalism background. I was coming at ground report from diplomacy and international relations and a technology background is the incredible importance of the trusted human network. So we can create this algorithm that build wonderful looking virtual newspapers but without the human input it really doesn't work because you can't get a computer to put stories together, at least not yet, in a way that really works and it's also something that translates to your community and I mean not just your audience but your contributing community. So if we just, when we at GroundReport just has this algorithm that was choosing the stories in publishing, it wasn't really enough. Once we built this team of volunteer, Wikipedia style editors who could go in any piece of content. Then suddenly the platform felt like it was alive and it really translated in the behavior or our contributors who took themselves much more seriously. They realized this is an active thing and there are people on the other end who really care about what we are doing. So I would actually take sort of the opposite slant of what so many of my peers say and say it's the human network that is so incredibly important that we need to really focus on that aspect and a lot of things that go along with that like vetting and fact checking.
Recorded on: June 12, 2009