While interning at the State Department in 2005, Rachel Sterne watched Kofi Annan plead with the Security Council to stop the madness in Darfur and saw nothing happening. The classic next move in a situation like that would’ve probably involved buying a supportive “Save Darfur” t-shirt and turning genocide into her go-to talking point for dinner parties.
But for Sterne, who had just received her BA from New York University and was, no doubt, full of that particular brand of youthful idealism that makes problems seem scalable, that didn’t seem like enough. Her belief that “there was no public pressure about Darfur because the public didn’t have a personal connection with the issue” plagued her, inspiring the founding of GroundReport.com in the summer of 2007. An open source global news site that shares revenue with its far-flung network of 4,000 citizen reporters, GroundReport has been called “the Wikipedia of news.” Its professed goal is to democratize the media by making original, intelligent reporting possible for amateurs and professionals alike. More importantly though, the site produces international news at a fraction of the cost of the mainstream media by relying on the locals for coverage.
Though still in its infancy, the start up site has already garnered a decent amount of attention. Early on interviews with CNNMoney.com have since been superceded by features in Business Week, which recently named Sterne one of its Top 25 Social Entrepreneurs. Similarly promising are content partnerships with the likes of The Huffington Post and Mogulus.
Given the journalism world’s recent and widespread adoption of the Throwing Spaghetti At A Wall and Seeing What Sticks, this attention comes as no surprise. Because while the concept of using a worldwide network of reporters to cover international news is nothing revolutionary, GroundReport’s reliance on citizens and its willingness to share the profit with them is something of a new experiment.
The site joins the ranks of comparable start ups like international news site Global Post, self-proclaimed protector of the weak ProPublica, and, in a much smaller way, The Huffington Post, too. By “smaller” here I mean that, on the one hand, The HuffPost and Ground Report are not so much competitors as they are natural partners. HuffPost gathers its content from every corner of the web as it is, making its ongoing content partnership with GroundReport a natural thing. With its new investigative reporting initiative, however, HuffPost could become competition. Aside from the 1.75 million dollar funding, the specifics are unclear, but word has it that citizen journalism is expected to account for some of the investigative project.
Less directly in competition is ProPublica. Though the January ’08 born site shares GroundReport’s soft spot for the underdog, the former is peopled by journalism vets like founder and former editor of The Wall Street Journal Paul Steiger. ProPublica is driven by a full time staff of investigative reporters, meaning that nary an amateur writer is to be found on the website, whereas GroundReport subsists on them.
Global Post, too, with its cadre of professional reporters living abroad, maintains a level of professionalism and a scale of pay well above that of GroundReport. A base rate of $1000 for four posts a month and a 10,000 share stake in the company brings in “journalists who are, from what I could gauge, of a considerably different realm” than those found on GroundReport, says Charles Sennott, Global Post’s Executive Editor and VP.
And yet this lack of professionalism does not phase Sterne, who maintains that the coverage you get from people who are living the stories they’re reporting is irreplaceable. “You get the sort of perspective that a reporter from the states can’t really get,” says Sterne, bent over her laptop at the WeMedia Game Changers conference. She is just shy of 5’11”, thin with brown hair and the sort of cute that makes believing she’s a web journalism geek a little difficult. Until, that is, she continues, talking about the video that she’s streaming from the conference through GroundReport and elaborating on her belief that first hand coverage from the people most affected is the way to go. “Everyone who’s reporting is experiencing these things first hand,” she says. And Sterne counts on this close up view to create public pressure around events like the genocide in Darfur.
But is coverage from the locals enough to turn GroundReport into more than one of many promising experiments vying to solve the problem of hands on reporting in a digital world? Can you get quality reporting from a network of reporters who, for the most part, do not speak English as their first language? Sterne points us towards the Wikipedia-like editing style and quality rating system in answer to this question. “The editorial team can revise any content on the site, a rating system determines what goes on the front page and in our RSS feed, and a flagging system catches copying,” says Sterne, noting that these steps keep the good stuff on the front page and the bad stuff at bay.
While citizen journalism critics balk at the very fact that the bad stuff is allowed to exist on sites like GroundReport, others are more optimistic. “I have no problem with citizen journalism, no worries about the quality. That gets filtered out quickly,” says Charlie Beckett, director of POLIS and author of Super Media: Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World. Far more problematic for Beckett is the tendency on the part of international news sites to, well, “suck.” Plagued by problems of lack of feedback and disorganization, international reporting sites can easily turn into disjointed messes requiring the sort of navigation that few readers are looking to participate in. In this way, GroundReport is ahead of the curve as far as low-funded start ups are concerned. The site’s organizational interface—aka sending the good stuff to the front—disposes of the problem of digging for the read-worthy.
Also on GroundReport’s side are its ridiculously low overhead costs. The aspect of the site that is most often questioned—its complete reliance on untrained citizen journalists and volunteer editors—is also the project’s saving grace as far as money is concerned. GroundReport shares ad revenue percentages based on the quality and popularity of contributors’ articles, which spurs better contributions but also puts a natural cap on the amount that the site will have to pay for each specific act of journalism. Writers succeed only when the website as a whole does.
And while sums like $52.59 for 33 postings look paltry to Americans, they don’t seem so puny to contributors like Kenyan Fred Obera. “I’m not in it for the money, but it does make life better for a poor journalist like me,” he says. “It’s enough to make participating worthwhile for some of our contributors in developing countries,” says Sterne of GroundReport’s Third World correspondents.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” says Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, of sharing revenue with contributors. “If it turns out to help produce better journalism, all the better. But it starts with doing the right thing by people who are doing the work,” he continues. Aside from being the right thing to do, the revenue sharing is also a major piece of what makes GroundReport worth looking at. It keeps the reporters in the most hard to reach areas feeling appreciated without setting hard and fast salaries that the site may not be able to meet.
Like most start up ventures though, GroundReport’s growth is hindered by a lack of capital. The site launched in 2007 with seed money from Sterne’s own saving and family contributions. Since then, cash prizes like those GroundReport won at the German “Open Source Meets Business” conference, content partnerships and advertising have helped defray the costs, too. At this point, the site is paying for itself, something few global start ups can claim. But the money being generated is enough to continue and subsist, not grow to the extent that Sterne would like. “The logo is probably the only thing I’m happy about right now,” she says of the amateurish appearance of the site. But until GroundReport sees an infusion of capital, the visual mock up of a more professional looking site will remain nothing more than a mock up.