On November 6, 2009, Rachel Sterne gave a presentation at the TEDxEast conference in New York, an offshoot of the annual TED conference, which invites leading thinkers to share “world-changing” ideas with the public.
Sterne—who in 2006, at the age of 23, launched a citizen journalism site called GroundReport—began her talk by explaining that, until recently, news had been a primarily passive experience. But the Internet was changing that: People were “sharing information and organizing demonstrations through Facebook,” and Californians were “acting as the press themselves” by videotaping forest fires.
“So what are the new rules?” Sterne asked, referring to the world of user-generated news. She answered by explaining that anyone with a cell phone could be a reporter, that it was free to set up a blog or Twitter account, that the news now took place in real time and that everyone had the ability to fact check content. Sterne then concluded, “It’s called user-generated content; it’s called citizen journalism. But what it really is is a new iteration of the fourth estate. It’s people contributing to democracy.”
Given that Facebook had launched in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006, Sterne’s examples seemed remarkably basic. What’s more, the presentation itself was fairly unoriginal. The background she gave about the fourth estate, which was the basic theme of her talk, was taken largely from Wikipedia. One of her slides used a phrase, “the people formerly known as the audience,” that NYU citizen journalism guru Jay Rosen had coined. The slide before it featured a picture of a “magic journalism box” feeding information to the public; it was from an essay that a NYU student, a friend of Sterne’s, had published online two weeks before.
But Rajeev Kohli, chair of Columbia Business School’s marketing division, was impressed. “She was somebody both prominent and thoughtful,” Kohli said. “I liked what she had done with GroundReport.”
In fact, GroundReport has never had more than a trickle of traffic. In 2010, GroundReport.com received an average of 36,865 unique visitors per month, according to statistics provided by Compete.com.
But Kohli, who believes that in social media “the best ideas come from young people,” offered Sterne a position at Columbia Business School teaching a course on “social media and entrepreneurship” to graduate students, many of whom are her age or older. “If you’re over 30, you’re over the hill,” he said. “So I wanted to get someone who was in the thick of things.”
Two weeks ago, New York City named the 27-year-old Sterne as its first-ever chief digital officer. It’s a job in which she’ll be tasked with streamlining the city’s digital media communications and improving citizens’ access to government information. She’ll be paid $115,000 a year for it.
The news was met with overwhelming support from Sterne’s friends and acquaintances, many of whom are at the center of New York’s tech scene.
Others were more perplexed. Sterne was hardly the usual policy maven who had climbed the ranks and been awarded a plum job. Nor was she a private sector success story turning her management experience to public service. The fact that someone thought her qualified for the job was, in a way, as puzzling as the fact that someone had thought her qualified to be an adjunct at an Ivy League graduate school.
Indeed, Sterne’s greatest accomplishment may be that she has risen as high and as rapidly as she has without demonstrating any real accomplishments. In that, she may be a model for the new world of digital networking, where the substance of an individual’s work experience doesn’t really matter because it can be easily magnified and even more easily promoted.
The inspiration for GroundReport came shortly after Sterne’s internship with the U.S. mission to the United Nations (in her various bios online, she often says she was reporting on the U.N., without mentioning her status as an intern). At the time, she was working in business development at LimeWire, one of the most prominent peer-to-peer file-sharing networks or—more troubling for a future government official—piracy networks. (LimeWire has since been successfully sued by the music industry and shuttered.)
In an interview with the Web site BigThink, Sterne explained the thinking behind GroundReport: “Why don’t we let people who are actually there experiencing these things—these 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 we’re giving everyone a chance to share their voice and reach this global audience.”
Sterne left LimeWire and with financial support from family—her father, Paul, has his own M&A advisory company—founded GroundReport. Despite the existence of services like CNN iReport, her site was seen as a pioneer in the field.
“GroundReport was a very important demonstration of citizen journalism in a time when the business models of citizen journalism were still nascent and unrealized,” said Andrew Rasiej, a friend of Sterne’s from the New York digital scene and the founder of Personal Democracy Forum, a politics and technology Web site that also holds an annual conference.
“This is not hyperbole,” Rasiej said, perhaps aware that the regard in which GroundReport is held by tech society can seem at odds with reality. “She is as much a pioneer as [Wikipedia co-founder] Jimmy Wales in encouraging the use of user-generated information being organized and distributed to be useful to people.” In 2007, Sterne’s father wrote on the site: “People will look back at 2006 as a watershed. They will divide the media business into two epochs: Before and After GroundReport.”
Even during major events, GroundReport’s influence was very small. As the BBC News reported in an article on Dec. 1, 2008, following terror attacks in Mumbai that had been covered on the site, “it is worth noting that the original story on the GroundReport Web site has attracted fewer than 200 viewers so far, whereas untold millions have watched television reports in India and around the world.”
In March 2008, GroundReport hosted a panel discussion at NYU titled “How the Internet Is Changing American Politics” with Arianna Huffington and various tech luminaries such as Jeff Jarvis, the author of What Would Google Do?, and NYU’s Rosen.
“It’s a pretty precious skill,” said Tristan Weisgal, who volunteered as “outreach coordinator” at GroundReport from January to May of 2008. “Even though we were really small and didn’t have a lot of contributors and readers, [Sterne] was able to participate in an event with Arianna Huffington and Jay Rosen.”
Sterne’s talent was not just to exaggerate the significance of GroundReport, a common sleight of hand in the virtual world, but also to give a sheen of professionalism to what might otherwise have been seen as an amateur effort. In promoting GroundReport, Sterne occasionally embellished the roles of her editorial staff, giving the impression that the organization’s operations were more extensive than was actually the case. For instance, in an interview with PBS’ MediaShift Idea Lab in June 2009, Sterne referred to “Sara Dover, our new managing editor, who’s going to be continuing to evolve our editorial standards.” When contacted by Adweek, Dover, who now works at NBC, said that she was an unpaid intern for “a very short two months” in the summer of 2009, but was also called managing editor. Working remotely, she had never been to GroundReport’s office.
Weisgal himself was unaware that, despite having left GroundReport over two years ago, he is still listed on the organization’s masthead as “World Editor,” a title he had never heard before. Robin Menikoff, who said she has edited “about five” pieces in over two years, and written only five, is referred to as “Americas Editor” on the masthead, but noted, “I was unaware that I had been given that title.”
Following the NYU conference, Sterne continued to promote GroundReport within the city’s tech scene. In August 2008, she participated in the Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications and Society, which GroundReport broadcast live via Livestream, a company run by Max Haot, now Sterne’s fiancé. In April 2009, Businessweek named Sterne as one of 25 promising social entrepreneurs.
It was around this time that Sterne launched Upward Strategy, a digital strategy consultancy.
“The next incarnation of Rachel’s work was…I don’t know if it was called PR, but it felt like PR,” said Anil Dash, a prominent blogger and partner at the digital strategy consulting firm Activate. GroundReport was “not a successful site,” he added. “People go into PR after a startup because the startup doesn’t become a hit.”
Another acquaintance attributed Sterne’s decision to become “a digital PR consultant” to her realization, after GroundReport’s relative failure, that “she was really best at promoting herself and others.”
As with GroundReport, Sterne exaggerated the extent of Upward’s operations. In a sidebar on the Web site’s home page titled “Who We Are,” Sterne used the plural—“We help organizations chart and execute a powerful, results-driven product, communications and engagement strategy online”—but told Adweek, “I was the only person involved.”
Furthermore, Upward’s list of clients is potentially misleading. According to her LinkedIn profile, Sterne was a marketing and communications consultant at Daylife, a digital media services startup that is listed as one of Upward’s clients, during almost the exact same period of time she was “principal” at Upward. It’s therefore unclear just how much work she did for the other nine clients listed on Upward’s site. Daylife’s COO, Chris Neimeth, praised Sterne’s contributions to the company but said, “It was surprising she had time to do anything outside of Daylife because she was here [almost] full-time.”
A month before the TEDxEast conference, Sterne wrote a piece for Publisher’s Weekly called “Creating Your Viral Loop on Twitter,” a nine-step how-to guide for digital self-promotion.
“There is a reason they call it viral marketing because the best social media functions like a virus,” Sterne began. “It spreads easily, embeds itself seamlessly into hosts and exploits a few critical individuals to achieve global exposure. It may sound terrifying, but you can control it. And if you do, you can reach thousands of people—and thousands of the exact people you want to reach.”
The advice Sterne offered followed her own personal strategy for self-promotion. Direction 3: “Pick your beat and stick to it. Become an expert and add value by tweeting tightly focused industry news and insights.” Direction 5: “Keep it positive. Studies have found that upbeat tweets are more likely to be retweeted, or repeated. Being positive also gives you a better brand identity.”
Adweek requested an interview with Sterne for this article and was asked by a press representative from New York City’s Office of Media and Entertainment, Chris Coffey, to first provide a list of topics about which she might be questioned. Most of the topics involved Sterne’s background. Coffey responded that Sterne would not be available for an interview because she was in the public sector now and not talking about her past experiences in the private sector.
In a statement sent to Adweek, Katherine Oliver, the city’s commissioner of the Office of Media and Entertainment and the woman who hired Sterne, said Sterne’s “extensive digital background, entrepreneurial savvy and passion for hard work made her the clear choice for this role.”
Her background may in fact have uniquely prepared her for her new role. Indeed, many of Sterne’s partisans have made her very lack of experience her primary virtue.
“I find criticism of her appointment to be sexist and reverse-ageist,” Jarvis, a founder of Daylife, and a ranking member of the city’s digerati, told Adweek. “Who are we going to have leading digital initiatives?…Digital America is led by young people.”
Sterne is, in a sense, an ideal young person for high government position—a young person old people like, projecting an earnest enthusiasm about the potential for social media to transform the way the world works in a simple way that neither alienates the old guard nor disrupts its sense of its own relevance.
Now she’s been given three months to write a report recommending how the city can enhance its digital operations, communications and public-private partnerships—and, in essence, to define her job. It would be hard to imagine that she will undersell its significance.