The Rachel Sterne Papers


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.”

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