The Rachel Sterne Papers

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, received an average of 36,865 unique visitors per month, according to statistics provided by

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.)