Who and What Is Rachel Sterne?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s new chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, an appointment announced yesterday, is a bit of a darling in New York’s digital scene. Just 27, she is the founder and CEO of both a citizen journalism site, GroundReport, and a digital media consultancy, Upward Strategy. She’s also, without benefit of a graduate degree herself, an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School. Now, two years after Businessweek named her as one of America’s most promising social entrepreneurs on the basis of GroundReport, she’s being given the keys to the digital city.


And yet, despite the rave reviews she gets from tech luminaries, Sterne has very little experience in management, and even less in public policy, which might raise reasonable questions about whether or not she’s the most qualified person to direct New York City’s digital development, a job that comes with a reported $115,000 salary.


“Apart from the internships, I don’t have any full-time policy experience,” Sterne admitted in an interview with Adweek, referring to her internships with the UN Security Council and a New York City Council member.


At GroundReport, the citizen journalism site she started in 2006, Sterne said that she oversaw a full-time editorial staff of three, though she said that “before the economic downturn I was managing seven people full time.” Upward Strategy, her digital media consultancy, was made up of just one: herself. She would not say how many people she would be managing in her new position with the City.


According to Compete, an analytics service, GroundReport received only 29,187 unique visitors in December 2010; its highest traffic month of 2010 brought in 60,802 uniques. Ms. Sterne declined to disclose how much traffic GroundReport received. In 2006, Wikipedia took down the entry on GroundReport, because it failed their test for notability; Sterne successfully recreated the page using an online identity of hers, Asterixie. As to the amount of revenue the site, reportedly funded by friends and family, generated, Sterne said only, “We were successful at achieving the balance of making GroundReport sustainable.”


But Sterne’s skills as a self-promoter may be stronger than her skills in social media and digital communications.


“Despite the site never receiving any traffic, Sterne used Ground Report to win a bunch of do-gooder awards, put herself in the spotlight, and become an authority on all things entrepreneurial and tech-oriented,” an acquaintance of Sterne’s said. “In the meantime, all the attention led her to realize she was really best at promoting herself and others so she struck out as a ‘digital PR consultant.’”


Perhaps a digital PR consultant—“a socializer with all the tech folks,” as the acquaintance later described her—is exactly what the city was looking for.

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