‘Can somebody cover that war for us?’ As reporter networks fragment, startup seeks to fill worldwide gap
Justin Varilek's formal pitch would seem unassailable.
"Editors Are Losing Their Networks," declares his de facto prospectus for an online venture called HackPack that debuts Wednesday. "Problem: 51% drop in newspaper revenues in the past 15 years has led to loss of staff and global networks."
So there's Option 1: Provide original coverage with diminished resources. Option 2: End such coverage. Option 3: Get investors to expand your existing global network, as have the likes of VICE, BuzzFeed and Politico.
Given the potential insufficiency of those options, HackPack aims to maintain or expand coverage worldwide, including in the U.S. It also seeks to assist corporations and nonprofits in finding quality, affordable expertise.
It's been operating in Russia but Wednesday brings a full-scale launch. Here's his instructional video for journalists and a second one for public relations and other organizations seeking expertise worldwide.
In sum, it's a database that in theory connects journalists, academics, fixers, editors and public relations professionals with one another after vetting each individual and while promoting their professional strengths. It's a digital Rolodex to promote independent journalism. But can it construct a sustainable business model amid the fragmentation of traditional media, including the continuing elimination of international and domestic U.S. bureaus?
Need a reporter in Ukraine or Ferguson, Missouri, public relations expert in Malaysia, a photographer in New Hampshire or an academic in Australia? In theory, Varilek will try to provide trustworthy vetting of individuals on both sides of media and corporate personnel transactions. For now, he and a few colleagues do most of the checking. But he hopes that an algorithm can ultimately handle the load by analyzing subjective feedback and prior publications, among various metrics.
Varilek, 26, is an Iowa native and Dartmouth College graduate who is largely living out of a suitcase but has more or less been living in Moscow. He's worked as a journalist, tech entrepreneur and university startup consultant. In recent years he's worked mostly in Russia, where he's been a reporter for Moscow Times and helped the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a Moscow branch.
He's got no permanent office at the moment and is largely financing the early days with his own savings and contributions from friends and family. He launched in Russia in July and says that 1,000 individuals quickly submitted requests to be included, including many in conflict-filled Ukraine.
Prospective members must present at least three names of people who can confirm their legitimacy before the applicant is cited online with a variety of criteria that would presumably be relevant to an inquiring editor or other seeker of help.
HackPack will have regional, Facebook-like online forums for journalist members, too, and analyses of publications to which reporters might want to pitch freelance pieces. It will include automatic notices specific to one's interests and both job and assignment possibilities.
"I spent weeks looking for a solid Moscow-based business reporter without success. HackPack found the perfect candidate in just a few days," a press release quotes Erica Alini, deputy managing editor of Monitor Global Outlook.
Alec Luhn, a freelancer in Moscow, told me, "Justin's a great guy. I've known him since he worked at The Moscow Times a few years ago and have always been impressed by how active he is, running a half marathon and finding a trampoline fitness center here in Moscow. His startup is great as well; I used it to get in touch with a local journalist in Armenia when I was covering the #ElectricYerevan protests there and also with journalists in St. Petersburg before a reporting trip there. It's basically systematizing and expanding the process of finding sources."
Alberto Riva, the U.S. managing editor in charge of the VICE News New York newsroom, met Varilek when he was world news editor at International Business Times. They had a mutual friend in Moscow who had written for Riva and suggested he meet Varilek.
He "loved" the HackPack presentation, he said by email. "I left IBT before having a chance to use HackPack, but I would otherwise have used it, most likely. It offered an elegant solution to the problem of finding and vetting freelancers on short notice. "
Mike Garrod, a longtime journalist and a founder of London-based World Fixer, a site to set up journalists with multi-purpose "fixers," lauds HackPack's site and "smart owners" but notes by email the obvious: they're new, seem to need more oomph on the broadcast side and need to expand effectively beyond Russia, where they have a good reputation.
The current business model includes some subscription fees --- for example, from public relations firms or risk analysis firms seeking the straight scoop from a journalist in a faraway region -- but not yet from media firms or individual journalists.
"Right now we're doing the evaluations ourselves with a team of about nine people, including one journalist who knows Russia, somebody in Ukraine who founded a new media company, somebody in New Hampshire," said Varilek.
"Our promise is that these are legitimate journalists and that this gives you, as an editor, more people to choose from. You, as editor, can decide if you want to work with these people."
Varilek is trying to bring some vague coherence to a media implosion, but he is not offering an apples-to-apples surrogate for well-staffed bureaus and full-time employment. Ultimately, editors and others will get what they pay for when relying on a contingent work force.
And along with the need for revenues, there may be the suspicion of some editors in just not trusting online databases. No matter how he strains to perform adequate due diligence on those clamoring for work, that may present another challenge for a digital middleman, who is reachable at email@example.com. Wednesday also commences a Kickstarter campaign.