Global editors impressed by startup site matching journalists to on-the-ground international sources
Frederic Filloux can be counted on for insightful media analysis in his Monday Note e-letter, but this week he broke some news as well.
The Global Editors Network, of which Filloux is both a board member and contest judge, awarded the top innovation prize at its annual meeting in Barcelona to SourceRise, a tiny two-person, New York-based site offering to match journalists with sources.
I spoke by phone with Caroline Avakian, SourceRise founder, who said no one was more surprised by the honor than she. She was sitting in the back of the room admiring demos of news drones and the like from the other seven finalists when her name was called. Admittedly these are just startups, but it was like Iona winning the Final Four.
Fillloux succinctly summarizes the appeal of the venture in which Avakian is drawing on long experience doing public relations for so-called NGOs, non-governmental organizations, from the American Red Cross to small humanitarian projects, working in international trouble spots:
If its team is able to perform a rigorous selection, SourceRise's initiative will have a dual benefit: It will assist (not replace) journalists by providing first-hand, reliable accounts, and it will keep otherwise forgotten humanitarian crises and disasters in the news cycle.
This is but an example of the evolution of journalism. Today, the work of many people could qualify as journalism, even though they do not belong to a news organization, and haven’t been trained as journalists. This applies to a wide range of experts, analysts from corporations, or scholars willing to forgo the stylistic dryness of academic writing.
Filloux sites a somewhat similar venture, not new but not especially well known either, The Conversation. The site, whose slogan is "academic rigor, journalistic flair," has professional editors curating and buffing up essays by scholars. Started in Australia in 2011, it opened a U.S. branch in October of last year. It has a staff of 60, more than 1,200 affiliated colleges and universities and thousands of published pieces.
Avakian is sensitive to the need to vet both sides of the partnerships she brokers. Her process is fairly modest, requiring a Linked-In profile for communications representatives of the NGOs and published work samples from journalists. And as Filloux suggests, journalists will need to provide due diligence of their own in separating valuable first-hand information from organizational advocacy.
But the benefits can be significant for both sides. "Say you want to write about South Sudan, the unrest or women's empowerment issues.... Put in a query, and we can put you in touch with humanitarian workers there."
From the NGO's viewpoint, she continued, organizations will be able to get themselves in front of interested journalists more effectively than with the legacy system of press releases and retainers to expensive PR advisers.
Avakian said she hit on the idea in 2008 (video below) while working for an NGO and returning from a trip to Kenya, where an allegedly rigged election was triggering street protests in Nairobi. Her group and others there had detailed information and insight but no good way to break the full story or enlist interested individual journalists.
Social media and technology advances make the concept workable now in a way it would not have been back then, Avakian said.
The site is available in beta. but a full roll-out will wait until fall, she said, when a developer colleague has the back end fully built out.
Her goal, like most startups is to scale and add staff, Avakian said. While declining to give exact numbers, she said that the uptake from NGOs to date runs into the hundreds but she has had less success so far registering journalists -- a problem the GEN prize should help solve.
SourceRise does have a premium level of service for bigger NGOs, but Avakian said that she does not anticipate drawing any income for herself anytime soon. She has a day job managing SocialBrite, a pr agency for the NGO sector.
Filloux has the main point that sites like SocialRite and The Conversation offer a hopeful prospect of broadening the pool of qualified people doing journalism together even as legacy organizations and their bureaus shrink.
But I see a second trend at work too. I'm hearing a lot of examples lately of old ideas given new life as digital matures. The Washington Post's new service matching qualified freelancers to story assignments, announced Monday, is one. Jan Schaffer sees the goals she was pursing with civic journalism in the 1990s, gaining new steam in digitally enabled community engagement.
Micropayments, which bombed in the 2000s, are getting a second look now that security and ease-of-use are so much better.
For would-be innovator/entrepreneurs, this is welcome news. You don't necessarily have to cook up a brilliant concept from scratch. You might also be able to pluck one off the scrap heap whose time has now come.