Friday, February 8, 2008

What if there were an eBay for news?

Berkeley j-school student Sindya Bhanoo discusses the creation of a new online exchange for professional journalism.

By Jean Yung
Online Journalism Review

Imagine a place where journalists could pitch stories as soon as they hit 'save.' Where editors could snap them up just as quickly for printing in tomorrow's paper. Imagine a reporting network built on trust, where both editors and journalists could accrete bodies of work tagged with endorsements and feedback. Is an eBay of news viable? And ultimately, will it deliver news to readers more quickly and more cheaply?

A pair of young entrepreneurs -- she's a graduating Berkeley journalism school student and he's a former engineer for Amazon -- have combined expertises to create one such vehicle:

OJR discussed where reportage and eBay converge and where they don't with co-founder Sindya Bhanoo over the phone. An edited transcript follows.

OJR: Why did you start Reporterist?

Bhanoo: I saw a gap in the freelancing industry -- the process of pitching an article and getting it published had holes in it. It seemed like with today's technology it could be done in a more streamlined fashion.

When you pitch an article, you're waiting to hear back from a specific editor before you can pitch it elsewhere. And in the news industry, timeliness is a big issue. We talked to lots of editors. They were telling us that with cost cutbacks, there is a need for high quality freelance work, but it's difficult to get trusted freelance work that you can rely on. Editors get something like 500 e-mails a day and they don't have time to search through all of these to identify the good ones.

So the idea behind Reporterist is a news exchange where freelancers and editors can connect. As a journalist, you can upload your work and submit it to a specific publication -- say an article about hiking to an outdoor magazine -- and give them two weeks to view the story and decide to publish it. But you can also line up the publications that can have access to it after two weeks. Alternatively -- and we're still working on this -- you can submit it to the "marketplace."

OJR: So if a publication wanted your piece, who sets the price?

Bhanoo: When you're uploading the article, you can put down a minimum pirce that you'll take for it. Or you can accept a publication's default rate for freelancers. We've been testing this out in the Bay Area. We got about 13 publications signed up here. When a publication registers, they put information about what they're looking for, the regions they cover, and the prices they pay for freelance work.

OJR: How does the marketplace option work?

Bhanoo: It's a feature to come. If you have an article that you wanted to sell, you can choose to pitch it to all the magazines or, say, the five magazines that cover the outdoors.

OJR: Would the editors then bid for your story?

Bhanoo: No, there's no bidding system built in. The intention is not to turn it into an eBay. It doesn't make sense to have an auction model, because publications tend to pay at a fixed rate.

OJR: So if a publication could see your story before they pay for it, what's to stop them from stealing your ideas?

Bhanoo: We did think about that, and we talked about it with a few people. One thing to keep in mind is that when you pitch a story currently, this is something that could already happen. The moment an editor views an article through Reporterist, you know the time that they viewed it. You also can't copy and paste off the system easily. We also incorporated user commentary using a wiki. We want to create a system of trusted reporters, editors, and publications. The idea is to help people build a reputation.

OJR: Right. I noticed on the demo that reporters can build their portfolios on the site.

Bhanoo: Part of what we're also offering is a way for generalists to build an online portfolio. There's also a way for editors to look at your past work. There's an easy way of letting people view it.

OJR: You launched Reporterist while at school. How did you go about that?

Bhanoo: Last August, we launched it with UC-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. We talked to the faculty. We did a presentation for them. There was a very distinct need among the students and faculty to find a way to get work published. There's a lot of time lag between professors contacting editors, trying to refer work for a student. We actually built that into the system. Professors can log into the program and endorse the student with a note attached to the work. It's a trusted network. The student knows the professor. The professor knows the editor.

The endorsement is for a specific piece of work -- a professor saying, "I looked at this story, and it would be perfect for your publication."

By mid-September, we got the faculty on board and then we decided to expand to existing networks. We went to publications in the Bay Area that already take work from students -- the Oakland Tribune, the East Bay Express, the Berkeley Daily Planet, and other regional papers. We signed up editors, showed them how to use it. They were able to see what work was pitched to them and directly download it. There are specific software systems that different newspapers use. We made it really easy for them to download it in whatever format was best for them.

OJR: Did your undergrad background in computer science come in handy in the process?

Bhanoo: I haven't worked as a computer scientist for a while. My husband did all the technology development behind this. The most critical thing is to identify needs in the system. Keeping an eye out for what's happening in the industry, understanding where things are going. There's a lot of change happening.

OJR: Are you making a profit from the site?

Bhanoo: Not yet. The portfolios are free for users to create, but there are capabilities to add multimedia. Depending on how much space you need to store images or video, that will cost you. Compared to other portfolio sites, we think our site is the least expensive right now.

We've also built a payment model but we haven't implemented it yet. When a freelancer sells an article through the system, they get paid immediately from the publisher. We'll be taking something like a 10 percent cut. In the real world, it can take months before a freelancer gets paid, and the delay is usually paperwork-related. So publications are receptive to the idea of doing this electronically. We've implemented electronic contracts. The papers we've talked to are pretty interested.

OJR: Where will you take the site next?

Bhanoo: We've just opened up the site to the public. Columbia is interested in introducing this to their students. We're also going to take it to specific groups such as Society of Professional Journalists or the Asian American Journalists Association. We're going to take it step by step. Right now we have about 60 users.

OJR: What's been your biggest challenge so far?

Bhanoo: It's good to get more users, but you want to grow fully enough that you have enough features to keep them. You don't want to grow too slowly that you're stagnating, but you have to make sure to sign up users and publications at a matching rate. It's kind of like a chicken and egg problem -- you need users to get publications but you need publications to get users.

OJR: That sounds a little like CNN's i-Report.

Bhanoo: A lot of sites are opening up to citizen journalism. But we're trying to create a place where journalists and up-and-coming citizen journalists can sell their work and start building a reputation.

Our larger vision is that it's the next generation wire service, like an AP or a Reuters. The public wants high quality, relevant news. As the industry's cutting back, a lot of regions are under-covered. Most of the editors we spoke to say they're relying too much on AP or Reuters content. At Reporterist, they will be able to look at all these stories and sort them by region or topic. Our vision is to be a wire service for local, topical news.

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