What Happens to Untold News?
Helpareporter.com rescues scoops from obscurity
Email Article  Print Article Thomas Johansmeyer (tomj)    
Much of the news is lost. Great stories are relegated to private conversations every day, often because a reporter can't find the right source. What could be interesting winds up deleted and forgotten. Access to information is a fundamental problem. An interesting study, observation or anecdote can be crucial to turning an idea into an article, but people can be hard to find. A new Web site, Helpareporter.com, aims to keep news from falling through the cracks. By putting reporters in touch with sources that have useful information, stories are rescued from cocktail party banter.

Even for a few hundred words in the back of a magazine, journalists invest a considerable amount of time in chasing leads and looking for new perspectives. In fact, this can take longer than the writing that winds up on the page. On the other side, there are plenty of people with stories to tell, but they struggle to find the right reporter to take an interest. Public relations professionals send press releases and pitch letters, while reporters make endless phone calls, suffering through dead-ends and talking to "a friend of a friend who knows someone" in order to find a source. Despite the effort from both ends of this equation, finding a fit is time-consuming (at best) and often unsuccessful. When no connection is made, a story isn't told. Ultimately, the readers lose.

The rise of social media, obviously, has helped rescue some stories from the abyss. Bloggers have added a new dimension to the media world, capturing nuggets of information that would have been cast aside otherwise. Citizen journalism has helped, as well. With the public deputized into the press corps, voices that may never have reached print gain a venue. The drawbacks, though, are reach and prestige. OMNI, iReport.com, blog communities and other resources don't carry the clout of The New York Times or The Atlantic Monthly. Fair or not, it is a reality that journalists and publicists have accepted.

The connection of source and reporter for major media and targeted outlets has been missing. Publicists want a specific audience or broad appeal, and the reporter wants a rock-solid source. From significant trade publications to the mass-market dailies and weeklies, the inability to find a unique insight has cost businesses and individuals coverage; reporters have sacrificed scoops. A place where reporters and sources can find each other, though, makes this blind dance easier and more productive.

Helpareporter.com takes a unique approach to online media. Instead of finding new ways to put existing news in front of readers, it seeks to make finding news easier, ultimately rescuing stories from the cutting room floor. This Web site gives reporters a chance to find the sources needed to build an article from scratch or find the killer quote that an otherwise dull piece is missing. Instead of spending days or weeks coping with cold-calling and crossed fingers, reporters can broadcast their needs to a community of thousands of PR professionals, entrepreneurs and other media-hungry citizens who have something to say.

Peter Shankman, founder of Helpareporter.com, says he had two reasons for launching the service. "I think that other services are more about making money and less about actually getting reporters what they need." Shankman wanted to find a way to give reporters access to information without jacking up the cost of delivering the news. Also, he wants to make it easier for reporters and publicists to communicate. "I think that, in the end, reporters don't want to hate publicists, and publicists don't want to come across as idiots." He hopes to improve this dynamic, which undoubtedly will lead to more effective news coverage.

The process is straightforward. A reporter submits a request, perhaps for a story on chess tournaments for public school students. Three times a day, a newsletter is broadcast to all registered users with this and many other inquiries. The recipients scan the list. If they find a match, they can contact the posting reporters directly. A dialogue is opened.

Helpareporter.com began as a Facebook group rather than a Web site. The service quickly outgrew the social networking platform, and Shankman moved it to a dedicated Web site. In eight weeks, it has grown from 600 users to nearly 10,000. Topics posted by reporters vary widely, from lifestyle to real estate to trends in nursing.

Some queries do go unanswered, but response rates are surprising. I have used Helpareporter.com for some particularly challenging stories and found sources for topics as diverse as art investing and innovative adult entertainment industry business models. I have spoken with garage-dwelling start-up companies, executives at major international professional services firms and other journalists. Helpareporter.com helped rescue a major story that was dying slowly because I simply couldn't find a source.

It was clear at the time the internet was first widely available that the business of news would change. But, the focus has been on delivery. Digital instead of print, blogging and citizen journalism have been the topics du jour, and their impacts should not be dismissed. The media landscape is changing behind the scenes, too. Access to information can benefit reporters as much as its consumers. By connecting the stories to be told with the people who tell them, Helpareporter.com will put more news in the hands of those who want to read it. Skip an article if you aren't interested, but at least you'll have the choice.

2008/05/29 오전 1:08
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