Rachel Sterne has an intimidating resume.
A native New Yorker, Sterne is just 27 years old, and is the founder and CEO of both a citizen journalism site, GroundReport, and a digital media consultancy company for start-ups, Upward Strategy. She’s an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School — without even having a degree — and two years ago, Businessweek named her as one of America’s most promising social entrepreneurs.
If that’s not enough, after a six-month search, the Bloomberg Administration named Sterne New York City’s first Chief Digital Officer earlier this week.
The job of the CDO, from the description that was posted on the city’s website, is someone who can “help develop forward-thinking policies on social media, digital communications, web 2.0 initiatives and other tools to better serve the public.” The salary: between $75,000 to $125,000 per year.
With high achievement can come…let’s just call it backlash. After Sterne’s appointment, Dylan Byers wrote a cutting article in Adweek where he called Sterne’s experience into serious question, saying that “Sterne’s skills as a self-promoter may be stronger than her skills in social media and digital communications.”
He quoted an acquaintance of Sterne’s as saying, “Despite [Ground Report] never receiving any traffic, Sterne used Ground Report to win a bunch of do-gooder awards, put herself in the spotlight…In the meantime, all the attention led her to realise she was really best at promoting herself….”
The piece was enough to inspire the who’s who of New York’s tech and media world to strongly leap to Sterne’s defence in the comments section. [Read the entire back and forth here.]
We interviewed Sterne via email. While she did not comment on the AdWeek piece, she did tell us about how she began Ground Report and what led her to become the city’s main liaison with the digital start-up scene.
How did you come to start Ground Report?
I started GroundReport in 2006, inspired by my experience as an intern at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. GroundReport’s mission is to democratize the media by crowdsourcing news and opinion, and helping the public make its voice heard. Its ultimate goal was to help make policy more efficient and responsive by enabling more citizen input. Today GroundReport has thousands of international reporters who report firsthand from the scene of world events and reach a global audience. As I take on my new role with the City, I will no longer be involved in GroundReport, but other members of its staff will take over the reins and I have enormous confidence in them.
What made you interested in the Chief Digital Officer position?
My career has centered on using technology in the public interest, so when I saw the Chief Digital Officer role I recognised it as an incredible opportunity to pursue that aim in the greatest city on earth. I’m a native New Yorker and very encouraged by the digital efforts underway in New York City and by the importance that Mayor Bloomberg places on innovation. I can’t imagine a more exciting opportunity and challenge.
What needs of the city’s digital media and tech scene do you think the current administration could do a better job in meeting?
The City is already doing a lot to support entrepreneurs, and there is a variety of programs underway, from incubators and seed funds to engineering education initiatives and small business services. One of my tasks will be to act as a liaison between the tech community and the City, helping more entrepreneurs learn about and take advantage of City programs. And we can always do more to support digital startups, so I will work with the startup community to look at long-term goals and solutions – not quick fixes, which won’t have a lasting impact. As an entrepreneur, I am committed to this goal and very excited to help New York City’s tech industry grow and thrive. As Mayor Bloomberg mentioned in his State of the City address last week, New York city is now #1 for young entrepreneurs, and recently surpassed Boston in venture funding to become #2 in the nation. And the best part is we’re just getting started.
In what ways do you foresee the city using social media?
The City of New York is already actively using a wide range of social media channels including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr to engage with citizens across dozens of agencies. Part of my role will be to support City agencies in their work and help coordinate and streamline efforts.There is a lot of potential to save the City money through coordinated social media efforts, public-private partnerships, and online enhancements.
What new policies and initiatives are you thinking about implementing as Chief Digital Officer?
It’s only a few days in, so my first step will be to start by taking a close look at what the City is already doing, and how citizens feel the City could better serve their needs. This will ultimately take the form of a public 90-day report that will quantitatively and qualitatively look at current initiatives and policies, and identify next steps that can build on these achievements. I will also work with NYC.gov and 311 online teams to support their efforts. And steps like enabling more communication between social media managers in different City agencies will also be helpful. Finally, creating meaningful public-private partnerships will be crucial – so I encourage NYC startups interested in collaborating to reach out to me via Twitter @rachelsterne or Facebook.
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