It all began innocently enough. In fifteen years as a PR guy and serial entrepreneur, Peter Shankman had become something of a personal clearinghouse for reporters in need of sources. Shankman, thirty-seven, was particularly good at serving up “real people,” the elusive Joe Everymen whose personal experiences are de rigueur for trend stories. As reporters passed his name along to colleagues, Shankman says, he found himself running a referral service for journalists he didn’t even know. So he established a Facebook group to serve as a virtual water cooler for reporters and the sources who wanted to talk to them and called it “Help a Reporter Out.”

Two years later, HARO has become a small business and has reportedly booked more than $1 million in ad revenue over the past twelve months. More than eighty thousand people have signed up as “sources,” and Shankman says thirty thousand journalists have posted a query. HARO now has its own URL, but the fundamentals are the same: reporters fill out an online form describing the sort of person they’d like to talk to, and the queries, some one hundred a day, fly out via e-mail bulletin or, for deadline stories, Twitter. Unlike competitor ProfNet, which charges sources who want to receive journalists’ queries, HARO (tagline: “Everyone’s an expert at something”) is free and open to everyone. And, as I learned when I sent out a request for this story, it works remarkably well. Journalists using HARO wouldn’t typically sign up to be sources, I figured, but I got twenty-six responses in twenty-four hours.

HARO is faster than an e-mail blast or a Facebook search, and the rapid delivery of eager, relevant sources to a time-strapped reporter’s inbox is seductive. Jennifer Brett of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently looked for local residents with a reaction to a spate of violent crimes. She posted her query around lunchtime one day and filed her story by 6 p.m., full of HARO-generated anecdotes. “With a little more lead time, it might’ve been twenty or thirty responses,” says Brett.

But that very efficiency may be problematic, says Jay Harris, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and the former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News. “It’s easy,” explains Harris, “and good journalism isn’t supposed to be easy.” It’s not just about work ethic: in theory, reporters get great stories by allowing for surprise and dissent, and, ultimately, convincing the reticent to open up. In HARO-world, all the sources say yes and no one ever blows a deadline—but there is a danger that, in the process, reporters’ instincts are unquestioningly affirmed.

Then there’s the question of how representative HARO’s source list is. No street or mall is perfectly diverse, but the online universe tends to be whiter, richer, and younger than the general population. (To be fair, it’s not clear that without HARO more reporting would be done off-line. In a completely unscientific poll of users, top alternatives included Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail queries, followed by phone calls.)

Despite those concerns, the reporters I spoke to don’t feel conflicted about using HARO—in fact, the most common complaint is that they sometimes get too many responses, or ones that don’t fit their query. Many did say, though, that it’s their responsibility to verify sources’ identities, and to be thoughtful about how they use the service. Priya Ganapati, a writer for Wired.com, said she is careful to write broad queries that leave room for varied responses. “If I get too specific, that’s my fault,” she says. “It’s not the fault of the network.”

 

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Janet Paskin is a freelance writer.