AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   December 1996

An Online Source of Journalism Sources   

By Leah Kohlenberg
Leah Kohlenberg is a Hong Kong-based freelancer.     

Bas den Hond, an Amsterdam-based journalist, was working on a story in April about fires that had erupted near Chernobyl almost 10 years to the day after that city's infamous nuclear disaster. He desper- ately needed an expert opinion on how much radioactive dust and soot would soon be polluting the air.

Thousands of miles away was just the person den Hond wanted to talk to: Chris Hohenemser, a physics professor at Worcester, Massachusetts' Clark University, who had measured the nuclear fallout following the Chernobyl meltdown a decade earlier.

Ten years ago it would have been highly unlikely that these two men would ever find one another. Perhaps several hours of expensive long-distance phone calls might have eventually put den Hond in contact with Hohenemser, but such journalistic legwork could just as easily have ended in nothing but frustration.

But fortunately for den Hond, this time he had access to ProfNet, a computer network of universities, public relations firms and think tanks around the globe. It took den Hond only about one minute to e-mail his request for a source to Prof-Net, and that same day he interviewed Hohenemser.

"I was able to get them together as a result of the query, and a front page story ran the next day in Amsterdam," says Tim Boulay, assistant director of media relations at Clark. Den Hond notes that the story scooped the rest of the country.

Connections such as this are exactly what Dan Forbush, founder of ProfNet (profnet@vyne.com), had in mind when he created the service four years ago. Making what were once labor- intensive pairings between writers and experts easy, efficient and accessible is ProfNet's main goal.

"ProfNet has a unique niche as a collaborative oriented toward helping journalists locate expert sources," says Forbush via e-mail, which is how ProfNet handles the bulk of its communications.

The idea is simple: Professional writers who need expert advice, no matter how arcane, send in a one-paragraph request by e-mail, fax or phone. The requests are then forwarded three times each day, via the Internet, to public information officers representing scores of universities, PR firms, government agencies and think tanks. Appropriate responses are sent directly back to the writers.

An additional bonus for writers and researchers is that ProfNet is free for anyone requesting information. Institutions that want to be included on the mailing list pay between $195 and $1,995 per year to receive requests, depending on their size, but most say it is money well-spent given that the list generates far more publicity than cold-calling reporters or faxing unsolicited press releases.

ProfNet was born in December 1992, when Forbush was head of the public relations department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. At the time, the Internet had just started to become widely accessible, and Forbush enlisted fellow academics who had endured the same public relations frustrations he had to be part of his proposed service. By December he had put together a start-up distribution list of 200 contacts.

Since then, the distribution list has grown to 2,800 contacts at 1,350 institutions in 17 countries, most of them universities and colleges. ProfNet now handles between 50 to 70 information requests daily, Forbush says.

In its first two years, Forbush operated ProfNet as an extension of the Stony Brook PR office. But in 1994, a new administration took over the campus and Forbush was unable to convince his new boss of the service's value.

The university eventually terminated Forbush's employment, but sold him the rights to ProfNet's name and mailing list, and now Forbush runs the business full time out of his home with the help of his wife and five other employees around the country. In 1995 ProfNet generated about $200,000 in revenues, and Forbush expects that number to double this year.

Sally Ketchum, a Michigan-based former teacher who now freelances and writes children's books, is a serious ProfNet fan. She says the service has helped her numerous times, from finding people who could translate a philosophical concept into idiomatic Italian for a short story to locating expert test-readers for her novels.

She also credits ProfNet with helping to expand her world. Ketchum is deaf, making telephone interviews impossible, and she says that ProfNet has put her on equal footing with her colleagues.

Ketchum says ProfNet has put the hearing world in contact with her visually, ultimately improving her productivity. "Let's just say ProfNet enables me to do a far wider range of work," she says.