Bill Hankes is founder and CEO of Sqoop, a news discovery service journalists use to discover news tips from public data sites such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and federal court system.
Although Sqoop is less than a year old, it has quickly gained advocates in newsrooms.
“Based on the scoops we’ve gotten by using the service, I’ve become an advocate for Sqoop in the GeekWire newsroom, encouraging our reporters to use it,” said Todd Bishop of GeekWire. “The automated alerts regularly tip us off to stories that we otherwise wouldn’t find as quickly, or find at all. Patent applications and SEC filings are two examples, but more recently we’ve also been having a lot of success with the Docket Watch feature, which sends an alert whenever there’s an update to an existing federal court case that we’re tracking. Here’s one recent example.”
For more than 20 years before that, Hankes was a public relations executive, most recently serving as director of Bing Public Relations at Microsoft, and vice president of corporate communications at RealNetworks.
Hankes was a speaker at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in June 2015, and is a member of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers and the Society of Professional Journalists.
He spoke by email about Sqoop and how business journalists can use it to break news with Talking Biz News. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you get the idea for Sqoop?
To be honest, I fell backwards into the idea of news discovery while pursuing another idea: how to create a better type of PR service that would better serve reporters than the lousy tools and practices that exist today. I was talking with some reporter friends at GeekWire in Seattle about this, and they started to describe the more acute pain they experience trying uncover stories from public records sites.
Todd Bishop and John Cook, GeekWire’s founders, became so animated that I thought they were nuts. But I quickly connected with about a dozen other reporters, and unprompted they all told me the same thing. Not just tech or business reporters, but health care, economics, etc. Having just left the search business (Bing), I realized there was a business that could be built around trying to help reporters.
How long did it take to go from conception to market, and what were the hurdles?
Once I understood the news discovery challenge associated with public records, it took a year to get it to market. The biggest hurdle was finding someone with search expertise who could actually build the service. That took me five very painful months, but the guy I found, David Kellum, is an incredible search engineer and architect who has worked in news delivery for Evri, AOL, and Thomson Consulting, now Thomson Reuters. He is now my co-founder and business partner.
We delivered our first test prototype to GeekWire five months later in early December, and on the morning of December 19th, Todd Bishop called me at home to tell me that GeekWire was about to break its first story by using Sqoop, “How Amazon wants to use sensors to make device notifications smarter.” I don’t mind telling you that I got a bit choked up. I don’t think any news had made me happier since my wife told me she was pregnant.
At the time we were collecting Patent Office and SEC data. It took us a couple months to iron out some wrinkles we’d identified in early testing, which is a nice way of saying, we re-wrote entire sections of the code base. We brought on about a dozen other reporters in early beta testing in February and then released Sqoop more broadly at the beginning of March 2015, almost a year to the date of sitting down with the GeekWire guys initially.
You’re not charging reporters for the service, so how are you generating revenue?
We aren’t generating revenue, and likely won’t have anything substantial to report until next year at some point. We think we can make money the same way the search engines do: by advertising, something we’ve already disclosed to our users on our blog because we want to be transparent about our plans. Luckily we’ve recently landed some investment dollars so that we can keep doing this work without having to immediately generate revenue.
Walk me through how a business reporter would sign up for alerts.
If reporters have companies or interests, like 3D printing, they follow, they can simply execute a search for those terms on Sqoop, and then click the green button on the left-hand side of the screen to establish an alert. Further, if reporters want to follow a specific court case, we have a feature called Docket Watch where they can click on the eyeball icon in the upper, right-hand corner of our court detail pages to receive updates every time there’s an addition to that docket. The reporter needs to be signed in.
SEC filings, like 8-Ks where companies disclose material developments to their businesses like executive hires and mergers & acquisitions, patent applications and grants, and then federal court filings.
Do you offer help in understanding the documents as well, or is that up to the journalists?
Helping reporters find these documents is the first problem we’ve been dealing with. We have recently begun to focus on the second problem, which is helping them assess the news value more rapidly than scouring the whole document. We do that by translating the codes and doing the math on an SEC Form 4 like this one, for example, and by offering a single-page view of SEC filings that show the original 8-K, for example, but also all of the exhibits, like offer letters and press releases, all within expandable view. Not only is this a better view for reporters, but also for readers, where some publications have started linking to Sqoop pages instead of the SEC.
The next problem we’d like to solve is taking a relatively “dumb” set of search results that are ranked by date and adding a level of intelligence on top so that we can order search results based on news value, and send alert emails to reporters only when a certain newsworthy threshold has been met—so, a newsworthy algorithm. We think this could be of enormous value to reporters who already suffer from too much email.
What have been some of the big stories that Sqoop has helped business journalists break?
We don’t disclose the reporters who use Sqoop or the articles they generate as a result, so there are only a handful of stories I can discuss where the reporters have acknowledged Sqoop’s contribution publicly, either in the article, editor’s notes, on Twitter, or where they have granted me permission in writing via email.
Back in September, The Oregonian broke the news well ahead of the pack that Haggen, a grocery chain that operates 164 stores in five western states, had filed for bankruptcy protection. Unlike the vast majority of stories with which Sqoop assists, reporter Anna Marum credited us via Twitter.
Here are a handful of others:
These are the biggest insider sellers of the year – Business Insider
Are there other public records that you’d like to add to Sqoop going forward?
Yes, we have a long list that includes other business sites like the FTC and FCC, but also the sites that help healthcare reporters like the FDA and the CDC, and then there are public sites, like LinkedIn, where we’d like to be able to extract pertinent data for journalists.
Before we expand horizontally along those lines, we want to improve the tools we have, like the ability to search by geography and form type, features we expect to deliver this month, and also adding enforcement actions published by the SEC, but often overlooked sections of the site that contain important news.
How are you raising awareness with reporters that this kind of service is available?
I was fortunate enough to be asked to do a demo session at this year’s IRE conference, and my session was attended by about 100 reporters, and we sponsored the swag bag at the SABEW conference as well.
Other than that, we’ve been doing some Facebook and Twitter advertising which is relatively inexpensive, and started doing some email marketing as well, something I worry about given the PR spam problem reporters already suffer from, but the responses I receive are encouraging.
You’re a former PR guy who is now helping business reporters break stories. Do you feel like you’re eating crow?
Ha! More like doing penance. Seriously, when I was doing PR, I always viewed the reporter as the customer, not my employer, and I loved doing my job because I got to interact with really cool reporters. The sad truth is that I left PR because I couldn’t stand the growing strain between the industry and reporters. I’m just lucky that I have found some way to continue working with journalists.