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April 20 2011

18:49

Tasini Lawsuit Against Huffington Post Has No Merit

Jonathan Tasini's at it again.

Last week, the writer and labor activist declared war on Arianna Huffington, first promising to make her "a pariah in the progressive community" and then threatening to make her life "a living hell." He went on, in a splendid variation of Howard Beale's "I'm mad as hell" speech, to say that unpaid Huffington Post bloggers are "modern-day slaves" on "Arianna's...plantation."

In short, Tasini's a real charmer.

He made those comments in the shadow of a class-action lawsuit he filed April 12 against the HuffPost and its parent company, AOL. Tasini claims that all unpaid HuffPost bloggers -- he was one of them, until two months ago -- deserve a share of the site's estimated $315 million buyout value. Specifically, his magic number is $105 million. He wants not a penny less. Why that much? Because "justice" demands it, of course.

Weak Legal Theories

The lawsuit really is two things: It's interesting and it's a loser. On the one hand, the suit raises some provocative big-picture questions. Should media sites pay their content creators? If so, how would those relationships be structured? If not, how would the supply of free content affect the creative market? On the other hand, a trial court is not the best forum for those questions, and the suit relies on weak legal theories.

The big theory, the one I'll focus on here, is unjust enrichment. Tasini argues that Huffington Post has generated enormous revenue by inviting people to blog for the site on a volunteer basis, in exchange for exposure. The low production costs have lifted the HuffPost's value, with the "entirety of the financial gain" going to the site. The bloggers have received no money, even though their content has generated a portion of the revenue. As a result, the HuffPost has been unjustly enriched.

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So goes Tasini's argument, and needless to say it's unpersuasive. The theory of unjust enrichment stems from the principle that one person should not be allowed to enrich herself at the expense of another. It applies in cases where no legal contract exists. After all, if a legal contract existed, then its terms would dictate the relationship between the parties -- their rights and obligations. On a claim of unjust enrichment, the court can impose the obligation of one party to pay the other, in the absence of a contract, if doing so would be fair and right.

In the Southern District of New York, where Tasini filed his lawsuit, a person "seeking relief under a theory of unjust enrichment...must demonstrate (1) that the defendant benefited; (2) at the plaintiff's expense; and (3) that equity and good conscience require restitution." In other words, Tasini needs to show that the HuffPost benefited from the posts written by the unpaid bloggers, that the HuffPost benefited at the expense of those bloggers, and that requiring the HuffPost to repay them is the fair and right thing to do.

I bet Tasini could satisfy the first two elements, either by submitting evidence about the amount of revenue that the Huffington Post realized from each freebie post, or by submitting evidence about the savings in production costs that HuffPost realized by using unpaid bloggers. However, I don't think that "equity and good conscience require" the HuffPo to repay them. Thus, Tasini couldn't satisfy the third element.

Not 'Modern-Day Slaves'

It's easy to think of the unpaid bloggers as helpless -- as victims of a tidal wave of digital-industrial capitalism. But that's too generous. I'd like to see writers get paid just as much as the next guy, but the HuffPost bloggers chose to write for free. They're not "modern-day slaves," contrary to what Tasini said, and their relationship with the site has been informal, at best. As Lauren Kirchner wrote in February, in the Columbia Journalism Review:

The thousands of unpaid bloggers...have signed no agreement with the site, and are under no obligation to submit their stories with any regularity. They do not receive assignments. If they have an idea for a post but then decide not to write it, they are not penalized by the site's editors in any way...When bloggers no longer feel it's in their interest -- or that it's disproportionately too much in AOL/HuffPo's interest -- then they'll quit, which they have every right to do...Every individual writer has his or her own individual motivations for contributing for the site.

Tasini offers no evidence that he expressed to the HuffPost any expectation of payment. Nor does he offer evidence that the site expressed to him that he'd be paid. In short, he had no reasonable basis to believe he'd get any money. For these reasons and in light of Kirchner's comments, I just can't say that "equity and good conscience require" the Huffington Post to repay the bloggers.

If they want to get paid, they shouldn't write for free.

Jonathan Peters is a lawyer and the Frank Martin Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he's working on his Ph.D. and specializing in the First Amendment. An award-winning freelancer, he has written on legal issues for a variety of newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at jonathan.w.peters@gmail.com.

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March 24 2011

17:32

Can eHow Get More Respect with Push for Quality Content?

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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

Content farms. Content mills. Robo-content.

Demand Media and its huge how-to site eHow have been called snarky names for years, largely because they pay low rates for quickly produced content based on popular search queries. So it's no surprise that a search for "how to grill fish" on Google produces this eHow article up near the top of the results.

Last year, MediaShift ran a week-long special report, Beyond Content Farms and one report by Corbin Hiar included a Demand Media writer saying that her haphazard report on "How to Make Gin at Home" could poison someone. Now, eHow execs tell me that they're taking steps to improve quality.

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"I know there was so much conversation out on the web about low quality content," said Greg Boudewijn, eHow's senior vice president and general manager, in a recent interview. "We realize we're human and there's going to be pieces of content that slip through that aren't great. Whatever we can do to provide means to continue to improve the processes and the content that exists on our site, that's something we take to heart. We applaud Google for their changes, and applaud any site that focuses on quality."

A recent redesign of eHow created colorful channel pages for Family, Food, Health, Home, Money, and Style. The cleaner look is being augmented with longer form feature stories, a video webisode series about the popularity of food trucks, and a content deal with Rachael Ray in the Food section. More importantly, eHow added new "Helpful?" buttons at the end of each article so people could provide direct feedback on whether articles are useful -- which will lead to more oversight of writers.

Despite a recent change in Google's algorithm to filter out poor quality content, eHow actually benefited from the change, according to both comScore and Sistrix. I spoke to both Boudewijn and Jeremy Reed, the senior vice president of content and editorial at Demand Media, in a wide-ranging interview. While they admitted they weren't on a path to match the New York Times, they were frank about their push into service journalism -- especially with the number one most trafficked home and garden site. Below is an edited transcript, with audio clips, from that phone interview.

Q&A

What were the main improvements with the redesign of eHow?

Greg Boudewijn: We were looking at this site as the next evolution of our site and user experience. It was a little more than four years since we touched it, it was 2007. Demand Media acquired eHow in 2006, so you can imagine that four years on the web is like 30 in real life. In that time, eHow had grown phenomenally based on our unique content model. It was time to re-architect the back end to handle the scale of innovation and development faster, and we wanted to launch more sites internationally.

We introduced a new eHow logo and color palette to introduce a more consumer brand. We wanted to create more of an emotional connection for them, and the best way we did that was the introduction of six core channels at the top of the header. Each channel has its own color palette and own look and feel. If you look back 10 years to the AOLs and Yahoos of the world, doing portal hubs -- a little bit of an antiquated term -- they had huge amounts of traffic coming through their front doors. And they could funnel that traffic to core verticals like news, finance and entertainment.

ehow large grab.jpg

Our model is very different. We made each individual content page as an entry point to our site. Over time, we saw audiences growing in certain core verticals and those are the ones we chose to use for our channels. People were coming repeatedly to certain topics so when we created the channel pages, we used them to create new content types. Everything from long-form video webisodes to blogs and posts from experts. We partnered with Rachael Ray for our food category. The experts can be personalities or brands.

In the home channel, we have Home Depot to help users fulfill what they're looking for. It's about simplification. You have the steps to do something and can go out and buy it. The new site is a springboard to expand the media company to cater to more than how-to articles.

You were thinking of every story as an entry point but now you have vertical sections. Why? Because of traffic patterns you saw?

Boudewijn: We still view articles and videos as entry points whether people get there from search or social networks. What we saw was that we were amassing audiences of a scale that was much larger than sites on the web that only focused on that specific topic. That was evident with the home category, where for more than the past year, we've been the number one home and garden site on the web. We felt it was our responsibility to make a front door for that and program it daily with a rich experience.

Tell me more about the new longer form stories and features.

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Jeremy Reed: One of the things we've always focused on is the idea of utility. But there's also the opportunity to entertain them or take them to the next step or direct them to another place. We have 15,000 active people in our community [of contributors] throughout the U.S. -- we have filmmakers, copy editors, writers. They were very good at creating this specific kind of content, but they also have experience writing feature content, or filmmakers had experience doing longer form content. We had a talent base in our community, so it made sense on the business side and an opportunity for that community so they could grow their career.

Was the business reason for doing longer stories so that you could improve the time spent on your site?

Reed: When we look at content, we look at many signals. We look at content that could hold its weight next to branded advertisers, and content that people would want to share. In the last month, we had 100,000 articles shared through Facebook. So it's trying to figure out compelling content based on the signals coming to our site.

Boudewijn: It's about completing the user experience. We've done a really good job doing articles of a certain length and type. So what happens now is, because we've created these channels, the content we create in one channel can be fundamentally different than in others. We're providing something with an expert voice, and something they can follow daily. It has more of a personality and engagement factor.

How has pay for writers evolved at eHow, and will you change compensation with this redesign?

Reed: We've always had a range in compensation. We've paid anything from $7.50 for a short-form tip to more than $100 for feature articles. Different ranges for filmmakers. I think the price that we pay has certainly gone up. We pay our writers twice a week, so if they turn in an article on a Sunday, we pay them on Tuesday. If they turn an article in on Wednesday, we pay them on Friday, regardless of the amount paid.

Reed explains how eHow is transparent to writers about how much they'll get paid and let writers of similar content see how much everyone in that subject gets paid:

ehow1.mp3

Does pay vary according to topic or length of story?

Reed: We look at different factors like subject area expertise and how much time it takes to write it and other factors like that.

How is this redesign targeted at advertisers? You mentioned there would be more "touch points" for them in your press release about the redesign.

Boudewijn: We were very good at providing a utility, and there was content programmed on the home page focused on how-to, but not differentiated by category. When we acquired eHow in 2006, branded sales wasn't a big part of our business. We relied primarily on third party relationships with advertising affiliates. Over time, with the hiring of Joanne Bradford [from Yahoo to be chief revenue officer of Demand Media], branded advertising has become a bigger part of our business. Those advertisers want to own the consumer experience. They want to see their placement on the page and see the integration. They want to know the boundaries around where that exists.

So when we did the redesign, we looked at aesthetics of the site but also looked at places where advertisers could come in and buy sponsorships or packages. One thing that's unique about what we do is our content is all intent-driven. We're not an entertainment site or news site where people come to the front door and say, "entertain me." But eHow is intent-driven; people come with a specific mission and we want to help fulfill that. That's a very meaningful experience and a funnel that advertisers want to be a part of.

Plus, we wanted to position experts. Brands want to be associated with the Rachael Rays of the world and expert knowledge that's honest and genuine. That's a great opportunity for advertisers to wrap around eHow Food. And there's also an opportunity for brands as experts. So for the Home Depots of the world ... a user coming to the site recognizes an advertiser that adds value to the experience, and it helps them.

Boudewijn explains how Home Depot will help users as an "advertiser presence" that will help users complete tasks.

ehow2.mp3

You've added this "Helpful?" button to get feedback from readers. How does that work?

Boudewijn: We've been very good at listening to signals out on the web, whether through search or social to understand what content we should create. eHow has a massive audience, and it's one thing to be in the studio evaluating writers on a number of metrics -- their grammar, their quality, their experience. That's an academic way. But we want to know how our content resonates with people who are using it in on an everyday basis. So these buttons are the first step of a curation layer to understand how helpful our content is in the real world.

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Right now we let people tell us if it's helpful, and they can "like" it or share it on Facebook and Twitter. If they don't think it's helpful, then we're gathering reasons on why it might not be helpful for them, and funnel that information back to our editorial team to help enrich our content and inform our guidelines on what to produce. That's just our first step, there will be other hooks on the page to solicit feedback in the coming months.

Reed: One of the things we've done from the beginning is make sure we understand the quality of the content by the people who use it. We've let people make comments and ratings on stories, but we wanted to go back to ask the specific question: Was this helpful or not? Like Greg was saying, we can take that information and go back to the writer and decide if we want to give them more work, or are they better in one subject than another. It's a constant, targeted feedback loop from someone who's engaging with that content.

I noticed on Compete.com that the traffic for eHow went down about 7 percent in visits and 4percent in unique visitors for February 2011. Was that related to what happened with Google changing its search algorithm?

Boudewijn: February is naturally a shorter month. Most businesses on the web, going from a 31-day month to a 28-day month, especially with the two holidays for Valentine's Day and President's Day, you have a lot of events that make businesses fluctuate. We're now Top 10 in the U.S., according to comScore. I don't rely heavily on third-party analytics that we don't have direct influence over, so I can't necessarily comment on Compete's numbers.

Google makes algorithm changes all the time, but when they make it public, people seem to gravitate to them. We've seen them make a number of changes, and we see ups and downs. Our business continues to grow and we haven't seen any material effect from [Google's algorithm changes].

(Editor's Note: In a follow-up query to comScore, the research firm also found a slight drop in traffic to eHow in February, but attributed it to the shorter month as well, and noted that the Google-referred percentage of traffic to eHow is actually slightly higher in February than January.)

Are there other things you're doing to improve the quality of content?

Boudewijn: If you look at the way we produced content two years ago, it's fundamentally different than the way we do today. One of the unique things we're doing is creating these channels and aligning writers in Demand Studios with those channels. We're also vetting the talent to make sure they're qualified to write for us. Content quality is such a broad term. You could take the New York Times' content and put it on someone's blog and put 15 AdSense ads around it and show it to 100 people and they'd say it's terrible.

Content quality comes down to the process by which it's created, and we stand behind our editorial process. At eHow, we want to make sure it's a quality experience for users and for brands and advertisers.

Reed: We did make a make a conscious effort to stay within what we could do responsibly within our model, within our community, within our scale. We didn't go after investigative reporting like the New York Times does because we didn't feel in the current equation that we could do it successfully. We went after this very service journalism, the utility kind of content. We started to see the value of subject matter expertise, and an editorial process. We wanted people to come through the door with years of experience, so that it makes sense for them as part of their career.

Our editorial rigor includes plagiarism checks, citing references, going through a copy editor so we felt good about that content. We have a very large taxonomy, so we've tried to cut that up so everyone has subject matter expertise, including the people who write the titles, who edit the copy, who select the photo, all the way down to the people editing it and giving it the final OK.

Boudewijn says they realize there will be some pieces of content that slip through 'that aren't great,' but they're trying to improve:

ehow3.mp3

How do you vet the people that you hire?

Reed: It's on two levels. We qualify people who come in. If you're a writer, you submit a resume and multiple clips and we have an in-house editor who vets that. If you're a copy editor, it's the same process but if you're accepted there's a copy editing test. So if you're going to edit a section on automobiles, you get a test based on that subject. That's one part of our approach. And then on each piece of content, every writer gets edited by a copy editor and has a possible re-write before it's sent through. The copy editor then rates the writer on a 1 to 5 scale on grammar and on subject matter expertise.

We look at every single person and qualify them, and look at every single piece of content.

Do you own all rights to the content or can writers or videographers re-use the material?

Reed: We made the decision that if we would pay up front and pay for that piece of content that we would own it.

Boudewijn: That was one of our learnings over time, that ensures our editorial process and integrity. Early on, in 2006, we did allow people to come directly to eHow.com and submit content. We dropped that program last April because it didn't make sense to put all the time and energy into producing content with a rigorous editorial process, and then have people submit things without any process. So today we stand behind our content because it's completely owned by us.

*****

What do you think about eHow's redesign and push for higher quality content? Do you use the site regularly or avoid it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

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January 19 2011

15:00

Seeking Alpha’s Premium Partnership Program and the evolution of paying for content

When the word dropped this weekend that the finance blog Seeking Alpha would begin paying its contributors, the news was met with both questions about its motives and concern about how the deal shakes out for writers.

The payment plan, called the “Premium Partnership Program,” provides contributors a rate of $10 for every 1,000 pageviews on stories submitted to Seeking Alpha “exclusively.” It’s a formula that makes sense on paper, particularly for a site that gets between 40-45 million pageviews a month: If exclusive stories garner high enough hits, the overall traffic helps the site — and writers get a payday.

The catch, of course — beyond the “exclusivity” clause — is that writers have to find the perfect alchemy of scoops and SEO-friendly subjects to gain a substantial cut. And already a few of Seeking Alpha’s contributors are saying that the math doesn’t add up. Reuters’s Felix Salmon, whose work appears on Seeking Alpha, offered up these numbers:

On average, I’ve been getting just under 48,000 pageviews per month. Which means that if I gave every single one of my blog entries to Seeking Alpha exclusively, then I’d still be earning on average less than $500 a month. And I’m a full-time blogger, unlike most Seeking Alpha contributors.

If most posts on Seeking Alpha get between 3,000 and 4,000 pageviews, that means that, under the partnership program, a writer would get a check for $30 or $40 per post.

It’s clear we’ve reached Stage 2 in the saga of how sites handle contributor content, as more outlets are trying to find a way to compensate writers. Stage 1 was the period when news sites traded on reputation (and maybe ego) in motivating contributors to submit content (“write for us and your name will be in front of the right people”). But as a sites grow, attracting more advertising dollars or at least more funding, the question for a number of writers becomes “how do I get a piece of the action?”

Many sites and writers employ fairly traditional freelancing models of compensation — flat rates per post — while others rely on variations in CPM rates. (Yahoo’s Contributor Network, for example, compensates writers at $2 CPM plus an upfront payment.) We’ve also seen slightly more elaborate schemes, like The Awl’s recent venture in profit-sharing. And of course there’s Demand Media, the subject of many a story about writers’ pay and working conditions.

When I spoke with Seeking Alpha’s CEO, David Jackson, last week, he told me that the site’s contributors were a mix of novice writers with backgrounds in the financial industries as well as established bloggers and newsletter writers. (Seeking Alpha has close to 4,000 contributors all told, including both individuals and other media properties like TechCrunch and Globe Investor, the investment site from Canada’s Globe and Mail.)

Before the partnership program, the payoff for writers was publicity for the work they published elsewhere. “We publish the article; we get traffic and drive leads to your business,” Jackson said in a phone conversation.

While that’s still the case, the money will sweeten the deal for the writers. “If they specialize in a particular sector, they become the authority on it and get lots of readership,” Jackson said. And that, in turn, will “make real money.”

Though he didn’t go into specifics, Jackson noted that writers have the potential to pull in a bigger take from pageviews than the site does from advertisers. Jackson told me they “view how much money [contributors] make as a sign of our success. If they do really well, it means we’re successful.”

The bottom line for the moment, though, is that freelancers and blog contributors are still not likely to pull in heavy dividends for their work — at least, as Salmon suggested, not enough for a full-time gig off any one website. Of course, the elephant in the room is The Huffington Post, which has an extensive network of unpaid contributors, and is in a universe far different than most sites, as Joseph Tartakoff points out. But out on the fringes, we’re seeing more of an evolution in the ways publishers are paying for the content they post online.

October 07 2010

19:13

Examiner.com Execs Push for Quality, Refute 'Content Farm' Tag

Journalists love to categorize, generalize and put everything into easily digestible chunks of information. But in our quest to explain something in simple terms, we also can oversimplify things. That may have been the case with MediaShift's recent series, Beyond Content Farms, where we included Examiner.com in no less than three stories. Examiner.com does create massive amounts of content, with more than 3,000 new stories per day written by more than 55,000 "Examiners," or paid local contributors.

And while Examiner.com was fine with getting the coverage on MediaShift, they don't like being cast in the same light as Demand Media and Associated Content. I recently met with Rick Blair, CEO of Clarity Digital Group (which runs Examiner.com for billionaire Philip Anschutz) and Leonard Brody, president of Clarity Digital and former co-founder of NowPublic (bought by Clarity last year). They were clearly uncomfortable with the "content farm" tag for Examiner.com and tried to emphasize the vetting process for hiring Examiners, their training program, and community policing of their work.

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"There's a philosophical difference between what we do and what Demand or Associated Content would do," Brody said. "Sometimes people will compare us because we have a volume of producing content so they think that we must fall into the 'content farm' bucket. But the philosophical difference is very simple: We don't start from the basis of content. We start from the basis of the Examiner. The Examiners are our core currency, that we build everything around -- our toolsets, the Examiner workflow -- we don't put the value on the content at the start. We're much more on the qualitative side, and have much more of a local focus and bent."

Yet, similarities to Demand Media do exist. Demand does pay for content that will show up in searches, and Examiner.com pays contributors based on a "black box" calculation that includes page views and traffic to the story. Rick Blair even touted a recent ad campaign on Examiner.com that was focused on helping boost the SEO (search engine optimization) for an advertiser because of the stories written by Examiners. Plus, there's the staggering numbers in content creation that all these sites produce. To wit:

> 55,000 Examiners in more than 200 cities in the U.S. and Canada, with a goal of getting more than 200,000 Examiners in two years.

> More than 3,000 stories posted per day, with an archive of 1.5 million stories.

> 20.8 million unique visitors to Examiner.com sites in July 2010, with 60.1 million page views served, according to Omniture figures cited by Clarity Digital.

These are impressive numbers for an operation that really only hit the ground running two years ago. Blair told me they are on the road to profitability, and have 100 staffers, remaining largely separate from the Examiner newspapers that Anschutz owns in San Francisco and Washington, DC. The following is an edited transcript of my recent interview with Blair and Brody, including some Flipcam video excerpts.

Q&A

Tell me how the integration with NowPublic has gone at Examiner.com?

Rick Blair: We purchased NowPublic about this time last year, and we've used their platform to launch our Drupal 7 platform, or Examiner 2.0, which is the largest consumer-facing Drupal platform in the United States. Everything's gone quite well. We have the normal slip-ups that you have with any technology platform where you're serving over 20 million readers a month, and 60 million page views a month. We just released a new publishing tool for our writers, and within a week, 75% of them are working with it and are happy with it.

Len, tell me how things have changed for you going from NowPublic to the world of the Examiners and Clarity Digital?

Leonard Brody: Well, now I have Rick yelling at me a lot instead of my board. [laughs] The big change for us was the paradigm in which we stored it, it was pure user-generated content. NowPublic was a free-for-all. You could sign up and contribute, and as long as you weren't doing anything illegal, your stuff was posted and the community sorted it out. The Examiner model is much more sophisticated... No one was doing pro-am very well, and the Examiner said, 'The time is right for someone to do a true pro-am model.' And they've owned that space very well from the way they heavily vet the people who apply to be an Examiner to writing samples to criminal checks (which is why Rick and I are not Examiners...). [Rick laughs]

The ecosystem of content has changed for us. We've filled out the whole picture, with NowPublic as pure UGC [user-generated content] with an unadulterated flow. That's been the big difference. Qualitatively you see a big step up in that respect.

Rick, what did you feel like you got out of NowPublic, outside of Len [Brody] himself?

Blair: Well, we looked at NowPublic for three things primarily. The management team was one of them, and Len's been a visionary and leader there... We were growing so fast at Examiner.com, that the wheels were coming off our platform. We needed an open source solution, and we found that with NowPublic. The third thing is that NowPublic had nearly 200,000 contributors, and we utilize NowPublic as a farm team for our Examiners, for the paid writers on Examiner.com.

Most of our Examiners come from referrals from other Examiners. There's some exponential math there that I can't do.

So there's a bit of an Amway angle to it?

Blair: A bit. We were looking at multi-level marketing when were first discussing the concept back in 2008 when we had six cities and 100 Examiners.

So if you referred someone who brought in a lot of traffic, you would get some kind of bonus for that?

Blair: We looked at and quite frankly, it was a bit complicated to explain to people, so we came up with a simpler way to do that, and a more successful way. Because now we have 55,000 Examiners in about two years' time, and we've grown from a million unique visitors to 20 million unique visitors a month. We produce about 3,000 stories a day and have an archive of 1.5 million stories.

The route we took to that was a good one. There are some multi-level marketing aspects to it because we've sent our Examiners to recruit other Examiners. What we find that is those Examiners find the best Examiners.

And if they can recruit for you, then they're doing your job for you?

Blair: It's one of the most expensive ways to recruit people, but over time, it's where we get the best people.

Blair explains how the editorial oversight and workflow operates at Examiner.com, including rigorous vetting up front, and allowing the community to fact-check:

Tell me more about your training program for Examiners.

Blair: We have 40 courses at "Examiner University" [an online set of tutorials for writers], and we teach them how to write headlines, how to tag stories, how to socially distribute their content. We also discuss how to use the AP Style Book, and make sure they don't creep over the line. We don't cover crime or politics, particularly, and we don't endorse politicians. Most of what we do is provide useful information for our passionate local insiders in the community.

How does it differ from what Demand Media does?

Blair: Demand Media, and even Associated Content, what they'll do is select a certain area, and even write the headline occasionally. They'll then submit that to their freelancers, have them write it and then they pay them a fee for that. We cover local, and in order to do that accurately, we have to cover areas that aren't as easily monetized as other stories. So we're not going to have 50 stories on gadgets in San Francisco. We have to cover the bar and restaurant scene as well. We're not about using an algorithm and telling people to write more about that topic.

Rick Blair explains how writers are compensated, but can't give all details because the exact system is a secret. Len Brody says they tell writers not to quit their day jobs:

So who do you see as competition? Is it hyper-local sites, local TV or newspapers, or alternative weeklies?

Brody: There are two answers to that question. Your competitors are the people competing for your revenue dollars. In that sense, everyone in the local broadcast area would be somewhat in that same pool. But in the content aspect, we are somewhat unique. When we started the company, we figured we would find lots of people in communities who were like-minded and passionate about similar things. But really there wasn't. So the model here was different, it was to create a reflection and recreation of America's town squares, and let people collect and discuss things they are passionate about -- not only in their communities, but geo-topically across other communities across the U.S.

Blair: In terms of scaling the business, we're a little different than others as well. We put a fence around North America, and said we're going to publish in 233 cities in the United States, 5 cities in Canada, and do two national editions -- one for the U.S. and one for Canada. And then we're going to get more hyper-local and grow that organically from local on up. In Los Angeles, for example, we have more than 2,000 Examiners today, but there's 800 neighborhoods, so we know we have a long way to go to be hyper-local, but we have a shorter trip than most.

We went through a local and hyper-local online boom before, with CitySearch and Microsoft Sidewalk and so many others, many of whom failed. Now we have Examiner.com and Patch and some others coming in. What do you think is different now?

Blair: Well, I was part of the Digital City team at AOL, and at that time, we weren't looking for individual contributors, we were looking to the local media. And it was online but not really the Internet, it was 1994, 1995. The tools didn't exist to have individual contributors such as Examiners. The tools for measurement of audience and advertisers and couponing online did not exist in 1995. We made our meal ticket at Digital City in classifieds. Today you'll see that someone else has capitalized on classifieds. I think he lives nearby. [A reference to Craig Newmark and Craigslist, based in San Francisco.]

We're focused on local sponsorships for as low as $29 a month. When I say sponsor, they can have their ad adjacent to relevant content. It's in a safe environment because we vetted all these people. We don't allow our Examiners to shill for advertising, and there's no direct compensation to them for [ad sales next to their content]. For distributing content over social media, we've created a product called Examiner Connect, which lets us combine social media content, SEO and paid Internet advertising to service the big brands.

Rick Blair explains how Examiner.com did a big campaign for Iams pet food about pet adoptions and helped them with SEO, and discusses how they separate Examiners from the advertising. Plus he describes the sales process for selling local ads:

Does Clarity Digital Group owner Philip Anschutz have input into what you're doing? How autonomous are you in what you do?

Blair: We're very autonomous. We get that question quite often because of the name that we use, Examiner.com, which is the same name as the Examiner newspapers. Phil has never asked us to slant our stories in any way, and we would never ask the Examiners to do that. He's a funder and a builder and he gives us business guidance. On our larger businesses decisions, since he's our sole investor, he has a lot of input. We meet with him directly about once a week. There's a large team, which in a public company might be called a board of advisors, and we have a group of Anschutz employees that are internal and work with his companies, and they really do help us.

What about the conflicts of interest for writers? If they don't have someone editing it, it might be easy to write something about a local business where you know the owner of the business. Seems like a lot of possible conflicts would come up.

Blair: We don't allow the Examiners to shill for folks. If we find out about it, then it's cause to take down the story, and if it continues to happen, we would cease our relationship with that Examiner. We do have a staff of about 100 employees, and most of them are on the content and recruiting side. And we have a team of five people who sit on top of the feeds. If they find something unusual, they'll delete them.

Brody: Since the early days of NowPublic, we found that statistically speaking, the level of errors and conflicts between traditional and non-traditional media is probably about the same. The difference is that in non-traditional media the transparency is so great... it's like the eBay phenomenon. If you care about your credibility in that community, you'll be very careful to do things that are not off-side. The community is very quick to police, and is very quick to ensure that people really are who they say they are. You get a faster self-policing there than you would in traditional media which is often a one-way broadcast.

Blair talks about future plans to expand to more than 200,000 Examiners in the next two years, plus adding mobile apps for Examiners so they can report on breaking news happening in their area:

*****

What do you think of the Examiner.com local model? Is compensation fair for the Examiners, and what about the quality of content? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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