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How Content Farms Train Their Writers to Write for the Web

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

At the core of every content farm's success is an ability to rapidly recruit and integrate new writers. Publishers like Demand Media, Examiner.com, Suite 101 and others are always hiring, always looking to expand their ranks and replace talent that churns out.

These operations rely on abundance: of contributors, of content, of traffic. More contributors means more content, which means more traffic -- but the constant influx of new people means their product could vary widely in terms of the quality of writing, and the ability of the writers to promote their work and drive traffic, among other key factors.

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Examiner.com has proven adept at bringing new writers into the fold. The site, which is in 250 cities in Canada and the U.S., has over 42,000 "Examiners" -- what the site calls its writers -- and is adding over 3,500 new ones each month. (Read our post from earlier this week to get an overview of what Examiner.com does.)

That's a huge amount of people to integrate, especially considering the fact that Examiners range from experienced writers to relative newbies who may have an area of interest but no writing experience. In other cases, an experienced writer may have little or no knowledge about search engine optimization and the best ways to promote their work online. Examiner.com deals with this by offering a variety of training and support resources to get people producing quickly, and within a set of guidelines.

Forums, Guides, Feedback

Sites such as Associated Content and Demand offer discussion forums where writers can exchange information and search for previously answered questions. They also provide access to editors or support staff. For its copy editors, Demand offers "forums, blogs, newsletters and other channels for you to communicate with and learn from your fellow editors." These editors, in turn, help ensure that all written materials adhere to the very specific guidelines established for each Demand property or client.

Suite101 offers a range of resources, including text-based tutorials, on-on-one coaching, and discussion forums. "We have created concise tutorials to help writers better understand how to implement white hat SEO strategies and to better understand the overall process of web writing," said Lima Al-Azzeh, the site's associate editor.

Examiner.com offers support services and discussion forms, but it has also been aggressive, and unique, in creating online, self-directed interactive tutorials. The site has created Examiner University, a standalone section of its site that offers Flash-based classes and other forms of training content that help get Examiners up to speed.

Inside Examiner U

Jason Stone joined Examiner.com six months after the site's April 2008 launch. Initially hired to be a channel manager overseeing writers in a specific topic area, he soon found himself spending time helping his Examiners understand search engine optimization, video embedding, social media and other necessary skills and tools.

"I would write emails to Examiners and it eventually occurred to me that I was spending a lot of time addressing the same issues over and over," Stone said. "I thought that there had to be a more efficient way to do this. So I started making documents and videos and distributing them to Examiners."

His training materials caught on and he was soon asked to take on this work as a full-time job. The result is Examiner University. Part of the core curriculum of Examiner University are its "101"-level courses that offer instruction in four key areas.

"Early on we decided there would be four pillars of types of courses which will be reflected in 101 courses: editorial; marketing to a growing audience; technical skills, because publishing online means putting tools in the writers' hands; and then information that is specific to Examiner.com, such as how our referral program works," Stone said. "If any one of those -- especially the first three -- fail then it's an overall failure."

There are currently 25 courses offered on the site, and the company expects to launch more after a new version of the Exmainer.com website goes live soon. (Examiner University is also home to a video guide to the new website.) The core courses are delivered using a combination of audio, video and text. Other course topics include "grammar considerations," "plagiarism," "finding photos online," "proofreading," "writing locally," and "SEO considerations," to name just a few. The "finding photos" and "writing locally" courses are among the most popular.


"Obviously, we have varying degrees of skill sets coming in the door," says Justin Jimenez, Examiner.com's director of marketing and PR. "A seasoned journalist might come in and skip over the editorial section but could be very interested in the marketing and social media component. The large value for us is continuing to enhance that quality and have offerings for different levels of skill sets."

Overall, executives at Examiner.com feel the courses are working, even though the company isn't permitted to require its writers to attend Examiner U. (Examiners are independent contractors and not employees, so the company can't tmake Examiner University a requirement.)

"Measuring success is kind of difficult in that it's not easy to quantify the effect that the courses are having," Stone said. "We look at the metrics and we now average about 4,000 course launches per week, and that number keeps going up."

Stone added that the average Examiner spends roughly seven or eight minutes per course. Though many courses are longer than that, each lesson includes a table of contents that enables people to skip to the parts they find most useful.

Feedback From Examiners

I spoke with a few current Examiners to see what they had to say about both Examiner University and their fellow Examiners. Here's a selection of their responses:

Sharon K. West, current Haunted Places Examiner and American History Examiner and a former writer for Suite101.com and Associated Content:

I've gone completely through the Examiner University, twice. I wanted to make sure that I understood their policies and how to upload articles and pictures.

I was also searching for information on current styles. During the time that I wrote for Suite101.com, the new style of Internet writing started coming into play. Things like SEO, keywords, and putting the most important points at the beginning of the article, rather than the old style of gradually working up to the mighty conclusion at the end. In some cases, in the old way, you told people what you wanted to tell them and then told them at the end what you already told them. Everything has changed for the Internet.

I made it a point to go through Examiner University before I did anything else, and in the process, it finally clicked in my head how to write in chunks, start out with the important things, and get those keywords in lots of times, as well as using headings and lists inside the article.

Brad Sylvester, current Manchester Bird Watching Examiner, Maritime Headlines Examiner, and Manchester Green Living Examiner; a corporate writer and a former writer for Associated Content:

Generally, when I ran into problems I'd go to their site and see the tutorial. As far as the 101s, I did go through all of those maybe two months in to see if there was a better way of doing things.

The most helpful were the ones that walked me through their publishing tool and told you what to expect and how it works. Also, there is a community where you can talk with other Examiners and I found that to be helpful as well. People would share best practices.

There are two camps [of Examiners]. There are some that are very experienced and some that have no experience -- and almost nobody in between.

Angele Sionna, current Early Childhood Parenting Examiner and Western U.S. Travel Examiner; contributor to eHow; former television news producer and a professional journalist for more than 15 years:

Initially, there was a feeling of a "workplace" and you got to "know" co-workers, most of whom were other professional journalists who write for a bunch of media...like myself. They used Examiner.com to write about their passions, whereas at some other jobs they'd write on other topics. I'm much the same way. Many of those journalists are still with Examiner like I am... but unfortunately there are also people with Examiner who really don't know how to write or even what to write about. They've tried to crack down on people who would report things just from other sites just to get page views. I was glad to see that, but some of those folks with no original content are still around and that part is frustrating to me...Though I have seen articles from people that do not have a journalistic background that are very well done, well researched and enjoyable to read. So it is really a mixed bag.

You know, I haven't checked what their current class offerings are lately, as previously I felt there wasn't anything of real benefit for me at the Examiner University. That's fine with me though. It is good they have tools for people who may be experienced writers or experts that need more help figuring out the ways of the web. Not everyone feels comfortable with the web or knows how it works.

To read more stories in the Beyond Content Farms series go here.

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author, and the managing editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is founder and editor of Regret the Error, the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, and a weekly columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. He also serves as digital journalism director of OpenFile, a new collaborative news site for Canada. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

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