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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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February 22 2010

22:40

True North Media House, W2 Provide Citizen Media Hub at Olympics

At the Winter Olympics, members of the press affiliated with official, IOC-designated media outlets have access to the Main Media Center and are given a special accreditation badge. The MMC provides workspace -- as well as massages and McDonald's -- for "the approximately 2,800 accredited members of the written and photographic press," according to organizers.

That's been the case at many Olympics. But the Vancouver Games are notable for the alternative, unofficial media centers and accreditations that have sprung up. These groups cater specifically to independent media, citizen journalists, bloggers, and other people who seek to report and document the Games on their terms. (The Beijing Games failed to inspire a similar outpouring of citizen journalism due to restrictions placed by the Chinese organizers.)

Well over 100 unofficial media folks are united under the True North Media House, a virtual media accreditation organization that's aggregating content from bloggers and citizen journalists at the Games. The TNMH initiative also helps them coordinate and communicate with each other via a mailing list and #tnmh Twitter hashtag, while also serving as a point of aggregation for reporting and content.

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If TNMH is the virtual alternative media house of the games, then the W2 Culture + Media House is the physical headquarters. Located in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood known as the poorest in Canada, it provides independent media with a free lounge and range of unofficial press conferences, as well as affordably priced access to video editing suites, camera gear, and workspaces.

People affiliated with NowPublic, CNN iReport and other media are paying roughly $300 to secure a spot at W2 for the duration of the Games. To put it into perspective, that's roughly what Games organizers charge for two weeks of wireless Internet access at the Main Press Centre.

W2 Culture + Media House

I visited W2 the day of the opening ceremonies and Irwin Oostindie, executive director of the W2: Community Media Arts center, told me how the Games activities fit into their usual operations, which involve helping teach media skills and techniques and offering a space for cultural events. He also explained the significance of having an alternative media center in the Downtown Eastside:

Oostindie predicted this will be the last time we see a facility like W2's at the Olympic Games.

"We thought, 'The Olympics are coming here, so let's get together and create an experiment around running a physical social media center,'" he said. "It's probably the first and last one the Olympics will have because, essentially, Beijing didn't allow them and [I predict that] London in 2012 will embed them and monetize them. There won't be any independent social media centers in London."

He said the idea is not to keep traditional media and independent media separate, as they have a lot learn from each other.

"We're interested in bringing traditional media and online media platforms together," he said. "We feel that social media can be improved by traditional journalism, and we really feel traditional journalism could be improved with more access to online and multi-platform practices. There is a conversation to be had which does not alienate one community or another."

In addition to providing workspaces for media from Canada, the U.S. and England, W2 is hosting press conferences from community groups and people such as the female ski jumpers who were not allowed to compete in the Games.

"We're hosting a cluster of voices that are rather relevant to the content of the Olympics being held in Vancouver," he said. "Playing the role of a neutral infrastructure provider is kind of interesting for us. We're kind of a mixing point. It's a space where the Olympic Resistance Network can come and [so can] corporate sponsors and Olympic athletes."

As can people like Percy Lipinski. A former diplomat, the Vancouver resident is a dedicated and prolific contributor to CNN iReport. He paid to have a workspace at W2 for the Games, though he isn't reporting the entire time. Last week I reached him in Costa Rica, where he was shooting stories that he planned to submit to iReport.

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"I read about W2 in one of the local magazines in Vancouver and it appealed to me because I had applied for and received credentials [for the B.C. International Media Centre (BCIMC), which is operated by the provincial government] through iReport -- and then a week before the Olympics started they said, 'We decided you're not really a reporter' and denied my accreditation," he said.

The BCIMC is a center where media without IOC accreditation can work from. The people controlling its accreditation process eventually relented and gave Lipinski his pass back. But he had already decided that W2 would be the place for him.

"For [$300] I got access to youngish, good news editors and camera people and the ability to work at the desk," he said.

True North Media House

Last Wednesday, an email went out on the True North Media House email list to let people know the group would be holding an "Olympic Hockey Tweetup" the following day between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. at a local club. "There will be an appearance by special guest Guy Kawasaki at about 8 p.m.," the message said.

Apart from a few organized events like that one, the people sporting TNMH badges have largely roamed Vancouver on their own, or in small groups. They go where they choose (and where security lets them) and report, photograph and tweet what they see. As a result, the TNMH news feed is an eclectic mix of content. It's also spreading far and wide, according to Dave Olson, one of the organizers.

"What we're starting to see now is people are getting their coverage up and out and distributed well before the mainstream media," he said.

Olson, whose day job is the marketing/community director for Twitter client HootSuite, hatched the idea for TNMH with Robert Scales, who runs Raincity Sudios and VancouverAccess2010.com, and local photographer Kris Krüg, who is contributing photo essays to MediaShift during the Games. (Krüg is also involved with W2.) You can watch the documentary With Glowing Hearts to see the history of TNMH, as well as the W2 project. Here's an excerpt of the film's look at TNMH:

WGHthemovie.ca- Webisode #2 'True North Media House' from Andrew Lavigne.

Now that the games are up and running, Olson said it's a matter of letting the TNMH-accredited reporters go about their business, produce content, and see what happens. One surprise so far has been Aleks, a 5-year-old Vancouver boy who's blogging about his Games experience with the help of his dad. He proudly wears his TNMH badge wherever he goes.

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"We have people who four or five days ago didn't self-identify as social media reporters, but they had a passion for photography or making videos," Olson said. "Once the Games were on, they realized they see stuff no one else sees. A lot of people are just stepping up and saying they want to be a part of this."

The reports in the TNMH news feed and discussion on #TNMH bring to mind the old saying that youth is wasted on the young. It's hard to imagine professional media are bounding around with as much joy, delight and enthusiasm. Certainly, not having an assignment editor or producer harrassing you on deadline helps keep the TNMH crew happy. But you can't help noticing how much fun they seem to having.

Business Analyst Gets Accredited

John Biehler is an e-business analyst for an insurance company in Vancouver, but he's also a self-described camera geek. He loves taking pictures and shooting video, and he shares his work on a blog and on Flickr.

Biehler booked off three weeks of vacation so he would be able to document the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, and now spends his days and nights reporting on everything from the torch relay to tall ships and zip line rides. His videos and photos are available in a special Olympic section of his blog, but they're also showing up in the news feed of True North Media House.

Biehler proudly wears his TNMH media accreditation badge around his neck, and is often stopped by people who ask what it means, and where he got it.

"Some of the [people wearing the badge] have been able to get past security and get into venues because security think it's official," he said. "They don't know we printed them out on a home printer and went to Staples and got them laminated."

Documentation or Journalism?

Biehler is enjoying a unique experience because he has both a TNMH pass and an official one from the BCIMC. He is among the lucky few bloggers and folks from online media outlets granted access to the province's media center. For the most part, he said, the professional media folks have been welcoming.

"They seem to work more hours," he said of the pros, "and it's been interesting talking with them about what I'm doing and what I'm working on, and comparing gear. Even if they're working for a big company we're similar in that we're just trying to figure out the best way to do something."

Olson said TNMH is more about documentation than journalism.

"But we've taken great pains to educate people about journalistic standards and how to tell a mixed media story," he said. (The resources section on the website offers a wealth of useful information.)
The night we spoke, Olson was rushing off to meet a group of hockey fans from Latvia, an experience he looked forward to documenting.

"How often do you get a chance to meet someone who has come halfway around the world to your city to enjoy something that you're also passionate about?"

To which he could have added: and then share that experience with world.

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. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

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