A clarification has been made in this story. See below for details.
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- If you're trolling the web and hit upon an Examiner.com story, you might think you're reading the San Francisco Examiner. But you're not.
Instead, Examiner.com is a crowd-sourced content play with the backing of billionaire investor Philip Anschutz. With over 40,000 freelancers in more than 240 neighborhoods, the Denver-based start-up aims to dominate every province of local news, bringing marketers and advertising along with it.
The site recruits and vets its freelancers by looking over writing samples and shuttling them through a virtual journalism training course, but the company claims it does not trample on the newspaper business.
"I hesitate to call them journalists," CEO Rick Blair said of the site's mass of writers, whom he refers to as "examiners." "We're not trying to act like we're taking the place of newspapers."
But to call a writer an "examiner" and declaim they're not striving to supplant traditional media is, perhaps, just another PR sleight of hand. Before its current iteration, the site originally published articles from the San Francisco Examiner, another Anschutz property. Examiner no longer has any affiliation to that paper, which instead publishes under SFExaminer.com. Mr. Blair further claims Examiner's emphasis on local articles sets it apart from more closely watched competitors Demand Media and Associated Content, both of which have secured major financial deals recently (Associated was acquired by Yahoo) and both of which are held up as more brazen threats to the halls of journalism.
"We see ourselves as a local site," Mr. Blair said. "We try to have a complete picture around any one city -- articles on the best dog shelters, the best places to go eat -- useful content." The site publishes 85,000 articles a week* and draws 7.4 million people every month, according to ComScore. That trails Associated's audience of 10.3 million and is not too far behind USA Today's online readership of 8.8 million. According to insiders, Examiner generates low- to mid-seven figure revenues, though the site is still in its build-out phase.
Mr. Blair says it is Examiner's local focus that's attracting advertisers, both big and small. A small business can sponsor a writer for anywhere from $29 to $85 per month, depending on page views. For bigger advertisers, Examiner has put out calls for custom editorial topics, something newspapers have typically only made grudging efforts to accommodate. P&G's pet-food brand Iams, for example, recently sponsored a special section on pet adoption. Mr. Blair said the site roused 840 writers to publish 4,000 articles on the subject* and thus moved "pet adoption" from page 3 to page 1 on Google search results.
"Brands are becoming more savvy about being willing to have people driven to content related to their brands, so long as it's being driven by other users," said Michael Arden, VP-senior digital strategist for Carat, which advised P&G on the Iams program.
What about quality?
But quality is still a concern for some marketers. "I think these guys are not building trusted media brands," Brian Monahan, senior VP at Universal McCann, said of the general landscape of low-cost content. He sees these entities as closer to niche enthusiast magazines rather than newspapers. "They're never going to take the place of a Condé Nast or some other trusted premium editorial voice," he said. But even Mr. Monahan admitted his clients remain "intrigued" by these pages.
Sloan Broderick, managing director of MediaCom, says that the rise of commodity content may have hurt placements at more traditional media outlets, but they haven't entirely displaced them. "It's not an either-or proposition to our buying plans," he said. "They're a complement."
"Examiners" are paid anywhere from $1 to $7.50 for every thousand page views, based on a black-box formula. Writers associated with a sponsored area are paid only slightly more, but Mr. Blair declined to elaborate. "I tell our examiners not to quit their day jobs," he said. "No one's doing it for the money. They want credibility. Also, press passes. Most of the major sports teams, we have access to their field and locker rooms. A lot of news organizations dropped their sports reporters."
There is a growing tension between amateur writers and professional journalists these days, and it is exactly this pro-am model that speaks to Examiner's ambitions. Huffington Post, perhaps, served as the prototype with more than 6,000 unpaid contributors and 70 paid editors attracting 10.8 million readers each month.
"Pro-am is the future," said Jeff Jarvis, a City University of New York professor and a consultant on AOL's Patch, a site similar to Examiner. This journalist-chimera has become a flashpoint for media pundits like Mr. Jarvis, who contend that old-media tirades over content quality are but misguided cavils. "If you care about journalism, you should want more of it," he said.
But the explosion of so many blogs and news sites does bring to mind a certain journalism aphorism attributed to Peter Kaplan, the former editor of the New York Observer. He once said, "Reporting is expensive. Sensibility is cheap." The remark, which he made in 2000, presciently describes the blogger's métier, his urge to sermonize in place of actual reporting, but at the time, Mr. Kaplan was in fact commenting on the New York Sun's attempts to unseat the New York Post as the city's conservative voice. He noted that Mr. Murdoch paid handsomely for the Post's deep ranks of talent, a difficult barrier for the Sun to surmount. (The Sun shut down in 2008.)
"That sounds like me alright," he said recently. Mr. Kaplan is consulting on the iPad application for Condé Nast Traveler in case anyone wondered if he was a digital curmudgeon. "One of the things that the Jeff Jarvises of the world undermine is the importance of the editorial structure. The relationship between the reporter and the editor is the one safeguard when it comes to the business of truth telling." In assessing the recent rise of so many content farms, Mr. Kaplan referenced Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," and perhaps minted a new quote for future observers: "What these sites are producing," he started before a long pause: "You know what it is? It's like sending unchecked meats out to the public."
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CLARIFICATION: In our story on Examiner, the number of articles the site publishes is 85,000 per month, not 80,000 per month. For its campaign with Iams, the site had 840 writers who published 4,000 articles, not 630 writers who published 400 articles. The information as it originally appeared was incorrectly conveyed by the company.