In my first article for our special Beyond Content Farms series, I examined the opportunities available to writers at some of the biggest content farms. Today, I look at jobs covering hyper-local news.

What hyper-local news organizations are aiming for is nothing short of revolutionary: AOL’s two-year-old Patch network and established players like Examiner.com are attempting to recreate a profitable business model for professionally produced local journalism in the digital age. Unlike companies like Demand Media that pump out largely face-less content, the hyper-local sites allow writers to build a name for themselves on one geographic or subject area.

These companies are hiring a lot of journalists in communities all over the U.S., which means more and more people will find jobs in hyper-local news. So what’s it like to work in the new hyper-local journalism space? I spoke with a few writers and editors to learn more.

Going Through a Rough Patch

Jennifer Connic works as editor of the Millburn-Short Hills, N.J. site that’s part of Patch’s expanding hyper-local network. But she bristled at the hyper-local tag. “I think it belittles in some ways the journalism people like me are doing,” she said.

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No matter what you call it, the job she is doing is not an easy one, as Connic readily admits. Patch editors are all basically one-woman news organizations. “You’re really the only person who’s running the site,” Connic said. When people have a news tip or there’s breaking news, she said, “I’m the one who gets contacted, I’m the one who has to be on top of that.”

Nearly two years into the job, Connic is still putting in long hours. She had a very difficult spring where, Connic said, “I had a lot of days where I’d get up in the morning and start working and I wouldn’t be done until after midnight.”

Most of that time was spent providing invaluable coverage of how the New Jersey state budget crisis was impacting the Millburn public school system. Well-known media industry reporter Joe Strupp highlighted some other great reporting from Cecelia Smith, the former editor for Darien, CT. She broke a story revealing the criminal history of a candidate running for the town’s First Selectman (similar to the mayor). Smith discovered the candidate had an attempted murder conviction, and he eventually lost the race.

Like most Patch editors, Connic has a degree in journalism and her pay is likely relatively modest (although she declined to give any hard figures for her salary). As Andria Krewson reported on MediaShift, Patch competitor MainStreetConnect pays editors a salary of roughly $40,000 a year. “It is what it is,” sighed the New Jersey transplant, doing her best to adopt the local patois.

Connic was more forthcoming about the pay rates offered her freelancers: They can make between $50 and $100 per article from Patch, depending on their experience and their pitch. Connic generally features only one freelance piece a day on her site, so it would be difficult for writers to support themselves by contributing to Patch alone. But these contributors play a vital role in easing her burden. In particular, she relies on a few trusted freelancers to cover for her when she takes time off.

Connic also uses high school interns to run her site. Although the positions are unpaid, the internship can lead to a “full paying freelance job for these kids if they prove themselves,” she told me.

If they come to terms with the long hours and meager salary, successful freelancers can even aspire to a full-time position with Patch. Connic pointed out that Mary Mann and Marcia Worth both freelanced for Patch before being hired as local site editors.

Examining the Examiners

The barriers to entry are lower at Examiner.com, an established hyper-local network with a much wider reach (and millions more page views) than Patch. Examiner has local sites in over 200 cities in the U.S. and Canada. While it’s easier to become a writer (or “examiner”) for the company, it has less to offer writers aspiring to a full-time reporting or steady freelance gig.

Examiner.com recruits writers to cover beats generated by search engine demand. Here are just a few of the odd openings that are in my local area: Washington D.C. Movie Locations Travel Examiner, D.C. English Springer Spaniel Examiner, and Bethesda Holistic Family Health Examiner. The company then pumps out as much cheap local content on those topics as its writers can produce.

While motivated examiners have access to a full range of videos and tutorials on blogging and search engine optimization, after their first submission, they are often offered little substantive feedback on their writing from experienced editors. If their blogging does not include enough local search terms, examiners can expect to receive an automatically generated email encouraging them to make their content more relevant to the community.

Complaints from examiners about the paltry and opaque compensation rates are also surprisingly common around the web. The Welcome Handbook given to new Examiners offers little clarification: “Examiner pay is based on a rating that considers a number of factors, including revenue and the quality of your audience, which includes things like subscriptions, page view traffic and session length. Pay may fluctuate depending on any of these and other factors.”

The lack of any minimum rate left some contributors to this Writers Weekly survey of examiners recalling their content farm assignments fondly. “I have plenty of paid writing work, none of it all that well paid, true, but I’d rather get $15 per article (or even $10) than zip. Duh,” said one former examiner, who only identified himself as “Mario.”

Even more irritating to some examiners is the $25 minimum threshold the company requires before it will deposit money in a writer’s PayPal account. Washington City Paper highlighted a cautionary tale from one disgruntled former examiner, who very nearly failed to reach that figure before parting ways with the company. After being reprimanded by an Examiner.com editor for using Sarah Palin as SEO bait to attract attention to his beat, which was ostensibly about local music, Ben Westhoff wrote:

I silently vowed to get over the threshold as quickly as possible, and to entertain myself in the process. And so I began to blog about nothing but Lil Wayne and boobs — Katy Perry’s, mostly — in as absurd a manner as possible. Oh, and I still talked about Sarah Palin via ridiculous musical tie-ins. ‘Katy Perry and Sarah Palin to wrestle in Jello?’ one was titled.

Westhoff’s tale may not be all that uncommon. As TV Examiner Rick Ellis noted in the comments of a MinnPost story on the company, “the last number I saw was that about 1/3 of their examiners make enough to reach the $25 payment minimum each month.”

Yet, as with other content farms, the Examiner network has its supporters. Among them are Ellis and some of the commentors on my previous piece.

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It certainly can provide a platform for writers hoping to have their voices heard, those looking to build up a portfolio, or make a little bit of pocket money. But can it be a good career move? Dianne Walker, the D.C. Job Search and Career Examiner, thinks it has been for her.

“It keeps me in tune with what’s going on in my career,” Walker told me. She has worked as an HR manager in the Prince William County public library system since 2005.

Walker hopes to publish a career advice book and has used her examiner positions to market herself. In the two years Walker has written for Examiner.com, she has had some limited success: Local television show “Let’s Talk Live” asked her to come on and discuss her story about unemployment in D.C.

Would she recommend Examiner.com to people looking to make a career in writing? After a long pause, Walker said, “I have recommended people that I know that just need a couple extra dollars.” (She also noted that Examiner.com pays its writers $50 for each new examiner they recruit.)

For now, however, Walker continues to pursue her own editorial ambitions as only a part-time examiner. Even after two years of building up her audience, she’s not quite ready to quit her day job.

*****

Have you worked for a hyper-local news organization? Would you consider doing so? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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

Correction July 26: This article originally said Sasha Brown-Worsham freelanced for Patch before being hired as a local site editor. She did not freelance for the site prior to being hired. Marcia Worth did, and her name has been added to the article.

MediaShift hyper-local correspondent Andria Krewson contributed to this article.

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based editorial assistant at MediaShift. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of The New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at The Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar.

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