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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Rick Blair and Leonard Brody

“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, D.C. 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 percent 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.

UPDATE (10/13/10): In an email to me, an Examiner.com spokesman clarified Blair’s comment on covering crime: “We absolutely cover news, crime and politics, and Mr. Blair’s reference is perhaps confusing. His statement is based on the fact we don’t particularly cover crime and politics in the traditional sense mainstream media does. Our Examiners have the ability to concentrate on one specific area of focus, providing in-depth coverage to a niche area. For the midterm elections, for example, we have mobilized an engaged group of credible, vetted experts with inside knowledge of local politics. These writers offer embedded coverage, facilitating on-the-ground, unique insight on policies and events affecting their communities.”

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.

UPDATE (10/12/10): Many commenters have complained that some of the numbers mentioned by the Examiner.com execs were deceiving, and that active contributors were likely lower than they said. Plus, others complained about site upgrade as well as the inconsistent quality of the stories on Examiner.com. They contend that the site does fit into the category of a “content farm.” Examiner.com CEO Rick Blair responded in an email to the commenters:

We actually have had more than 62,000 total Examiners contribute on our site since we launched in 2008; we still actively communicate with more than 55,000, which is what that number is based on. Currently we have an average of about 60 percent that have actively contributed in the past 90 days. We use that timeframe in monitoring engagement to take into account our daily publishing frequency is always fluctuating — as some titles like sports are seasonal, others like music are dependant upon new information or movement, for example. Our 30-day average reflects this oscillation, as we range between 30 to 40 percent active in that timeframe. We believe our active contributor base is a larger percentage than the majority of similar content sites, and providing a positive and personal experience to Examiners is a key part to that retention.

Our commitment to supporting the success and satisfaction of our Examiners fueled the need to improve our publishing tools. The site is and will continue to be centered around our Examiners, and they have been very vocal regarding the changes. There were some bugs that our team of top developers have been working around the clock to fix. Most have been corrected, and those that remain are not of a critical nature.

The Examiner.com consumer experience was launched on schedule, and with the approval of both engineers and QA testers. With a complete a redesign, a new technology platform, CMS and a new back office suite — not to mention a migration of over 5 million URLs — we expected and anticipated glitches in the system. These too are high priority, and many have been fixed, or are in the process of.

All of the new technology and features are tightly integrated to fuel the coming years of explosive growth, and we are very pleased with the outcome of the upgraded site.

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.