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October 20, 2014

Examiner: New Local Competitor of Faux Local?

Important Details:  Do a local search these days and you may come across an unaccustomed url: Examiner. com. Examiner.com has burst into the top 25 of US online traffic rankings, currently at number 23 with 5.3 milion unique visitors in October, a 195% increase year over year – by far the greatest growth among all top sites. A central content management platform, search engine optimization, and the inexpensive harnessing of Pro-Am content have contributed to its rise.

Examiner.com is owned by Philip Anschutz’s Clarity Media, which also owns two dailies, the San Francisco Examiner and the Washington Examiner, after closing the Baltimore Examiner earlier this year. Anschutz, who Forbes earlier this year called “The Stealth Media Mogul,” also bought The Weekly Standard from Rupert Murdoch in June
and acquired NowPublic , a user-generated news site in September (see Insights, AP Wades Into the Crowd to Gather the News, Feb. 23, 2007). While the papers have provided both some newspaper competition in their towns and a strongly conservative editorial voice, it is Examiner.com — launched in May, 2008 — that is developing a nationwide presence.

Examiner local websites are now found for 180 cities across North America. The product is a mix of news and features, national and local, with out-of-the-area stories often fronting the sites. The uniqueness of the product is found in the work of the company’s independent contractor workforce. That workforce now numbers 22,000, with plans to grow that number to 35-40,000 within a year, says interim CEO Rick Blair, an alumnus of both AOL and Knight Ridder.

Blair says the company receives about 2400 writer applications a week, and that the Examiner carefully vets those accepted for quality and experience.

The writers are known as “examiners.” They get paid per piece of writing, ranging from $5 on up per story, currently. In addition, the examiners can earn additional compensation if they refer other writers who then are accepted as “examiners.”  Further, they may get a commission for bringing in sponsors to the site.  Blair says the company is putting together guidelines to prevent “shilling.”

Indeed, sponsorship is the site’s major model currently. Tele-sales are a main mode of selling, with sales force sweeps into selected cities adding to the sites’ merchant reach.

The Examiners place a premium on web-smart search engine optimization. Its “Examiner University” specializes in search engine optimization headline writing. So far, its full-time staff of 75 has built the database to 600,000 stories. Stories are written to make sure local and topical bases are covered, a la Demand Media (see report, Demand Media: This Online Pied Piper Draws Large Audiences Using a Disruptive Publishing Modela, Nov. 18, 2008); “we have a taxonomy that we have to fill,” says Blair.

While the Examiners now focus metro-wide, Blair says the company will begin testing a few hyperlocal sites by the end of the year.

It’s noteworthy that Examiner.com averages only 1.8 sessions per month, the lowest number among the top 30 U.S. news sites. That session number indicates that while the search engine optimization is placing Examiner results high in on search engines, it’s not resulting in many direct, destination visits.

Blair says about 15% of site visitors come directly to the site, with the balance driven about equally from search engines and social media.

Finally, Clarity Media and the MediaNews group announced recently that they are partnering to jointly sell advertising in the San Francisco Bay Area.  That partnership — mainly print-based — will leverage the sales forces of the two companies’ 14 dailies in the area.

Implications:  Examiner.com represents a next logical step in web economics. Look at its parts:

  • A low-cost centralized platform;
  • A small, full-time staff;
  • Harnessing the tens of thousands of the freelancers out there. These are freelancers – some professionals who have lost jobs and many aspiring writers – whose skills and interests are being cataloged by Demand Media and Helium, as well as Examiner;
  • Applied SEO savvy; and
  • Much traffic driven by social networks.

You can call it local. Local news publishers would probably call it faux local. It’s easy to put a city’s name on a website; it’s something else again to know that area and report on it meaningfully and deeply.

For local news publishers, here, the best defense is a good offense. Many newspaper companies have made local a first newsroom priority. Some are working diligently on hyperlocal models. Some have made good efforts at harnessing local Pro-Am voices. Few, though, have yet inoculated themselves sufficiently against such national concerns as Examiner, as it moves on local markets.

The Examiner’s threat is minor to the local news press, at this point, especially given the small number of sessions it is so far garnering. Whether the Examiner succeeds in taking share – of readers and/or advertisers – from local news media, its lessons are clear. Local news media – like all news media – must adopt the best techniques the web offers if they hope to survive and prosper. That doesn’t mean turning local reporters into combo salespeople, but it means adopting lower-cost, higher-quality content creation on a large scale.