Correction Appended: Dec. 9, 2009
If you type the name of a celebrity say, Angelina Jolie into Google News, chances are that somewhere in the top five results, you'll get a story from Examiner.com. This is particularly true if the celebrity is in the news that day. For early December, that means searches for Tiger Woods, Sandra Bullock and Weezer on Google News consistently brought up Examiner.com stories in the topmost results. And in those stories, by the way, there was very little actual news.
Landing high on the Google search-results page is the holy grail of any organization with a website. An entire industry, awkwardly known as search-engine optimization (SEO), has grown up around getting prominent placement on Google, Yahoo!, Bing or one of the other search engines. This jostling for ranking will only get more intense: in October 2008, there were 7.8 billion Internet searches, according to Nielsen; in October 2009, the number had risen to 10.2 billion. And 66% of all those were Google searches, which is to say that two-thirds of all the information supplied to Internet users goes through the same door.
News organizations particularly value high placement, since it translates into potential ad revenue. But Examiner.com, though rated by Nielsen as the fastest-growing Internet news site in the U.S. in August, does little actual journalism. It is not a news organization so much as a network of more than 24,000 individuals throughout North America, known as Examiners, each of whom cover a particular geographic or subject area. With that many correspondents, no beat goes uncovered; along with Examiners for world news there are those for fanboys, auto-brokers, celebrity cars, drinking games and doll-collecting, to name a few.
The network is owned by Clarity Digital Group, one of Philip Anschutz's companies. While Anschutz is a noted political conservative, who recently bought the Weekly Standard from Rupert Murdoch and who also owns the San Francisco Examiner and the Washington Examiner, most of Examiner.com's stories seem to have no political leanings. (Contributor Carl Herman, a laid-off California teacher, has the conversation-opening title of nonpartisan Examiner.)
They also have very little news value. Generally, an Examiner.com news story is a compendium of tidbits culled from other websites, neither advancing the story nor bringing any insight (a description, it should be noted, that can be just as fairly applied to many offerings of more mainstream media). Most Examiners are not journalists, and their prose is not edited. CEO Rick Blair, who helped launch AOL's Digital Cities, an earlier attempt at a local-news network, calls them "pro-am" more professional than bloggers, but more amateur than most reporters. You might also call them traffic hounds: because their remuneration is set by, among other things, the number of people who click on their stories, Examiners will often piggyback on hot news or oft-searched people. The Angelina Jolie story, from a celebrity-fitness and -health Examiner, discussed Jolie and husband Brad Pitt's recent night out at a movie premiere and assessed their health by their appearance.
So why does Examiner.com's fairly superficial posts on the big stories of the day often end up near the front of Google News' queue? "It's not a trick," says Blair. "We have almost 25,000 writers posting 3,000 original articles per day." Examiners take seminars on writing headlines, writing in the third person and making full use of social media, all of which are Google manna. But Blair thinks it's mostly the scale of the operation that makes Examiner.com articles so attractive to search engines, from which more than half of the site's traffic comes. That is, by stocking the lake with so many fish every day, Examiner.com increases the chances that Google trawlers will haul one of theirs up.
Google is coy about the algorithm that sends some pages to the top of the news heap and others to Web obscurity, but originality, relevance and locality all play a role, Google says. The formula is always changing. On Monday Google announced that it would show live updates from social-media feeds on its news-search results. And on Tuesday, in response to complaints from newspapers and other news-gathering sources, it announced the creation of Living Story Page, a collaboration with the Washington Post and the New York Times, which puts ongoing stories, like health care reform, under one URL, and does not subject them to the vicissitudes of the search engine though you have to visit the Living Story Page to find them. "In general, our goal is to make it easy for people to discover the news they're looking for, different perspectives on current events and sources of information they wouldn't otherwise have found," says Google spokesperson Chris Gaither.
Examiner.com is not alone in gathering an army of writers to create a hyper-local network for the Web. Social-networking site Gather.com works in a similar fashion, as does Prime Writer News Network and Associated Content. Each revenue model is a little different, but they all rely on the willingness of people to write for love. Shelley Frost, the San Francisco dogs Examiner, posts about three times a week. She estimates that she makes a dollar a day out of her writing, and $50 each time she recruits a new Examiner. "I do it to build relationships with other local animal people," she says, "and to promote my book, Your Adopted Dog." Tom Gerace of Gather.com says his highest-paid writers make $500 a month.
The goal of all these companies, eventually, is to snare local advertising, a $141 billion market that, according to Blair, has been left largely untapped by the Internet. Examiner.com will start rolling out ad packages in the next few months, and will hit up its network for leads.
In the meantime, these pro-am armies are giving the big media companies plenty to worry about. The mainstream media's news-harvesting machines are no match for a swarm of local locusts buzzing over the same crop. And Big Media is starting to take notice. CNN, which already uses a lot of crowdsourced material with its ireport arm, just invested in another local outfit, outside.in. Perhaps the news giant figures that if everybody's going to be a reporter, they might as well work for CNN.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Philip Anschutz bought the American Spectator. He did not; Anschultz recently bought the Weekly Standard.