Writers Talk About Working the Hyper-Local Beat

    by Corbin Hiar
    July 23, 2010
    Examiner.com is still hoping to recruit even more "examiners" to cover local and subject beats for little pay

    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.

    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." -Jennifer Connic

    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.

    i-53cf08ca5630a565ac305f12d2e5a13c-jennifer connic.jpg

    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.

    i-d398a8a87cee95b29d85d4774957ae6d-dianne walker.jpg

    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.

    Tagged: aol beyond content farms examiner.com freelance jobs patch.com pay
    • My name is Craig Portwood and I am the Bible Prophecy Examiner for Examiner.com.

      Having been a contributor to the Examiner.com site since January of this year, I believe myself to be qualified to address some issues raised in this article.

      Although the subjects covered by Examiners are often eclectic, perhaps even eccentric in some cases, many topics reported are of interest to a large segment of society. The characterization that “the company then pumps out as much cheap local content on those topics as its writers can produce,” ignores the equally voluminous amount of quality content which is published on the site.

      For every article written about the latest color of Paris Hilton’s under-panties, there is at least one article which addresses social concerns which escape the notice of the mainstream media. One notable example, is Cannabis Revolution Examiner, Dev Meyers.

      Dev’s articles on the growing social acceptance of marijuana use in America, runs counter to the apparent agenda of the traditional press, which supports the antiquated notion that America’s failed “war on drugs” carries any benefit to society.

      Likewise, Human Rights Examiner Deborah Dupre’, addresses such topics as the wholesale spraying of our skies with toxic chemicals, mind – behavior control operations, and other subjects that the controlled press has not the testicular fortitude to face.

      Christianity and politics Examiner Elizabeth Delaney, reports on the growing, mostly ignored grass roots movement, known as the “Tea Party movement.” Her articles on that subject, convey a great deal of information which is ignored by the sold out American fourth estate, sans the ever present denigrating editorial tint which is added whenever the sanctioned press reports of the subject.

      Although these examples might seem to be on the “fringe” to some people, many Americans are hungry for information that has not been sanitized by editors who fall under the influence of powerful moneyed interests, who seem to work toward the end of controlling the American press to the detriment of an honest examination of events. Examiner.com provides access to such information.

      Examiner topics are not confined to such politically incorrect, socially forbidden subjects either. Many Examiners produce content which is in line with mainstream political perspectives.

      San Gabriel Foothills Examiner Laura Monteros, reports upon political and social issues in and around her local community in Altadena California. Her articles address issues often ignored by the local press, and most often have a perspective which the mainstream press cannot match.

      Likewise, Workplace Communication Examiner Kenya McCullum, presents issues of interest to the majority of working Americans, having uncommon expertise in her field, and a from a standpoint that both empathizes with and councils the average working America.

      These Examiners, far from pumping out “cheap local content,” are skilled in their craft, passionate about their topics, and articulate ideas to their readers in a way which does not condescend to them. And these five writers are but a small representative sample of the kind of quality writers found on the site.

      The less than transparent pay schedule employed by Examiner, is indeed a concern to all of us, and perhaps someday, someone with a bit of vision and financial wherewithal will offer a competitive alternative to Examiner.com. Until that day, readers hungry for more than the predigested garbage which the mainstream media offers in lieu of “news,” cannot hope to find a better source of fresh, quality information content, than Examiner.com.

    • As the National and Phoenix Billiards examiner, I find that having the right topic can be powerful to the people of that industry in so many ways.

      Many smaller sports like Billiards have so many spread out and de-centralized places where players can get information, it is difficult to find what they need. Most of those associations and websites have a limited focus and limited appeal to everyone. Some are dedicated to professional players, while others are primarily geared to ONLY those members who are in that particular association.

      Being a writer of billiards in general, especially for a local area like Phoenix, allows me to both promote the industry, the businesses, the people, and the associations, and also provide a CENTRALIZED source of news and information which makes my work valuable to an audience.

      While I admit there are probably too many specialized examiner topics for a given city or region, what they do offer is for professionals in a given genre to be able to have a place where they can write and share their work and experience with those interested in that topic.

      Most journalists in the main stream media are generalized writers, with only a few specialized in specific areas (like business, weather, sports, etc…). Does that make them experts in any field they write about? No, they simply know how to compile, research, and vette truth from fiction.

      While the Examiner model has some flaws, it also has great potential for a LARGE niche of the news community that needs people who devote their time to specific topics of interest.

      Phoenix Billiards Examiner

      National Billiards Examiner

    • Hi,

      I write for Examiner too. I am the Huntsville Alabama Home based Examiner. I have to say like with any Independent Contracting agreement you get out of it whatever you put into it.

      No one thinks that all the work someone does pursuing their Masters or Doctorate is unimportant yet, it is done without pay. With Examiner you do have opportunities to make money and some Examiners are making a living writing there, and in other places.

      I work full time from home and earn my living full time from writing content on the Internet. I work hard providing accurate, timely, relevant content for every client I have whether I am paid in “page views” or by the job.

      The mainstream media is so messed up today that I would be no more likely to trust the NY Times than Examiner.

    • As the Detroit Job Search Examiner and now Wayne County Elections 2010 Examiner, I feel as if I would like to comment on this story.

      For me, I have always been a writer, in some sort or fashion. In high school, I was editor of my school newspaper. In college, I thought about studying Journalism but, life changes caused me to focus my degree intentions, in other places.

      Moving on in my career, I wrote papers for college counterparts and penned numerous grievance arguments, as a union official, which saved co-workers jobs. Going back to college, to complete by Bachelors’ Degree in Business Administration, I will never forget the comment a marketing professor made on one of my assignments.

      The comment was, “First, you have earned an A+ on this project. Second, you have a gift of writing that could change minds…you should be a writer.” Well, my life was in another field at that point but, I kept writing papers for various classes that would frequency earn high grades.

      Moving on many years later, after a lay-off, I heard about Examiner.com from a friend. By this time, I was a regular blogger on a couple of sites, a moderator for another and wrote/designed two small websites.

      The pay was a little low….at first but, I wanted to build a base. My goal is to provide informative content for my readers.

      The area that I cover, Job Search, is very valuable to the unemployed, or underemployed in this current economy. I hope and pray that at my readers will be able to return back or find new work in this job marketplace, by the information that I share.

      Some folks will say that Examiner.com is a “content mill”. I consider myself and my column, a information resource, instead.

      In this contracting opportunity, I have met other excellent writers across the United States, like Chrissy, Jess, Cindi, Jenn, Rick, Robert and Ken, which has been an enlightening experience. Also, I am learning every day to become a better writer.

      In the end, I believe my path has send me home. My heart has always been here, I just had to take various steps, to find my way back.

      Do I think that I am on level with New York Times, Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times writers…nope, not yet…but someday?


      Detroit Job Search Examiner

      Wayne County Elections 2010 Examiner

      “Reach Out Job Search” Blog Talk Radio Show Host

    • Martha Ross

      I’m a Patch editor in California. Yes, there are long hours involved in this job and time off–even for nights and weekends–is elusive because we all feel enormous responsibility for our sites and providing all the news we possibly can for the people in our community.

      What many of these articles also don’t mention is that being a one-person news operation also means taking care of payroll processing for freelancers, marketing the site through personal appearances and social media postings, HR issues… These are jobs that would be handled at other organizations, including news organizations. Patch has us doing that. It’s a 24/7 job.

      I’m not a newbie out of J-school. I’m a journalism veteran who was fed up with the way mainstream media was covering my community.
      I think a lot of us do it because we believe in the idea that the communities we cover deserve more coverage than they are getting from their local, traditional mainstream media news outlets.

    • Great article and the comments from the people that work in this industry are enlightening. Also, well written :-)

      Thanks to Craig, Kenneth, Stephanie, Monica, and Martha for sharing their information about being a writer or editor, and for the links to their work.

      If this model works to cover niche news, then it’s a good thing for everyone.

      Founder and Chief Kachingler
      “social cents for digital stuff”

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