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So What Do You Do, Rick Blair, CEO of Examiner.com?

'We've rarely been compared to as a content farm. I think it's a definition made up by traditional journalists'

- April 6, 2011
Whether it's Associated Content, Suite101, or Demand Studios, so-called "content farms" are a hot topic of debate in the media business. How can seasoned journalists stay afloat financially and professionally when every Joe Blow amateur is willing to fire off "stories" on everything from "What is a Cat?" to "How To Brush Your Teeth" for pennies a post?

"I understand how those folks feel," Examiner.com CEO Rick Blair says. "Having worked with many journalists, I can identify with them."

While Examiner.com does bring in millions of page views like others in its category, Blair says his site is more than just your run of the (content) mill. He describes "examiners" as specialists in old-school and new media reporting with a local flair.

"We've rarely been compared to as a content farm. I think it's a definition made up by traditional journalists," Blair says. "One guy described a content farm as 'any website generating mass amounts of low-quality content with the intention to drive search traffic.' By that definition, I think more businesses might be engaging in this activity than we realize. We definitely don't generate that mass amount of low-quality content."


Name: Rick Blair
Position: CEO of Examiner.com
Resume: Started as a CPA at Deloitte Haskins & Sells. Then spent ten years at Knight Ridder Newspapers, holding various positions at Presslink, Inc. and Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Served as vice president of sales and marketing and vice president of content management at Picture Network International. Helped launch Aol's Digital City before landing the top position at Examiner.com in 2009.
Birthday: March 11, 1953
Hometown: Ironton, Ohio
Education: B.S. in business administration at Ohio State University
Marital status: Married
Media idol: Ted Leonsis. "He knows how to grow, scale and maintain business like no one I have seen."
Favorite TV show: The Daily Show
Favorite Book: Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra "with my grandson"
Guilty pleasure: Pinkberry
Twitter handle: @Examinercom


So, how did Examiner.com begin?
Well, our primary investor purchased the San Francisco Examiner and launched the Baltimore Examiner, which are free distribution newspapers. After that, they started the Examiner.com websites. I had been involved as a consultant. They had this idea that there would be a way to take passionate people who are very knowledgeable about their subject matter from different towns, cities, boroughs, and neighborhoods across the United States, and scale that, yet maintain the quality that you needed to have a good publication. Prior to our start of May of 2008, we built an infrastructure to handle the anticipated influx of all these writers. Our methodology was to super-vet them by having them fill an application online in which they provide us editorial samples. We review those samples and accept or reject them along with giving them a criminal background check before they can become an independent contractor for us. We started out with eight cities. Since that time, we've had substantial growth. In January we've had 25 million overall unique visitors, 70 million pages and over 70,000 examiners that produce anywhere from 3,000 to 3,500 hundred articles a day.

One of the things we knew that we had to do is to combine human power and technology power. We have 25 people who work on directly recruiting and vetting examiners through the pipeline. If I had to describe our mission in one word, it would be "examiners." We want them to simply write articles that their audience would want to read.

There are a number of competitors such as Suite101 even Yahoo. What makes Examiner.com different than all of them?
All but about 8 or 9,000 of our examiners write locally. We're all about the local perspective, from where are the best places to park during a baseball game, to hot yoga places for young moms, to what's going on in a certain town. We do this high vetting process very similar to what Associated Press does. We've rarely been compared to as a content farm. I think it's a definition made up by traditional journalists. One guy described a content farm as "any website generating mass amount of low-quality content with the intention to drive search traffic." By that definition, I think more businesses might be engaging in this activity than we realize. We definitely don't generate that mass amount of low-quality content.

"If I had to describe our mission in one word, it would be 'examiners.' We want them to simply write articles that their audience would want to read."

There is a lot of debate on what classifies a journalist and what classifies a blogger. Do you see a difference between the two and if so, what do you classify your examiners as?
Well, I do see difference between the two. I look at bloggers as amateurs, though in some cases they are journalists. I don't even know what the definition of a content farm is anymore. Journalists, and I know, having been involved in the media for most of my life, when they write for the local media, they are the watchdog, teachers and conscience of a community. We're not trying to do that. We're a mix of both. We do have really good journalists too though, including someone who writes for The New York Times. Though, for us, she writes about riding bicycles in New York. In other cases, we have bloggers who blog about things they're passionate about like local government. The "examiner" is a title which describes neither a professional journalist nor an amateur. They're writing about a subject that they are passionate and knowledgeable about.

Does the Examiner own the content that the contributors compose and if so, how can a writer use the Examiner as a way to expand their platform or to create a brand and turn it into some form of revenue?
That's a great question and that's what we really want them to do. Now, we pay our examiners based on the secret algorithm that we use. We encourage them to have links back to other articles on our site and, with the training that we provide, we teach them how to distribute their content across the board. We do own all the rights to the content on the site and we do tell folks, 'don't quit your day job' because other than a few of our examiners, they're not going to make thousands of dollars from us. But if they take this as a stepping stone and add this to their portfolio, it's very easily done for them. For example, they can have a constant link to their book on Amazon. We want them to be happy and successful and write more often.

What are your thoughts on the recent sale of Huffington Post? Do you think that it's fair for them to continue to profit off of writers without sharing the wealth?
I think it was a good acquisition for Aol. They needed somebody to hold it together. When I was at Aol, we helped launch the local initiative. I think they needed a property for them to rally their content around. In that instance, with the bloggers, if you're going to give away your content and you're going to allow them to publish it, and something happens where they benefit from it, unless you have some kind of a deal upfront, it may not be a very good idea. I understand how those folks feel and having worked with many journalists, I can identify with them. I will say this, all those bloggers at Huffington Post who posted for free, we'll be happy to invite them to Examiner.com, where we pay them.

You have 70,000 examiners. How do you maintain the quality of the content and without overworking your editorial board?
The first thing we set up was Examiner University. Once examiners are accepted, we give them some 40 courses where they learn everything from how to upload an image to how write in the third person. We'll teach them how to write better headlines, how to socialize their content -- all of it is covered. We also have a community of examiners that self-police and they are wickedly objective about their counterparts. We don't edit each post. We compensate by our lack of editing with our substantial upfront review and training process instead.

"I will say this, all those bloggers at Huffington Post who posted for free, we'll be happy to invite them to Examiner.com, where we pay them."

With your recent partnership with Reuters, do you see the contributors or the examiners' fees increasing?
Yes, our examiners' fees in total increase with our success. So, as we become more successful, examiner fees will become more successful. That is the part of the algorithm and is one of the principles that we assure our examiners are compensated in terms of dollars and in terms of the satisfaction they get by sharing their information and the significant amount of press that they get. They are referenced by hundreds, if not thousands of press every month.

For those who are considering creating their own forms of user-generated if not curated content sites, what is your advice for them to stand out?
You have to maintain a level of quality and you have to strive for an even higher level. You have to make sure you have the resources to train folk and give them feedback. For every 9,000 applications we receive a month, we only accept less than 50 percent of those.

What is your vision for Examiner in the coming years?
We want to be the go-to website for all things local and we want people to come there because they want to read our stories, not because we have a lot of them; that our stories are valuable to help them in their everyday lives. We're advertising-based and the base strategy has pretty much stayed the same, but we're growing faster than we anticipated.

NEXT >> AvantGuildSo What Do You Do, Brian Farnham, Editor-In-Chief, Patch?


Jeff Rivera is a GalleyCat contributor and the founder of HowtoWriteaQueryLetter.com

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2011. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries

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