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In the great wild world of the Internet, there's news and then there's, well, news, sort of. Chances are if you've done an Internet search for anything around Little Rock, or your home town wherever that happens to be, you've stumbled upon the Examiner. It looks like a news site, it walks like a news site and it quacks like a news site, but it's not really a news site.
The Examiner is owned by Clarity Digital Group and has a localized presence in over 240 markets around the country. All of the articles come from “Examiners” that cover a wide and extremely varied range of topics. There's the expected Razorbacks Examiner, High School Sports Examiner, and Conway Community Examiner, just to name a few. But then there are the more hyper-local, super-specific topics, like the Sebastian County Libertarian Examiner, the Online Dating Examiner and the Little Rock Atheism Examiner.
So how does one become an Examiner, you might ask. Well, apparently the interview process isn't that rigorous. Levi Agee is a local film buff and video editor who writes about film weekly for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the Little Rock Film Examiner.
Agee found out about the Examiner through Craigslist. He was trying to find a writing gig that he could do during his spare time in graduate school, something that might even make a little money.
“I don't think I got a single phone call from them,” Agee says. “It was all done through e-mail. I had a writing minor but no journalism background at all. The way they sold it to me was they didn't need pristine, perfect journalists, they just needed hyper-local journalists.”
Agee passed a background check, sent in a writing sample, and the rest is history. He was now, according to the Examiner, the Little Rock expert on film. Now, he really does know his stuff. But how do they know that?
“I don't think they really verify your credentials,” he says. “Once you get going, they just check with you and make sure you're pumping out articles every week. I had to do at least three or four a week, if not one every day. It was pretty intense.”
That's one reason Agee hasn't filed a column since February, and doesn't really plan to in the future.
“The Examiner to me really feels like a pyramid scheme,” he says. “Because they would always send me e-mails asking me to refer other examiners and I would get $50 gift cards for Denny's and it just reeked of someone's idea of commercialism and journalism together.”
Agee isn't the only one that's skeptical. Dr. Bruce Plopper is a professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He sees sites like the Examiner as an outgrowth of the citizen journalism movement.
“That leads to all kinds of bias, in terms of which stories are chosen for coverage and the way they're covered,” Plopper says. “I think it has the possibility to undermine the standards of traditional journalism, which could, in turn, undermine people's beliefs in the credibility of journalism in general. Just as I have concerns with the citizen journalism movement, I have concerns with we'll-pay-you-by-the-click-and-hope-that-you've-got-it-right journalism.”
And about that pay-by-the-click system: Agee wrote 61 articles last year, which amassed over 3,800 clicks. His total take-home pay: $35.68.
“Writing for the Examiner is like being the new kid at school who's running for class president. You have to work your butt off to win, or be really hot. And if you're not writing about the hot topics, you have to self-promote like crazy and you have to be your own publicist or your own agent. The whole self-promotion thing online is just really weird for me – it just felt really icky.”
Plopper says sites like the Examiner are likely to proliferate, although he's not willing to “write the obituary” for the well-trained, well-paid journalist.
“You see it even on CNN now,” Plopper says. “'If you see news and you have a video, send it to us.' And I think we're certainly going to see media corporations be less willing to pay money for a lot of highly-skilled journalists when they can get unskilled material for a much lower price.”
The Examiner's home office didn't return our call for comment.
Feel free to send comments, criticisms, insights, etc. to email@example.com. Twitter's also a great place to find me. @gerardmatthews.
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