An Artifice of Integrity: The Death of Examiner.com

examiner-com

What once was one of the Internet’s most promising up-and-coming properties has announced they will be ceasing operations on or around July 10th. Examiner.com, which consisted of numerous locally-oriented sub-domains and relied on citizen journalists for content has decided to shutter due to low revenue, a tainted brand, and ultimately, excelling at proving why professional journalism is still an important element of society, even in the Internet age.

Examiner.com always existed under the artifice that it was something much bigger, and much more significant than it ever actually was. The name itself was an exercise in hoping people would mistaken it for a legitimate news source that was larger and older than its true history or reach. The 150-year-old daily newspaper The San Francisco Examiner registered the domain Examiner.com in 1994. Then ten years later when the paper was acquired by Clarity Digital Media, so was the domain. In 2006, David Schafer—the former manager of Mapquest and CEO of Clarity at the time—decided to take the domain from a San Francisco-based online property to a locally-focused network of subdomains covering news and how-to topics across the country.

Examiner.com continued to transform and acquire similar locally-oriented content farm-style properties until 2009, when the basic structure of the network of locally-based blogs took shape into the Examiner.com we know today.

During the format’s height in 2010, the separate local Examiner.com domains combined logged some 60 million pageviews. But this number was somewhat misleading since no single subdomain received nearly that much traffic. Bands, music artists, local business, or whomever was featured on the format would proudly share on their social media, “Hey, we were featured on Examiner.com!” as if this was their big moment. But the reality was their moment was isolated to one of hundreds of locally-oriented Examiner.com subsets that may or may not be receiving any significant traffic at all.

And then came 2010, when Google significantly downgraded Examiner.com due to the rampant inaccuracies in their articles, and the lack of editorial oversight of its contributors. Google purposely limited the visibility of content farms like Examiner.com in favor of more reliable websites. The result was a 79% drop in visibility on search engines for Examiner.com, causing the traffic (and revenue) to the format to plummet. Wikipedia also moved to block links to Examiner.com articles, citing the unreliability of content.

The Examiner.com business model was built on citizen journalism, or what some called pro-am journalism. Though this seemed enticing or even noble to some at the time, it was basically a cover to recruit cheap labor to produce large volumes of content for the blog network while keeping overhead low. The format strongly encouraged contributors, “Don’t quit your day job,” yet paid them just enough to give them hope that maybe someday they could use their writing as a sole revenue source if they just worked hard enough or posted a viral story. Contributors were paid in a “black box” model, or per-click, which financially rewarded click-baiting and sensationalized content, while no significant editorial help or system of checks and balances was in place to help keep contributors in line.

Ultimately as the format was losing credibility and traffic, nobody was making enough money, so the parent company loaded up Examiner.com pages with an egregious amount of ads, including multiple video streaming ads that would sometimes play on top of each other, while pop ups stood in the way of readers trying to press pause just so they could focus on the content of the article. Sites like Examiner.com inadvertently encouraged Internet users to load up on ad blocking apps and plugins, not just eliminating the revenue from Examiner.com, but eroding the entire free/ad supported model of the Internet.

Eventually Examiner.com came to symbolize everything that was wrong with online publishing: excessive ads, spurious content, no accountability, and a culture of baiting for clicks to keep a dying business model afloat. In January of 2014 Examiner.com was acquired by live promoter AEG, and was partnered closely with its other media property AXS. But no amount of finagling could keep Examiner.com from its fate.

None of the aforementioned issues with Examiner.com should take away from the few, if not many citizen journalists that did take their roles on the format seriously, did produce substantive content, and tried to serve their local communities in their specific field of interest in a positive manner. But the high-profile cases of rampant impropriety were enough to turn both readers and content curators like Google away from the blog network for good.

In 2007, Examiner.com contributor Sharon Gray was accused of plagiarizing numerous periodicals for her Examiner content. Eventually Gray’s large volume of contributions was removed from the site, but not after it stained the reputation of Examiner.com moving forward, and exposed the inherent flaws of the site’s approach. As the executive editor for Examiner.com said at the time, “They’re blogs. They don’t get edited. We don’t give any direction to people on what to write in their blogs. And that’s standard operating procedure.”

Even a site like Saving Country Music was forced to interface with the artifice of integrity Examiner.com presented. In February of 2014, an Examiner.com article accused the organizers of the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame of lying about their not-for-profit status, and other fallacies. Though the Outlaw Hall of Fame eventually went defunct (possibly in part due to the negative publicity from Examiner.com,) the way it was presented on Examiner.com was completely uninformed and inaccurate. The same writer later accused Saving Country Music of spreading rumors in the death of Shooter Jennings’ manager Jon Hensley, and actively worked to cover up the nature of Hensley’s death.

Beyond all the issues with the Examiner.com, the implosion of the format and its large number of sub-sites is also yet another sign of the implosion of the American blog in favor of more traditional and professional journalism that has finally migrated online, new journalism that still tries to hold to certain standards like Buzzfeed and Vice, and viral content farms that solely rely on Facebook to generate traffic. Facebook doesn’t police the quality of content like Google and other search engines.

All this is happening while Facebook has now become the #1 referral site on the internet for websites, surpassing Google. Ironically, it’s a lot of the Facebook-based content farms that likely learned some of their tricks from Examiner.com that were ferrying away so many readers from Examiner, and now present an even more sinister face to modern online journalism.

Examiner.com will soon be gone, and it would be counted as a victory if it wasn’t being replaced by something arguably even worse, as are the majority of the independently-owned blogs that comprised the nascent content for the internet. Yet it proves that in the long run, reliability and integrity are still integral to successful journalism.