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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 05:21 PM ET, 10/07/2011

Examiner experiment backfires

Denver-based media mogul Philip Anschutz’s foray into cheap-labor journalism is blowing up. As Brett Favre might ask, how come it took so long?

Recap: Examiner.com has been busted for plagiarism in extremis. Here’s a taste, pulled from the Poynter.org site:

Missoulian story
What began as an act of civil disobedience by renegade mountain biker Ron Cron – who in May 2009 was caught building an illegal trail called “Original Sin” on Crane Mountain near Bigfork – has since evolved into a volunteer service agreement with the Flathead National Forest to maintain and improve existing trails.
Examiner.com story (two days later)
What started as an act of civil disobedience by renegade mountain biker Ron Cron – who in May 2009 was caught building an illegal trail called “Origional Sin” on Crane Mountain near Bigfork- has since changed into a volunteer service agreement with the Flathead National Forest to maintain and improve existing trails.

The only informed reaction to such garbage is outrage. How could an Examiner journalist do such a thing? How is the Examiner screening its reporters?

Just fine, actually. Because the Examiner’s reporters weren’t guilty of this high crime. The Examiner’s “Examiners” were. There is a world of difference. Reporters who work in one of Anschutz’s city papers are generally hardworking, solid pavement-pounders and records-requesters who generate an insane volume of 300- to 400-word stories every week. Especially here in Washington, these people have a record of getting stories early and right. Their work is found online at domains such as sfexaminer.com and washingtonexaminer.com.

“Examiners” work in a separate domain, both in the dot-com sense and in the journo-standard sense. Poke around on Examiner.com and you can divine a biz model: Recruit low-cost contributors who just may be able to game-search algorithms and drive a few page views, quality be damned. Herewith a tidbit from Kyle Rogers, Charleston political buzz examiner:

A new Zogby poll purports to show that Herman Cain and Rick Perry have switched places in the polls.
The media seems to be in a new frenzy to promote Herman Cain. The reason is obvious. The media wants a straw man that Obama can beat.

You nailed it, Charleston political buzz examiner!

Not all of the Examiners are so terrible. Patty Davis, the Louisville Kentucky state parks examiner, for instance, offers some useful information about hiking.

Examiner editorial vice president Travis Henry had this to say about maintaining standards among these independent contractors-cum-Examiners:

Plagiarism is inexcusable and we try our best to guard against it, as do most media organizations. This instance is not indicative of the quality of Examiner.com at large. Our mission has always been to provide original, high-quality content, and we will continue to improve. Today, we enable several quality controls, including an editorial review team made up of veteran journalists, a process for identifying and vetting quality contributors, as well as a training resource, Examiner University, for our Examiners with courses on everything from journalistic ethics to writing in the third person. We include a course on plagiarism and are very clear that plagiarism is prohibited by our terms of use.

That’s a perfect corporate response, one that almost makes me feel comfortable with the arrangement. Yet the gut contradicts: The “Examiner” model is built on an assumption of volume. The whole idea is to get these low-paid contributors cranking as much copy as possible, in a manner that outstrips editorial vigilance. Hence the plagiarism.

When I used to write on local media for the Washington City Paper, I’d occasionally get a tip about how this “Examiner” or that “Examiner” had written something irresponsible or done something questionable. I generally passed, preferring to report on more established outlets.

Thanks to this embarrassment, though, oversight of the “Examiners” will grow, as the new Twitter hashtag #Examinerplagiarism attests. Whatever the case, a whole class of local reporters at the various Examiner papers is watching its value on the job market drop. The news headline on the Poynter site — “Examiner.com is caught ‘pulling a Daily Mail’” — couldn’t possibly be more accurate, yet it slanders a lot of great journalists who work for the brand.

By  |  05:21 PM ET, 10/07/2011

 
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