Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Boldly going where people have already screwed up before

I've been involved with Web publications for just about as long as there has been a commercial presence on the World Wide Web. I was an associate editor on the launch of ZDNet on the Web in 1994 (we hand-coded the HTML for those pages). My new media experience goes back a bit further, since earlier I was an associate editor on ZDNet's presence on the old Prodigy online service.

After that, I was senior editor on the launch of the New York Daily News online. I was editorial director of a dot-com during the gold-rush days. I was one of the original "guides" for The Mining Company/ ...

I'm sort of like a Zelig of the online world -- present at some pretty cool happenings, without actually making much of an impact myself. If you squint, you can just make out my face in the corner of the yellowing photo there...

I cite my history here, because I've been writing for The Examiner for a year and a half now, and I'm ...what? ... perplexed to see a company act, at this late date, as if it's inventing the business of publishing on the Web -- and in the process, making stupid mistakes that proved nearly disastrous for other companies a decade ago.

As I write, articles published by The Examiner aren't being picked up by Google News, and apparently not by regular Google Search either. That's for a good reason -- after an encouraging start, The Examiner has been publishing pretty much any crap by any warm body with access to a computer, devoid of quality control, in an effort to maximize page views and ad revenue for the short term. There's a lot of good material in there, too, but there's a flood of junk. Google apparently got tired of junk -- some of it plagiarized -- jamming its search results and has, at least temporarily, bounced The Examiner. This isn't precipitous -- the publisher has been on the equivalent of super-secret probation with Google for a while now.

The queered relationship comes after The Examiner has pretty much worn out its welcome at most of the social media sites, like Digg and Reddit, because examiners were pumping their pieces and those of their co-workers. 

But we've been down this path before. In the late '90s, The Mining Company gained a miserable reputation for hiring guides with little vetting, and exercising essentially no quality control over the content they produced. Guides were also urged to go out and manipulate their rankings on the search engines of the day (remember Altavista? Lycos? Infoseek?), many of which allowed results to be voted up or down.

Like The Examiner (and plenty of other modern publications), The Mining Company compensated writers according to traffic. And as with The Examiner, the emphasis came to be on quantity rather than quality in an effort to drive traffic and maximize revenue.

But when a brand gets a lousy reputation, people stop dropping by ...

That tactic made a certain sense in the context of the late '90s, when many dot-coms were in it for short-term venture capital and had little intention of building a long-term presence. That dot-com where I was the editorial director was one such operation, and it was a running joke in-house that the only business plan was to find new investors.

After a few years, the re-named decided to take a long-term approach and cleaned up its act. There were several brutal purges of guides -- I think the first one dumped 40% of the topics and their writers. And greater editorial control was instituted over content (along with some other, problematic, policies -- but that's another issue).

But The Examiner is owned by an established company: Clarity Media. Presumably, Clarity, which also controls two print newspapers also called Examiner, doesn't plan to stuff its pockets with ad revenue and abandon its offices and its name. Driving the brand into the ground makes no sense under the circumstances since it's not a fly-by-night operation.

So it seems like The Examiner is staggering along in the poorly placed footsteps of its predecessors not, as part of a well-thought-out business strategy, but from sheer failure to learn from the past. In the end, if the project is to continue, the company will have to purge bad writers, implement some quality control and rebuild its reputation and relationships.

I hope it does so, because The Examiner's approach is an interesting one. I like the idea of a low-overhead platform for targeted journalists and opinionators. It has real potential. Provided, that is, that the project looks to long-term viability.

For now, I'm still writing for The Examiner -- until somebody in the Denver office stumbles on this blog post, that is. But if you know anybody who might be interested in a slightly used writer/editor/blogger (who was there when it all started, I'm tellin' ya), don't be afraid to drop me a line.



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