No man ever built a fortune without exploiting the labor of his employees. But as we’ve seen with the ever-changing landscape of internet media and print publishing, it’s become harder and harder of late to define what actually constitutes an employee anymore, and, for that matter, what labor itself even means. At oil billionaire Phillip Anschutz‘s Examiner.com, the sprawling internet content farm with hundreds of localized city and town-based portals, the idea that capitalism is theft takes on a couple of different, increasingly literal meanings.
Boasting tens of millions of unique readers a month across their hyper-local affiliate sites, the Examiner, (owned by Anschutz’s Clarity Media Group, who publish the Washington Examiner print paper as well as the conservative newsweekly The Weekly Standard, and until recently owned the San Francisco Examiner, one of the longest-published newspapers in the country founded by legendary newspaper family the Hearsts), has come to represent everything that is wrong with internet journalism in the age of click-bait chicanery—or, they would have if the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed weren’t so busy stealing the spotlight on those fronts.
How’d they develop such a huge following? Well, the formula is pretty simple: hire thousands of wannabe writers from around the country, juice them up with the promise of that elusive contemporary currency of “exposure,” lower the bar for editorial standards until you’re digging a hole, and wait for the clicks to roll in.
As anyone who is currently experiencing their first official day on the internet will be surprised to know, that sort of aggregator content-farming model is ripe for journalistic failure. The Examiner sites have been racked with accusations of plagiarism over the years. Here’s one from the SF Weekly from 2007. Here’s one from the Missoulan from 2011. Here’s one from 2012. And another. Here’s another from the Phoenix New Times from this year. It might be easier to compile a list of internet journalists who haven’t had their work stolen by the Examiner at this point.
That last example there is a telling one, as the writer doing the thievery in question came up with an almost sympathetic response when called out for it. She said it was a protest against how little the Examiner pays its writers. “I threw that in there to see if they are paying attention,” S. Renee Greene explained to the New Times. “I don’t appreciate having to work for four years without pay.” Even when they do pay, there have been numerous reports of red tape and foot-dragging to actually cough up the money.
No one wants to work for free, and yet here we all are, still doing it. For what then, if not to earn a living?
Want to be a writer for the Examiner and sites like it? Don’t quit your day job. That’s not just a figure of speech, but how Examiner’s director of public relations explained it to a writer who had complained about earning $35 for 25 articles a couple years back, saying “We definitely try to be very clear and transparent that this isn’t a ‘quit your day job’ opportunity.”
What do you get in return for your labor, as an “Examiner,” as they’re called? Here’s how their site explains it. You’ll notice that compensation is third down on the list. The inclusion of humans as one of the benefits is probably meant as a heartening reassurance, but in the content farm world, boasting of access to actual humans takes on a morbid form of black humor. You’re not just flinging your words and labor into the void, you’re flinging your words and labor into the void for a team of human beings who exist, who then, of course, go ahead and sell ads next to those words to pay their own actual salaries.
Anschutz, it’s worth mentioning, is also the man behind the Anschutz Entertainment Group, the second largest promoter of live entertainment in the country behind Live Nation. For a list of his impressive holdings in the worlds of sports and entertainment, check this Forbes article from last year, which, by the way, places his networth at $10b. He recently took AEG off the market.
Anshutz, the Phoenix New Times plagiarist explained, “is a billionaire—he can afford to pay people.”
So too could Ariana Huffington, right? But why would they when so many of us are lining up to work for free? I’m not an economist, but I’m pretty sure you don’t get to be obscenely rich by giving away your money when people aren’t trying to take it.
A little further down on the list of Examiner.com benefits are “Access” and “Special Programs.” In other words, we’ll help you fulfill your vanity project fantasy that you’re an actual reporter by getting you into things, and letting you leverage your “job” into getting free stuff. If that’s not the model of contemporary internet writing in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. It doesn’t get any worse than that.
Haha, just kidding, of course it does. As if exploiting workers for underpaid labor, who then go on to steal from other people’s actual work weren’t bad enough, it turns out at least one Examiner writer has figured out a workaround to actually getting paid for her work. Well, not her work, your work. Someone else’s work, anyway.
Take a look at this email that was passed along to me by a friend in public relations, who asked not to be named. I showed it to a few other travel and hospitality industry PR types, and their collective response was essentially, Are you fucking kidding me right now?
No, apparently not. Here’s how getting placement works on the San Francisco Examiner’s travel portal now. My contact sent out a press release about a hotel destination. This was the response:
From: [EXAMINER WRITER]
Sent: Wednesday, July 03, 2013 1:10 PM
Hi I could post this for you if you write me 250-300 words with pics (I can take up to 20) beginning with the line:
“San Francisco world travelers heading for (your place) should be sure to check out….(continue with rest of your piece)
It CANNOT be a press release word for word and it cannot be found anywhere else on the web or my account will be deleted.
There should be no mention of the word “Our”, e.g. “Check out our local fall colors” should be “Check out the local fall colors in the region.” The mention of “our” makes it sound like a press release written by the local tourist board and that is a huge ‘no, no.’
Photos must not be larger than 512KB. I need at least 5 and up to 20 works.
The piece will remain online for as long as you want it to, even indefinitely if you want that. An editorial mention like this can increase bookings and sales and make you more money.
My fee for this is just $29 (or a press trip or a product sample), payable to [REMOVED] . For an additional fee of only $10 (recommended) I can post it out on my social media sites. This will reach over 300,00 people on Twitter, Facebook, Stumble Upon, Google Plus, Gather.com and Pingler.com. Total for this would be $39. Social media is a great way to get the word out – and we do all the posting for you so you don’t have to and can, instead. get back to your core business!
I am happy to accept Paypal [removed] (Paypal charges an additional $5 fee so please add that in).
Many thanks indeed. It appears that this writer here, whose name I should expose, but haven’t for some reason I’m not exactly sure about, is committing the most egregious sin imaginable in the world of journalism. It’s like a hybrid of plagiarism, which is bad enough, but also asking to be paid for giving someone else the privilege of being plagiarized! This is some next level, mutated journalistic ethical failing as of yet unknown in the natural world.
But can you blame this woman? She’s just learning from her employer, after all. Asking someone else to do the work, then reaping the benefits.
William Randolph Hearst, whose San Francisco Examiner, the Examiner.com took its name from, once said “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.” It seems strange now to long for the days when that was the only problem of journalism veracity we had to deal with.
I’ve reached out to both the Examiner writer and the company itself for clarification if this is standard operating procedure there. I’ll update if any response comes, although I doubt it will. Perhaps if I offered to PayPal them $30 for their troubles they’d get back to me.