When wildfires broke out in California this fall, the website Examiner.com mobilized its local contributors to gather and share information. The result was timely, up-to-date news for readers - but please don't call it journalism.
"We have quite a few journalists working for us," says Rick Blair, Examiner's chief executive. "But it's not journalism - we're not trying to do the 'watchdog' [function]" Their goals are not to break stories or cover city hall. "We're trying to get facts out about the community."
It began in the U.S. in April of last year and last week launched a Canadian edition to cover Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. (They also offer a national edition, and plan to add more Canadian cities.)
It's the most up-close, well-funded look Canadians have had yet at one form of the "citizen journalism" that media experts view as a core component of the future of news.
Sometimes that means bearing witness with a video or cellphone camera, as 25-year-old Paul Pritchard did when he filmed the RCMP confrontation that ended in the death of Robert Dziekanski two years ago. But Examiner has a less investigative, more entrepreneurial model in mind.
The majority of its content is created by local, part-time "Examiners" who write short articles on anything from music to politics, food safety or parenting. Some have experience, but the key is to be "credible, passionate and knowledgeable local influencers."
They are asked to submit writing samples, and successful applicants contribute three or four articles per week. They are paid on an undisclosed formula based on viewership, according to a spokesperson.
"We tell them, 'Don't quit your day job,' " Mr. Blair said. (No kidding: Writer's Digest recently reported that a Chicago contributor specializing in local "road trips" earns "somewhere north of $50 a month.") "But when folks have passion or enthusiasm for a certain subject, they want to publish and be recognized."
Leonard Brody, the Canadian president of Clarity Digital Group, Examiner's parent company, describes the site's model as "pro-am," meaning a mix of professional and amateur. "We're doing this because we want local people talking to local people about things that they care about."
Yet the site also sets itself apart from many citizen-journalism projects by compensating its contributors, giving them specific beats and providing them with ongoing training. Its "Examiner University" helps improve writing, teaches the intricacies of search-engine-friendly headlines and instructs Examiners how to build their reputations and page views.
To pay or not to pay
That's in contrast to the model employed by established media such as CBC and CTV, whose news operations have announced citizen-journalism initiatives (at CTV, mynews.ctv.ca) that invite Canadians to submit photos and videos of breaking news, but without compensation or even guarantees of credit by name.
Tim Currie, an assistant professor of journalism at King's College in Halifax, says people need to be offered something in return for their contributions, especially if they're expected to create original work on a consistent basis.
Most citizen-media contributors say they are less interested in money than "in fame or in the value of being heard," he says. "But in order to create original content, you need more than a pat on the back - and money in your pocket seems like a good incentive."
Liliana Tommasini, 54, started two weeks ago as the "Montreal Food Examiner." She also writes a blog, My Cookbook Addiction, and contributes articles to Suite101.com, a Vancouver-based site that pays writers a commission based on ad revenue generated from their articles.
Ms. Tommasini left a career in computer programming to raise her children and has a passion for food and cooking. She sees Examiner as a way to establish herself and her writing. "Of course, when you write, you want to make money too," she says. "But I know I'm just getting started, and you have to build a base."
On the other hand, another Examiner, Brian Lilley, is the Ottawa bureau chief for Newstalk 1010 in Toronto and CJAD 800 in Montreal. A full-time journalist, he's the "Canada Politics Examiner."
"I'm not out there doing this just for the money," he says. "It's a nice little side benefit, but mostly it's about engaging people in conversation about national politics."
Nurturing future rivals?
Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says Examiner's commitment to nurturing its writers may eventually cause it to confront some tough questions.
"What happens when some of [the Examiners]develop a good-sized audience? Will they split off and try to take it with them? Will Examiner try to pay them more?" Mr. Gillmor asks. "I'm unclear about what the purpose of the Examiner brand really is, and I don't think that they've entirely figured out what to do."
Still, he says he's happy that someone with "deep pockets" is investing in "these kinds of experiments."
Mr. Brody, a Canadian entrepreneur, became president of Clarity Digital Group after it acquired the Vancouver website he co-founded, NowPublic.com. But Clarity is wholly owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, who, unlike many spotlight-seeking media moguls (paging prisoner Black), is known for being reclusive. Portfolio magazine noted this summer that he "hasn't spoken to a journalist on the record since 1974." He does, however, speak with his money: Mr. Anschutz is a major contributor to conservative and Christian causes.
Mr. Brody says, "I don't want to, and I can't, talk about Phil in any way." He and Mr. Blair would rather talk about their site's explosive growth.
It launched 19 months ago with 60 Examiners in the U.S. Today, it attracts more than 12 million visitors a month, and has close to 22,000 Examiners serving 177 cities in two countries. The site publishes more than 3,000 articles a day. The goal for Canada was to start with 60 Examiners. It already has 277.
Prof. Currie says the focus on community is crucial to its success. "There needs to be a face, a real person, that people see as part of their community. Still, from what I see on the site, most of the topics are fairly generic - home-schooling, romance and relationships. I haven't seen anyone sign up for city council yet."
Indeed, he says, "I'm not sure if it's possible to get regular people to do what we would have called journalism in days past."
Then again, Mr. Blair says it's not about journalism. One thing it is about? Scale. "We believe we have the largest information-gathering organization in the world today," Mr. Blair said. "We're not going to stop at 50,000 or 60,000 [Examiners] I can see a general goal for the U.S. of maybe having 100,000."
That's a whole lot of not-journalism.
Craig Silverman is a Montreal-based journalist and author.