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This is my second piece for PBS MediaShift, which is again looking at new opportunities for journalists. Although the quotes I got were much less explosive than in the previous piece, I still managed to work in a great anecdote about dropping inappropriate Sarah Palin references into blog posts to drive traffic.

In my first article for our special Beyond Content Farms series, I examined the opportunities available to writers at some of the biggest content farms. Today, I look at jobs covering hyper-local news.

What hyper-local news organizations are aiming for is nothing short of revolutionary: AOL’s two-year-old Patch network and established players like Examiner.com are attempting to recreate a profitable business model for professionally produced local journalism in the digital age. Unlike companies like Demand Media that pump out largely face-less content, the hyper-local sites allow writers to build a name for themselves on one geographic or subject area.

These companies are hiring a lot of journalists in communities all over the U.S., which means more and more people will find jobs in hyper-local news. So what’s it like to work in the new hyper-local journalism space? I spoke with a few writers and editors to learn more.

Going Through a Rough Patch

Jennifer Connic works as editor of the Millburn-Short Hills, N.J. site that’s part of Patch’s expanding hyper-local network. But she bristled at the hyper-local tag. “I think it belittles in some ways the journalism people like me are doing,” she said.

No matter what you call it, the job she is doing is not an easy one, as Connic readily admits. Patch editors are all basically one-woman news organizations. “You’re really the only person who’s running the site,” Connic said. When people have a news tip or there’s breaking news, she said, “I’m the one who gets contacted, I’m the one who has to be on top of that.”

Nearly two years into the job, Connic is still putting in long hours. She had a very difficult spring where, Connic said, “I had a lot of days where I’d get up in the morning and start working and I wouldn’t be done until after midnight.”

Most of that time was spent providing invaluable coverage of how the New Jersey state budget crisis was impacting the Millburn public school system. Well-known media industry reporter Joe Strupp highlighted some other great Patch reporting from Cecelia Smith, the former editor for Darien, CT. She broke a story revealing the criminal history of a candidate running for the town’s First Selectman (similar to the mayor). Smith discovered the candidate had an attempted murder conviction, and he eventually lost the race.

Like most Patch editors, Connic has a degree in journalism and her pay is likely relatively modest (although she declined to give any hard figures for her salary). As Andria Krewson reported on MediaShift, Patch competitor MainStreetConnect pays editors a salary of roughly $40,000 a year. “It is what it is,” sighed the New Jersey transplant, doing her best to adopt the local patois.

Connic was more forthcoming about the pay rates offered her freelancers…

Click here to comment and read about freelancing for Patch, becoming a D.C. English Springer Spaniel Examiner for Examiner.com and, yes, Jello wrestling with Sarah Palin.

Photo credit: brianbutko (via Flickr)

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This is my first piece for my new employer, PBS MediaShift. It is my first of two contributions to our week-long series, Beyond Content Farms.  The site is examining the rise of farmed and hyper-local content, with my pieces focused on what it’s like to work in these areas. (For an introduction to content farms and hyper-local journalism, click here.)

UPDATE: Shortly after it was published, my piece became the top story on the PBS.org homepage and was  highlighted by the influential media industry blogs paidContent and Romenesko–the latter of which is featured on the website of the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalists. The Providence Journal, The Atlantic WireMediaBistro’s WebNewser, a UC-Santa Clara journalism professor, Reporting on Health, and eMedia Vitals all blogged about my article.

UPDATE 2: The attention my reporting attracted prompted Demand Media–the content farm that comes off the worst in both the article and subsequent comments–to post an amusingly tangential response to the story on their corporate blog. (Note the way the company attempts to discredit the PBS MediaShift series in the first graf by putting the word examination in quotes: “It’s been a busy few weeks and our model has been under fire from various blogs, publications like ‘The Wrap’ and, of course, the latest weeklong ‘examination’ of new media models by PBS’s ‘MediaShift.'”)

“We are going to be the largest net hirer of journalists in the world next year,” AOL’s media and studios division president David Eun said last month in an interview with Michael Learmonth of Ad Age. Eun suggested that AOL could double its existing stable of 500 full-time editorial staffers in addition to expanding its network of 40,000 freelance contributors. Many of the jobs will be added to its hyper-local venture, Patch, while the majority of AOL’s freelancers will work for the company’s content farms — Seed and the recently acquired video production operation, StudioNow.

These two areas into which AOL is ambitiously expanding are the fastest growing sectors of the journalism market. Hyper-local networks like Outside.in and content farms such as Demand Media are flourishing. As Eun’s bold prediction indicates, more and more journalists will end up working for new online content producers. What will these new gigs be like? To better understand, I reached out to people who have already worked with some of the big players.

Life of a ‘Content Creator’

“A lot of my friends did it and we had a lot of fun with it,” said one graduate of a top journalism graduate program when asked about her work for Demand Media. “We just made fun of whatever we wrote.”

The former “content creator” — that’s what Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt calls his freelance contributors — asked to be identified only as a working journalist for fear of “embarrassing” her current employer with her content farm-hand past. She began working for Demand in 2008, a year after graduating with honors from a prestigious journalism program. It was simply a way for her to make some easy money. In addition to working as a barista and freelance journalist, she wrote two or three posts a week for Demand on “anything that I could remotely punch out quickly.”

The articles she wrote — all of which were selected from an algorithmically generated list — included How to Wear a Sweater Vest” and How to Massage a Dog That Is Emotionally Stressed,” even though she would never willingly don a sweater vest and has never owned a dog.

“I was completely aware that I was writing crap,” she said. “I was like, ‘I hope to God people don’t read my advice on how to make gin at home because they’ll probably poison themselves.’

“Never trust anything you read on eHow.com,” she said, referring to one of Demand Media’s high-traffic websites, on which most of her clips appeared.

Although chief revenue officer Joanne Bradford has touted Demand’s ability to give freelancers a byline and get their pieces published to “a great place on the web,” the successful writers I interviewed made great efforts to conceal their identities while working for the content farm.

Click here to read the rest of the PBS MediaShift article or to make a comment.

Photo credit: Bob Jagendorf (via Flickr)

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