The News used High School GameTime as part of a package deal with Time Warner Cable that also included print ads, a radio show, a player-of-the-week contest, and a banquet at the end of the football season. That brought in up to $700,000, says Richard Alfano, a general manager. For the next season, he says, the News will sell a $1.99 mobile app for High School GameTime that will include play-by-play from at least 100 games a week.

The key, says Whitfield, is focusing on something that readers care about deeply and that no other news provider could do as well. “It’s more difficult to sell Cowboys coverage, because Cowboys fans are everywhere around the country,” Whitfield said. “We were able to organize our resources and monetize it, which is oh-so-rare online.”

Rapid audience growth is often accompanied by thin engagement. Such has been the case at Examiner.com, a freelance-driven site that has built an audience of more than 22 million unique users in three years.

Examiner is owned by Clarity Digital Group, which is controlled by Philip Anschutz, a Denver entrepreneur who has made billions in energy, railroads, entertainment, and sports franchises. The site, which was started in April 2008, has brought aboard more than 72,000 freelancers who have written on topics ranging from roses in Rhode Island to parenting in Portland. There’s not a great deal of supervision: Writers must pass a criminal background check, and they get some quick training. Their first story goes through an editor, but after that, the writers usually post directly to the site.

Page views are a key factor in determining writers’ pay, which amounts to between $1 and $7.50 per thousand views, according to AdAge, or a few dollars per article. According to Mike Noe, senior director of recruiting, fewer than a third of the writers are currently “active,” which, in Examiner parlance, means they’ve posted something to the site within the last ninety days.

The content that Examiner.com produces mimics much of what has traditionally appeared in the back of newspapers or at the end of broadcasts—subjects like sports, weather, hobbies, or opinion. Writers are hired in large part based on their zeal for a topic. “In a traditional newspaper, the reporter might not be passionate about the [Denver] Broncos,” says Jen Nestel, Examiner’s director of community. “We do the reverse. We take someone who is already passionate and we teach them how to write.” The site doesn’t claim to replace the newsgathering functions of traditional media: “Finding out how the school board works is hard,” says Rick Blair, chief executive officer of Examiner.com. “It takes a special kind of digger. I could see other folks using platforms like ours to do that. But we don’t have the tools or the accredited manpower.”

For all its success in building an audience, Examiner has quite low engagement: Its readers see about 65 million page views a month, or only about three pages per visitor. That is likely tied to the site’s dependence on search engine optimization, or SEO.

“The problem with SEO is, the visitors are snackers,” says Blair. “If people come in through the front door [the home page], they read seven to eight pages. If they come in the side door [such as a search engine], they read maybe two,” he says. Suzie Austin, senior vice president for content and marketing, adds, “From the very beginning, we did search engine optimization right. The benefit is obvious—you get a lot of eyeballs. The downside is, there’s not a lot of engagement. Page views per user is growing, but at a low rate.” And as sites use SEO to boost traffic, advertisers take advantage of the flood of page views around the web to “name their price,” says Tom Woerner, Examiner’s senior vice president for national sales. There are two ways for publishers to deal with that, he says: “Play the price game, or add value to what you give the advertiser.”

Bill Grueskin, Ava Seave, and Lucas Graves are the co-authors of "The Story so Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism." Grueskin is dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Seave is a principal of Quantum Media, a NYC-based consulting firm. Graves is a PhD candidate in communications at Columbia University. For further biographical details, click here.