To download the complete version of "The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism," a new report on digital news economics from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, click here.

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.”

So Examiner is shifting from simply selling display ads to selling the value of its ability to project stories beyond the confines of its own site. Examiner coaches its writers on deploying social media to broaden the influence of their stories. In the marketing business, using social networks is now considered a form of “earned media”—that is, it’s more akin to publicity, like an appearance in a news article, than to an advertisement or paid product placement. “Thirty years ago, if you got a story into Sports Illustrated about your product, that was ‘earned’ media because you didn’t pay for it,” says Woerner. Today, earned media includes messages that go out via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. “Marketers have to be willing to give up a little control.” Woerner also said,“The key for traditional media is how they’re engaging with their audience. They got used to the role of the gatekeeper. They need to invite the audience in.”

To attract ads from Iams, Procter & Gamble’s pet-food company, for example, Examiner invited (but didn’t require) its writers who focus on animals to write about pet adoption and shelters; just as importantly, editors encouraged writers to distribute their stories via social networks. Iams didn’t control the content, but given how innocuous the Examiner’s coverage of animals tends to be, the company was unlikely to be troubled by photo galleries of adorable homeless puppies and feature articles about courageous German shepherds. About 840 writers responded with more than 5,200 articles and additional posts on social-media sites linking back to the stories. Those extra links from Facebook and Twitter to Examiner stories helped drive up advertising rates. Site executives say that ads sold in this effort get CPMs of more than $11, as contrasted to their usual display ads that get CPMs of $3 to $5.

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.