Ham It Up
When he launched Associated Content in late 2004, Luke Beatty, the firm's 36-year-old founder, president and CEO, had one employee other than himself, about $100,000 in seed money, a headquarters that doubled as his basement, and a good idea -- that by paying plain folks to submit posts, he could build an audience large enough to attract advertisers aplenty.
Less than three years later, www.associatedcontent.com is arguably the most visited media website in the city. It regularly pummels operations associated with the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News and other big boys by pushing out a wide range of items: consumer reviews, how-to guides, essays, observations and more, presented in text, audio and/or video form. And while site staffers occasionally encourage users to tackle certain topics, they rely on the expertise of participants. That sounds like the Wikipedia approach, but Beatty sees a fundamental difference. "Wikipedia is a picture," he says. "AC is a picture frame."
Associated Content typically shells out between $3 and $20 for submissions it accepts, plus an additional $1.50 per thousand page views. These sums, modest though they are, have convinced more than 55,000 people to register as content producers, and the company is expanding quickly to accommodate them. AC currently has more than twenty full-time employees working at either an office in New York's Times Square or a posh building in Cherry Creek; the local crew is in the midst of moving from one floor to another, having outgrown the previous space. And if Associated Content isn't yet "cash-flow positive," as Beatty puts it, the business is endorsed by major Internet players such as Eric Hippeau, who's on the board of directors at both AC and a little outfit called Yahoo.
Indeed, there's pretty much only one blot on Beatty's horizon these days -- a story that placed Associated Content at the center of a media controversy as goofy as it was embarrassing. And it all started with a slab of meat.
On April 11, a student at Lewiston Middle School in Lewiston, Maine, put a bagged ham steak in front of several Muslim students. Because Muslims eschew pork as a tenet of their faith (and because a man had thrown a pig's head into a Lewiston mosque during a prayer session last year), superintendent Leon Levesque treated the matter as a possible "hate incident," according to an April 19 article in Lewiston's Sun Journal newspaper. The piece stated that a police investigation was under way and that representatives from an organization called the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence were assembling "a response plan."
This episode might have been seized upon by critics of political correctness under any circumstances -- but the anti-PC forces were really revved up by a variation on the tale created by Nicholas Plagman, a 24-year-old Atlanta-area resident and regular Associated Content producer. Plagman took the original Sun Journal report and supplemented it with phony quotes and other comic tweaks. With his help, the ham steak became a ham sandwich, the response plan morphed into an "anti-ham" response plan, and Levesque was made to intone that "these children have got to learn that ham is not a toy." Plagman then listed the source for this information as the Associated Press, which had circulated a synopsized variation on the Sun Journal effort, and posted it in the "humor" and "news" categories on the AC site.
Despite widespread rumors to the contrary, many of which were circulated by AC producers, Plagman swears he didn't know the news designation would be interpreted as a mark of accuracy -- but it was. AssignmentEditor.com, a purveyor of legit news, soon picked up the article. Early on April 24, staffers at Fox News's morning show, Fox & Friends, came across his offering there and quickly transformed it into a running gag on that day's broadcast.
"Ham sandwich: hate crime or lunch?" Friends leader Steve Doocy crowed. He subsequently read the "ham is not a toy" and "anti-ham response plan" lines in between airings of the Dragnet theme and repeated claims that "I'm not making this up!" Co-host Brian Kilmeade didn't seem so sure. "I thought this was almost from the Onion," he said -- and later added, "I hope we're not being duped."
They had been, as Levesque discovered. Throughout the morning, he was blindsided by angry e-mails and phone calls from across the country. "It was probably the middle of the afternoon, when we met with him, that he even knew the origin" of this onslaught, says Judith Meyer, the Sun Journal's managing editor/days. "Before that, he had no idea where it came from."
Neither did a lot of other information-providers across the country, but that didn't stop them from running with it -- a point correctly stressed by Bill Shine, Fox News's senior vice president of programming. On his April 24 broadcast, CNN's Lou Dobbs accused Levesque of being out of his "cotton-pickin' mind" because of the way he'd dealt with the ham-sandwich story. Dobbs blasted the superintendent on April 25 and 27, too, but switched his reference from a sandwich to a "hambone" -- an extremely weak ploy to avoid admitting he'd been suckered. Likewise, other websites continued to feature the satire-spiced version days afterward, including FreeRepublic.com, which posted it with a double byline crediting Plagman and a Sun Journal scribe. By the time the piece and its accompanying thread were removed, Meyer notes, it had already collected 400-plus comments.
Representatives of the Associated Press were understandably unhappy about being dragged into this brouhaha, and Larry Laughlin, the AP's bureau chief in the Maine region, says he contacted the agency's counsel about possible legal action against Associated Content; no one from the AP has reached out to Beatty thus far. Meanwhile, Fox News's Shine concedes that "we screwed up." As a result, he says, "We've changed some of the ways we do things," and while he won't discuss specifics, he believes the policies "will make the show better."
Associated Content is also instituting changes -- like, for instance, banishing Plagman from the site for violating its independent-contractor license agreement. Plagman thinks this is unfair, especially since AC sent him an e-mail urging him to make more news submissions after he sent an embellished report about two bank-robbing Georgia teens dubbed the "Barbie Bandits." Nevertheless, Craig Abruzzo, Associated Content's general counsel, defends the decision. "We do not encourage or permit writers to submit content with false quotes into the news section," he writes via e-mail. "Our rules at AC are pretty simple, but we take them very seriously."
As evidence of AC's sincerity, Abruzzo mentions the hiring of Tim Skillern as the site's news director. Skillern, who begins his new job on May 14, has been working in the Rocky's multimedia department since 2000, and was deeply involved in projects such as "The Crossing," a 33-part series for which he wrote, reported and edited nineteen separate video segments that accompanied it online.
"Falling ad revenues and the current transitional period for newspapers had no bearing on my decision to leave the Rocky," Skillern maintains in an e-mail. Rather, he's excited about the opportunity to oversee "local and vertical news teams across the country. The hope is that a large amount of AC's news content arrives unsolicited.... But when news breaks, we'll target producers who live where the news breaks and hopefully get content from them."
That's precisely what happened in the case of the recent shootings at Virginia Tech. Content producers create profiles loaded with personal information, and when word of the massacre reached them, AC personnel found that 51 people had Virginia Tech connections. "So we messaged those content producers and said, 'Get out there,'" Beatty recalls. "And within an hour, we had thirteen of those 51 people working on content."
With an ever-growing roster of producers and an audience to match (approximately 4 million unique visitors drop by each month), Associated Content is getting more challenging to manage with each passing day. Beatty, a former teacher who never planned to become a computer-age entrepreneur, doesn't use these factors as an excuse for the Plagman problem. "We feel terrible about it, and we apologize for any sort of misunderstanding," he says. But he prefers to focus on the positive side of his creation, whose success he attributes to users, not himself. In his opinion, "That's the power of a people's media company."
No one can accuse him of being a ham.
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