Last year, sportswriter King Kaufman stepped up to the lectern at a symposium held on the Google campus. In his 14-year haul at Salon.com, Kaufman earned a reputation as one of the best and most cerebral sports journalists on the Internet. But his subject that day was his new job, improving the content quality at Bleacher Report—an outfit with a reputation almost directly opposite Kaufman's own.
The San Francisco–based site is an aggressively growing online giant, tapping the oceanic labor pool of thousands of unpaid sports fanatics typing on thousands of keyboards. Launched in 2008, Bleacher Report meteorically rose to become one of the nation's most popular websites, and one of the three most-visited sports sites. Its dramatic success came via valuing site growth and page views over any semblance of journalistic "quality" or even readability. Operating a sports website on a supply-and-demand model turns out just as one would expect: High-trafficking Bleacher Report articles include "25 Wardrobe Malfunctions in Sports," "The 20 Biggest Criers in Sports," and "10 Possible Tiger Woods Porn Spin-offs: Mistress Edition." The site quickly earned a rep for expertly employing the Google search engine to inundate it with content—a lot of which, Kaufman admitted to the audience, was "lowest-common-denominator crap, and horrible."
His task was to alter this perception of the company. But this was not due to any sense of embarrassment or a late-night visit to the site's brass by the Ghost of Journalistic Standards Past. Like almost every move the company makes, this was a business decision. And a smart one.
"This was not a decision made by the CEO, who got tired of his friends saying at parties, 'Boy, Bleacher Report is terrible,' " Kaufman continued. "Bleacher Report reached a point where it couldn't make the next level of deal, where whatever company says 'We're not putting our logo next to yours because you're publishing crap.' OK, that's the market speaking."
Several thousand miles away, Bleacher Report's hiring of Kaufman and a platoon of professional writers—but continued reliance upon an unpaid cast of thousands—was interpreted differently. During a meeting in New York City, an executive at one of the nation's largest sports-media companies quipped that Bleacher Report's new strategy was akin to spritzing a little room deodorizer after leaving a steaming deposit in the toilet and failing to flush. An attendee recalls everyone laughing uproariously.
In August, Turner Broadcasting announced it was quite willing to put its logo next to Bleacher Report's, scooping up the website for a purported $200 million. Bleacher Report has joined The Huffington Post in the exclusive club of Web properties that convert free, crowdsourced content into nine-digit paydays. The transaction was not just a valuation, but a validation.
"Information has become more important than the source of information," says Michael Hall, director of new media for the New England Sports Network. In today's world, information is money—and few move information faster or more efficiently than Bleacher Report and its roughly 6,000 contributors. "They understand, probably better than any media outlet today, the exact value generated for them for every monthly unique visitor, every page view served," continues Hall. "They understand that revenue impact better than anyone out there. Better than we do."
Every media entity questioning the wisdom of throwing down $200 million for Bleacher Report, notes Hall, is already co-opting the tricks mastered by Bleacher Report. "It's here to stay," he adds, "because it's what people want."
No one is laughing anymore.
No single narrative encapsulates the ascent of Bleacher Report, a site that churns out around 800 articles a day penned by 2,000 "core contributors." The site is as polarizing as it is popular. And it is very popular. In August, some 14.2 million users visited it. Astronomical page-view numbers have translated into loads of advertising revenue—media reports peg the site as on pace to gross $30 million to $40 million this year.
It could be argued that Bleacher Report's success is a 21st-century iteration of the American Dream. Four 20-something sports nuts, friends since they attended the elite Menlo School in Atherton, Calif., quit their jobs in 2007 to found a sports website written by the fans, for the fans. In doing so, they harnessed the energy of the legions of sports enthusiasts who otherwise would have been yammering on call-in radio or laboring on obscure blogs and message boards, and bundled this labor into a platform that could be backed by advertising dollars.
The site's deft use of search-engine optimization (SEO)—the tweaking of content and coding to increase online visibility—propelled its unpaid amateur writers' fare to the top of Google's search-engine results, placing it on equal footing with original work created by established journalistic outlets. It's a rare sports-related Google search that doesn't feature a Bleacher Report article among the top results. And once readers click onto Bleacher Report, they stick there—visitors are besieged with applications to subscribe to team-specific newsletters or mobile applications or drawn into click-happy slide shows, polls, or other user-engaging devices that rack up massive page views per visit (to date, a slide show titled "The 20 Most Boobtastic Athletes of All Time" has amassed 1.4 million views).
Every publication has produced its share of jarringly bad writing. Yet Bleacher Report, powered by thousands of hobbyists and publishing more stories in an hour than many sites produce in a year, has lapped the field. The following excerpts of raw copy were all retrieved from the 2011 diary of a bewildered Bleacher Report copy editor:
• "From 2001 to 2008, we all know that Matt Millen, the GM of the Detroit Lions, were the worst in NFL history. Much to the instability from the coaching staff were the constant drafting of players who obviously could not play. This slide show is but a simple look at how sad our drafting process was in that 8 year span."
• "An assessment over the last decade illustrates that last season was an irregularity, as many greenhorns fail to sustain success in their rookie campaigns. Despite this evidence, an affinity for adolescent ballplayers remains a universal affection among fantasy users. There are several arguments to explain why this empathy exists."
• "Beasley still gets his average of just over five rebounds per game, but the Timberwolves do not ask him to circumcise his game by staying in the blocks the way Miami did."
Not surprisingly, critics from traditional journalistic outlets continue to knock Bleacher Report as a dystopian wasteland where increasingly attention-challenged readers slog through troughs of half-baked word-gruel, inexpertly mixed by novice chefs.
After denigrating and downplaying the influence of the Internet for decades, many legacy media outlets now find themselves outmaneuvered by defter and Web-savvier entities like Bleacher Report, a young company engineered to conquer the Internet. In the days of yore, professional media outlets enjoyed a monopoly on information. Trained editors and writers served as gatekeepers deciding what stories people would read, and the system thrived on massive influxes of advertising dollars. That era has gone, and the Internet has flipped the script. In one sense, readers have never had it so good—the glut of material on the Web translates into more access to great writing than in any prior era. The challenge is sifting through the crap to find it. Most mainstream media outlets are unable or unwilling to compete with a site like Bleacher Report, which floods the Web with inexpensive user-generated content. They continue to wither while Bleacher Report amasses readers and advertisers alike.
But while critics' lamentations may be increasingly irrelevant, they're hardly unfounded. Perhaps uniquely among journalistic entities, Bleacher Report has a "blanket policy" forbidding its writers from seeking and breaking news. A dictum on the site states: "While we don't doubt that some B/R writers have contacts they know and trust, a problem arises when we're asked to take a leap of faith that those sources are both legitimate and accurate." Bleacher Report is designed to engage in the far more lucrative practice of pouncing on news broken by others, deploying its legions of writers to craft articles—or better yet, multipage slide shows—linking to its own voluminous archives, and supplanting the original stories in the Google rankings. Breaking a story is no longer valuable: Owning it is.
Bleacher Report declined to answer questions about this—or anything else. After weeks of entreaties to the site's publicity agency, we were informed that all the higher-ups at both Bleacher Report and Turner whom we'd requested, by name, to interview were "unavailable at this time." (We did speak to several dozen current and former Bleacher Report writers and editors, many of whom requested anonymity due to fear of retribution.) Bleacher Report's leaders, however, are often rather candid about the company's goals and values.
"Our approach is to really pay attention to what consumers are looking for. There is a notion of consumer demand that any company needs to be mindful of," Bleacher Report CEO Brian Grey told SI.com. "If you can pay attention to what people are looking for and use that intelligence to produce content that people are looking to consume, from our perspective, that's kind of where digital media is going."
Yet Bleacher Report does far more than just "pay attention."
One of the great ironies of Bleacher Report is that a site essentially founded on the mantra "for the fans" operates via an extremely regimented top-down system. While nearly every major publication now has an SEO maven on board, Bleacher Report employs an entire analytics team to comb through reams of data, determining who wants to read what, and when, at an almost granular level. In this way, the site can determine the ideal times to post certain types of stories—thus meeting a demand that doesn't yet exist, but will.
Reverse-engineering content to fit a prewritten headline is a Bleacher Report staple. "The analytics team basically says, 'Hey, we think this is going to be trending, these eight to 10 terms will be trending in the next couple of days,' " says a former editor for the site. "We say thank you, and we as editors come up with the headlines and pass those on to writers to write the content."
Methodically crafting a data-driven, SEO-friendly headline and then filling in whatever words justify it has been a smashing success for Bleacher Report. But it's a long way from any quaint notions of "journalism." This has been, however, standard practice for content farms such as Demand Media. Danny Sullivan, the editor of SearchEngineLand.com, notes that Bleacher Report's CFO, Drew Atherton, held a similar position at Demand Media. Sullivan also mentions that Yahoo! analyzed its own search data and used it to reverse-engineer content. Prior to serving as Bleacher Report's CEO, Grey held the top position at Yahoo! Sports. (Yes, the Web version of Seattle Weekly has on occasion dogpiled on breaking stories, and published the sort of lists and slide shows commonly seen on the Web. And we have undoubtedly engaged in aggressive online practices in hopes of pushing our content and getting page views.)
Bleacher Report "is 'made-to-order news.' They'll make up whatever people search for," says Vivek Wadhwa, a researcher and tech columnist for Bloomberg BusinessWeek and The Washington Post. The triumph of Bleacher Report, he continues, is the natural outcome of gauging success and profitability based on Google-derived clicks. "This is custom-manufactured garbage. It is being mass-produced. This is a dumbing-down of the Web."
And that leads to another great irony of Bleacher Report. A site laden with so much content even its own writers and editors decry as "stupid" is expertly run by some of the smartest executives on the Web. Transforming data into editorial directives, as Grey stated, "is kind of where digital media is going." Bleacher Report is already there.
The next David Halberstam, Bill Simmons, or A.J. Liebling may well be toiling as an unpaid, lower-level Bleacher Report contributor. But he or she will never climb the site's chain of "reputation levels" without garnering page views—the currency of success at Bleacher Report. Writers are divided into six ranks ranging from "contributor" to "chief writer," with ascending subdivisions of each plateau (I, II, and III). Earning a promotion to "chief writer I" earns a writer a free Bleacher Report sweatshirt. He or she will also receive less tangible, but far more consequential, perks, such as access to plum spots on the site or within team newsletters, and mandated deference from copy editors.
Writers earn "medals" for high-trafficking or much-commented articles and "badges" based on monthly performance numbers. Along with a running page-view count, these plaudits are visually represented on a writer's profile page. Medals are delineated into seven "gem levels" based upon an article's popularity: bronze, silver, gold, platinum, sapphire, ruby, and diamond.
In the world of social media, steering contributors toward desired behaviors via virtual bling is called "gamification." It's not unlike allowing visitors to an animal-centric website to spiff up their profiles with cute avatars—after they leave a requisite number of comments. "Within the Bleacher Report community, [medals and badges] are a point of pride," says one writer. "It's hard not to feel like you're getting somewhere if you have a bunch of badges. It makes you want to work your way up to being an all-star journalist. But you're just working your way up to being an all-star Bleacher Report journalist."
A former editor at the site estimates that, even with continued editorial hiring, at least 90 percent of Bleacher Report's gargantuan writing roster remains unpaid. Unable to earn actual crumbs, they compete for virtual crumbs. This is increasingly de rigueur even for established writers—and likely the only model today's young adults have ever known.
The ostensible goal of any enlistee is to ascend to the "featured columnist" position. A recruiting pitch on the site blares: "Ever notice those credibility-enhancing 'Featured Columnist' icons in article bylines and on B/R Profile pages? Well, so has everyone else." Featured columnists form the backbone of Bleacher Report, and some earn a monthly stipend many told us was in the ballpark of $600. This usually covers three assignments a week. These often require a major investment of time: "Predicting the Next Loss for Every Top 50 College Football Team" may be an inane subject, but its sheer size likely makes it laborious.
The road to the promised land is paved with virtual sapphires and diamonds—and real page views and revenue generated for the organization. Bleacher Report's higher-ups have provided neophyte writers a wealth of materials to help them thrive, and thereby meet the site's bottom-line needs. The first lesson offered to students of "Bleacher Report U.," a self-guided new-media training curriculum, is to "key on a keyword." In short, write about the stuff people are searching for: "The Hot Keyword Database is an updated catalog of the Web's most popular search terms—and your ability to incorporate these terms in your articles will be instrumental in your efforts to generate visitor traffic and maximize your exposure."
One of Bleacher Report's top-five strategies for up-and-comers is to pen "hyperbolic headlines" and "always aim to either overstate or understate your position." As such, "NBA: LeBron James Signs with the Miami Heat," while accurate, is an unacceptable headline. The right take is "LeBron James Signing Makes the Miami Heat the Best Team in NBA History."
Finally, writers are urged to "cater to the masses." "For better or worse, readers love breezy sports-and-culture stories. If you really want to maximize your fan base, your best bet is to give the people what they want." But at the same time, don't forget to "bet against the mainstream." The exemplar of contrarian thinking offered by the site's curriculum is a Bleacher Report article titled "Why Tom Brady Is the Most Overrated Quarterback in NFL History."
This piece epitomizes much of what frustrates the site's detractors. The article's author, an affable 19-year-old college sophomore named Zayne Grantham, tells us he still thinks Brady is an overrated "system quarterback" who largely succeeds thanks to his teams' capable defenses. (The New England Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl last year with the 31st-ranked defense—in a 32-team league—in terms of passing and overall yardage.) But even Grantham doesn't believe Brady is history's most overrated: "In hindsight, I may not have used that headline. I'll be one of the first to say he's one of the best quarterbacks we've ever seen."
And there you have it: Anyone baited into responding to these hyperbolic stories finds themselves debating a non-starter argument with a teenager from Shreveport who doesn't even buy the premise of his own article.
But people do debate. They do comment. And they do read. That story has generated better than 14,000 page views and more than 440 comments—no "20 Most Boobtastic Athletes" tally, but not bad at all. "One of the goals is to get a lot of people to read your articles," Grantham explains. "That headline, by the nature of the words, brought in plenty of people."
Serving red meat, sports radio-style, is viewed as something of a necessary evil. One former writer recalls that upon joining Bleacher Report, he rationalized that he would only have to focus on page views until he rose "high enough to say, 'Now I can start focusing on quality.' "
He was promoted to featured columnist—but was disappointed to learn his new job largely consisted of providing copy for his editors' prewritten headlines. And these are often slide shows, several paragraphs of text woven around a photo or video and repeated 50 times. "When they started paying me, I began doing 95 percent slide shows," says former featured columnist Jeff Shull, who spent four years writing for Bleacher Report. "I did 496 articles, so probably over 400 of them are slide shows."
Even Bleacher Report's "lead writers"—established and respected Web authors hired in the past year as part of the ostensible drive for quality and paid five-figure salaries—say they too are assigned prewritten headlines. "It's exactly the kinds of things Bleacher Report has become famous and infamous for, the things serious sports fans roll their eyes at: slide shows, top five this, top 10 that," says one prominent writer. The prewritten headlines, adds another high-level writer, are "asserting why someone is the best player when he's not; why the obviously best player isn't really the best; why somebody is going to take over in the next year when it's implausible he would—basically, asserting something that's unlikely, giving it a good hook, and getting someone to click on it."
That's the technique generations of bloviating sports scribes have used to stir the pot. But Bleacher Report's lead writers didn't think this is what they were being brought in to do. "Why pay me lots of money to dumb down my content?" asks one. "They could have used unpaid people to do this."
This way, however, Bleacher Report doubles its pleasure by enjoying the cachet of employing high-end writers while raking in the hits from low-end material. "They can have it both ways," says one prominent writer. "An unsophisticated sports fan clicks on the story, and it validates what he thinks. A sophisticated fan is so angry at the dumb headline, he can't help but hate-click on it." When this writer questioned the length of an assignment, he was told that it was determined by "our computer model."
It's a model that's computing well for Bleacher Report, if not for every writer. "I started out being worried that joining up with Bleacher Report would make other people think I'm a fraud and a hack," says one high-level writer. "Now I'm worried I have become that fraud and hack."
And if he leaves, an army of writers is ready to replace him.
Readers don't just visit Bleacher Report. They're funneled right into the site's revenue streams. "I know people who loathe Bleacher Report but are heavy users of its newsletter or app," says Ben Koo, the CEO of Bloguin, a network of sports blogs. "The inbox is the new social network for content companies."
Visitors to the site are aggressively pestered to sign up for team-specific newsletters or the Team Stream mobile app—which updates fans in real time with articles about their chosen team pulled from around the Web. Bleacher Report has established a direct, regular line of communication with millions of highly specified ad targets—and will continue to do so even if in the future the site is unable to lean so heavily on Google. "People undervalue the app and newsletters," continues Koo. "I think it's worth a quarter of Turner's acquisition price."
The site's Web dominance is woven into its very fabric. Online marketer and SEO expert Hugo Guzman points out that Bleacher Report's "site architecture lends itself to SEO. They built a site to facilitate search engines spidering through and picking up all the different article pages and category pages." This, he notes, is a marked contrast to the legacy media sites that break the stories Bleacher Report goes on to dominate. Many of the nation's most prominent journalistic outlets are "on website platforms that were not built with SEO in mind. They were built when that was not even a factor." News sites were constructed to display stories. Bleacher Report is built to disperse them.
Guzman rattles off the "best practices" technical elements that have enabled Bleacher Report's ascent: "Internal linking architecture!" "Metadata!" "Server-side elements!" He pauses and laughs. "I can guarantee you that there are other publications out there that have frameworks on par with Bleacher Report's," he says. "So, ultimately, what's their biggest differentiator? Free content!" Bleacher Report's volunteer army generates scads of material—and the money the site doesn't spend on writers is spent to move the company where it wants to go.
It couldn't get there, however, without addressing the pitfalls of crowdsourcing and lowest-common-denominator crap Kaufman mentioned to Google. So over the past two years, the site has worked to rehabilitate its image: Would-be writers must gain admittance via a process that rejects 17 out of every 20 applicants. Lead writers and knowledgeable featured columnists have been added to the roster, and many of the site's early contributors have been bounced. "A few years ago I couldn't look at their site without my eyes bleeding and my head pounding," says veteran sports journalist Kevin Blackistone. These days, "That doesn't happen with the same frequency." It's hard to argue that Bleacher Report hasn't improved—but it's impossible to say it hasn't improved its curb appeal. That's what enabled its acquisition by Turner—and what may enable the amalgamated entity to strip the "Worldwide Sports Leader" mantle from ESPN.
Turner, unlike ESPN, FOX Sports, or Comcast, lacked a major sports Web destination. Now it owns the #3 sports website in the realm. And with a hulking new digital platform on which to sell ads, Turner has a new method of making money. This would provide a leg up in bidding for whatever comes next. "By expanding their set of assets, it allows Turner to go after things, and perhaps successfully obtain things they couldn't otherwise," says Ed Desser, president of Desser Sports Media.
Before this deal, Desser continues, Bleacher Report was "just another aggregator of customer-created content." But now? The wave of the future. No media outlet can ignore the allures of crowdsourcing—or dismiss out of hand the rewards of reverse-engineering content.
"There was a time when the traditional media viewed new media as not up to their standards. But that time has passed," Desser notes. "Tastes change. Look at TV. Think about how much stuff would never have been on 30 years ago: vulgar language, sexual situations, eating bugs. It's all out there now. We're a long way from Ozzie and Harriet."
Or, as Bleacher Report puts it, "If you really want to maximize your fan base, your best bet is to give the people what they want."
In an era when those who have more get more, when so many have been forced to recalibrate their expectations, it's hard not to see Bleacher Report as epitomizing more than just sportswriting on the Internet. Those at the top have profited handsomely. For the folks whose work powers the site, however, Bleacher Report is often the best opportunity they can find, and a springboard to diminished dreams.
Drew Laskey is an occasional writer and onetime copy-editing intern for Bleacher Report—and a full-time North Carolina basketball fanatic. He is now a copy editor for Journatic, an outfit recently popped on This American Life for using fake bylines to obscure that many of its articles were penned in foreign countries by non-native English speakers paid a pittance. Laskey says the articles he copy edits at Journatic, incidentally, are "much cleaner through and through" than those at Bleacher Report.
He still remains an unabashed fan of the site. "If you take Bleacher Report seriously and you have the talent and the ability to learn and take constructive criticism, Bleacher Report can pay off for you," he says. "I've seen it pay off. People have gone on to other websites." He hopes it'll propel him to an internship writing for InsideCarolina.com. This unpaid position would "be my dream job. To have a payment attached to it would be surreal. It's something I can't even fathom."
Bleacher Report alum Lukas Hardonk is one of those writers who've gone on to paying gigs elsewhere. He's now the managing editor of the Maple Leafs Central blog and a contributing editor of TheHockeyWriters.com. "As bad a rap as Bleacher Report gets, it's really tremendous what they did for me," he says. Hardonk wrote for the site for three years, but found there were only so many slide shows in his system. By 2011, he realized he'd outgrown Bleacher Report. Still, "they kick-started my career."
It'll be interesting to see where that career goes after the 17-year-old finishes his senior year of high school.