The SF Weekly just published a massive piece about the Borg-like rise of Bleacher Report, and it is a doozy. The Weekly's Joe Eskenazi talked to a host of former and current writers, editors, and columnists to try and figure out how Bleacher Report became the third-most-read sports site in the world, a valuable enough property that Turner was willing to pay $175 million for it. What he discovered is the reductio of journalism's very worst absurdum.
Aside from its legion of unpaid writers running on a legion of hamster wheels, Bleacher Report's greatest strength is its ability to reverse-engineer stories based on data gathered by an "analytics team."
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 pre-written 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."
The data beget the headlines beget the ideas. The market is your editor-in-chief now, to a degree that not even the crassest tabloid (and we'll include ourselves in there) would consider.
And about those headlines: They are misleading by design, Eskenazi writes.
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 fanbase, your best bet is to give the people what they want." But, at the same time, don't forget to "beat against the mainstream." The exemplar of contrarian thinking offered within the site's curriculum is a Bleacher Report article titled "Why Tom Brady Is the Most Overrated Quarterback in NFL History."
Eskenazi goes on to explain that the kid who wrote that Tom Brady headline was 19 at the time. He didn't actually believe what he was writing for a second.
But what about Bleacher Report's Lead Writer program? The one that brought in names like Bethlehem Shoals, Dan Levy, and Josh Zerkle and was designed to dramatically raise the quality of the site's content (and perhaps protect its flank against any tweaks to the Google algorithm). How are the lead writers feeling about what they've accomplished? [Update, 10:40 a.m.: See Dan Levy's response at bottom.]
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 cache 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 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."
Christ, that's horrible. Now, all of these things happen to one extent or another in every newsroom in the country. Columnists overstate themselves to get a rise out of people. Editors push lifestyle-page vitamin stories on callow reporters because they think that's what readers want. These things happen in our newsroom, and they happen in SF Weekly's, and they happen in the New York Times's, too. What's depressing about Bleacher Report is that it's handed its editorial brain wholesale over to the marketplace and reduced the business to its most lamentable impulses. It's like every bad or degrading moment anyone's ever had in journalism, all strung together and turned into machine-certified corporate policy.
Read the entire piece, all 5,000 non-slideshow, non-belisticled, non-algorithm-approved words of it. It is well worth your time.
Update, 10:40 a.m.: Lead writer Dan Levy responds:
I signed up for this knowing my name would be in articles like this, but I vehemently disagree with almost all of what the anonymous "lead writer" said. Did that happen to him/her? I'm not going to call them a liar. But I've had quite the opposite experience and I didn't think it was fair to have my name even tangentially attached.
Update, 11:40 a.m.: Lead writer Josh Zerkle responds:
Top 5 Ways Bleacher Report Rules the World! [SF Weekly]