"I understand the reactions," Howard Beck said over the phone, "because of where I have been working for the last nine years and because of where I'm going."
It was the morning after it'd emerged that Beck, the NBA reporter for The New York Times, was leaving the best newspaper in the country for Bleacher Report, a website known mostly as a spam farm. This sent a bit of a seismic wave through the sports media world. Beck's one of the good guys, and he's going where? Why? He told me it all started when he got an email from Dylan MacNamara, Bleacher Report's "sr. deputy editor" sometime back in the spring.
"When I first got the email, I was kind of taken aback because like most people, the only thing I knew about Bleacher Report is what it has been," Beck said. "You know, blogs and slideshows and Top 10 lists. He said, 'We're going in a new direction here under Turner and we'd like to tell you a little about it.' We had a great meeting."
Beck—like most of us—wasn't much of a Bleacher Report reader. I asked him if he could recall any great Bleacher Report stories over the years? Did he read the site much?
"No," he said. "I wouldn't say that I did."
And what about the inevitable Bleacher Report baggage? Why would he leave the Times—the Times!—for a website with phenomenal traffic but a reputation among journalists as something of a Superfund site.
"I'd be lying if I said that I didn't have those same concerns. Of course I did," he said. "I'm well aware of the perception that other people have had of Bleacher Report and I had a lot of those same perceptions going in. And I had to ask all the same questions that I think people are wondering right now. Obviously if I hadn't gotten a great deal of assurance and feedback from them about where they were headed then I wouldn't be taking the job."
And he liked what he heard. Beck wasn't given a pitch about how he'd fit in nicely with the current site as it exists. It was a much stronger pitch, one promising to put him at the vanguard of a revamped and transformed Bleacher Report.
"This is brand new in a way," he said. "Bleacher Report has been around for six years but with a much different editorial approach. They're now obviously making a huge move by hiring all of us—the NFL writers, NBA writers—to become a major sports content provider with professional journalists. Looking at it that way, in some ways, this is a completely new enterprise."
Beck said he had a few more meetings with Bleacher Report folks—including Brian Grey, the site's CEO—and he liked what he was hearing. By August, he felt like it was a serious possibility. Shortly thereafter, he let his editors at the Times know. There wasn't much of a conversation to be had. Beck told them he was "almost certain" that he'd take the Bleacher Report job. His last day at the Times is tomorrow. His first day at Bleacher Report is on Monday. So, what did Bleacher Report have that the Times couldn't offer?
"Sometimes, something better comes along, something more intriguing comes along," he said. "I love working at the Times and I wasn't looking to leave. But Bleacher Report and Turner came with a really, really compelling, intriguing offer. This is a multimedia job. What Bleacher Report does and will do is a combination of—basically, they're providing a different kind of platform. I'm going to be writing as I always have—several stories a week—but there will be a video element because they're really big with video for their mobile apps and their website and there will be other opportunities across other Turner platforms."
This, presumably, means TV stuff. NBA TV, TNT, and the rest. That's appealing to him, and it's appealing to Turner, too. When it comes time to negotiate NBA broadcast rights, Turner can brag about having a nationally respected reporter like Howard Beck on its roster, making its case a lot easier. TV has also become journo catnip of late, particularly sports reporters. Was that what he really wanted?
"No, I never considered myself a TV guy and never had any aspirations of being a broadcast journalist specifically but the ability or the opportunity to do multiple things to mix it up is very appealing," he said. "When you've been writing five, six, seven, 10 stories a week sometimes for years, there's a routine there."
At Bleacher Report, he said, he'll be able to write some days, do TV work the next or do some radio. He likes that idea.
"My job at the Times is strictly as a writer," he said. "That's fine, that's been great, that's been a very satisfying way to make a living. And that's been fine. I'm strictly a reporter and writer there. At Bleacher Report, I'll be doing a fair amount of video and I expect, again, to be used across many media platforms within Bleacher Report and Turner. That's a different set of responsibilities, a different set of skills to develop.
"In some respects I'm moving into an identical job with Bleacher Report except that, yes, I'll probably be traveling a little bit less at Bleacher Report than I would at the Times and instead of writing every day I'll be able to mix it up with video and other opportunities through the week," he continued. "And I think I'll have a bit of a saner schedule than I've had as a daily NBA beat writer at newspapers for the last 16 years."
And then there's money. Of course, the only question on everyone's minds was just how much money it took to lure a reporter away from the Times. Beck wouldn't answer—"I don't think it's appropriate"—but he said he has a contract with Bleacher Report. For how long, he wouldn't say. But he's not a newspaperman anymore. He's talent.
And what of Bleacher Report's strict policy against breaking news?
"That's not been mentioned to me once, no," he said, chuckling.
Beck compared Bleacher Report's role in the sports world now to where Yahoo was about seven years ago. Back then, he said, everyone knew Yahoo for fantasy sports and as a search engine. And, over the years, as it hired big-name talent, it transformed itself into a "fantastic sports site, they have established themselves." He anticipates—or, at least, really hopes for—a similar trajectory for Bleacher Report.
"All of them, they made a great presentation and I've really impressed by everything," he said, of all the folks he talked to at Bleacher Report. "They have a very clear mission here to transform Bleacher Report into a great site for sports content. There's no question about how serious they are when they're hiring Mike Freeman and [Orange County Register Lakers beat reporter Kevin] Ding and [Palm Beach Post reporter] Ethan Skolnick and myself. They're getting established guys who have a lot of standing in the industry and the leagues we cover. So I think that speaks pretty strongly to what they're trying to accomplish here and how serious they are about it."