By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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."
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 any prior era. The trick 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 out 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, multi-page slideshows — linking to its own voluminous archives, and supplanting original stories on 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 of the higher-ups at both Bleacher Report and Turner we 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 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."
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.