By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The web version of this newspaper has on occasion dogpiled on breaking stories, and published the lists and slideshows commonly seen on the web. And we have undoubtedly engaged in aggressive online practices in hopes of pushing our content and getting pageviews.
Bleacher Report, however, "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 rise up the site's chain of "reputation levels" without garnering pageviews — 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 pageview 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 visitors to an animal-centric website being allowed to spiff up their profiles with cute avatars — but only 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 for even 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 pageviews 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 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."
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 terms of passing and overall yardage in a 32-team league.) But even Grantham doesn't believe Brady to be history's most overrated quarterback: "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."