By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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 pageviews 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 up red meat, sports-radio-style, is viewed as something of a necessary evil. One former writer recalls that, upon joining Bleacher Report, he rationalized, "You have to put out of your mind that they're obsessed with pageviews until you rise 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' pre-written headlines. And these are often slideshows, several paragraphs of text woven around a photo or video and repeated 50 times. "When they started paying me, I began doing 95 percent slideshows," 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 slideshows."
Even Bleacher Report's "lead writers" — established and respected web authors hired in the last year as part of the ostensible drive for quality and paid five-figure salaries — say they too are assigned pre-written 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: slideshows, top five this, top 10 that," says one prominent writer. The pre-written 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 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."
And if he leaves, there is an army of writers 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.