Bleacher Report and the race to the bottom

SF Weekly rips Turner Broadcasting's nearly $200 million purchase

Bleacher Report is a sort of Demand Media of sports, a content farm engineered to get search engine visits with lowest common denominator clickbait. And it’s a heck of a business.

Where Demand pays people, even if only $3 a post, to write low-grade Google spam, the vast majority of the writers on Bleacher Report are unpaid. Despite that, it got 9 million unique visitors in August, according to Compete, and Turner Broadcasting bought it that month for between $175 million and $200 million. That’s a lot of money in media land these days. It’s a hair under what the stock market says McClatchy is worth, andMcClatchy owns thirty newspapers, including The Miami Herald, The Sacramento Bee, and The Kansas City Star. It’s also two-thirds of what AOL paid for The Huffington Post.

But while the latter was obsessively covered for months, the business press barely noticed the Bleacher Report deal. It got curiously perfunctory coverage in The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and Bloomberg. The New York Times wrote a blog post. I can only imagine it’s because business and media writers read a lot more HuffPost than they do Bleacher Report.

Into this media void comes SF Weekly with a deep dive and Joe Eskenazi comes up with one of the best media stories of the year: a revealing but dispiriting look at how the open Web can drive a journalistic race to the bottom.

How did a low-tier sports site mint money? As Eskenazi puts it, Bleacher Report “harnessed the energy of the legions of sports enthusiasts who would have otherwise been yammering on call-in radio.” If you’ve never had the misfortune of listening to sports-talk radio callers, go read this entertaining 1996 Sports Illustrated piece by Austin Murphy for a glimpse.

“Harnessing” is the right metaphor here. Here’s a labor force that creates the product for free or for very low pay, and the owners reap almost all the reward.

We get a convincing picture of Bleacher Report as emblem of the modern new media as lizard-brain manipulator. Even BuzzFeed gets half its traffic, according to Compete. Bleacher Report’s listicle-heavy content that includes gems like “The 20 Most Boobtastic Athletes of All Time” and “WWE Divas Power Rankings: Which Divas Have the Most Potential?” as well as overt troll posts like “Why Tom Brady Is the Most Overrated Quarterback in NFL History.”

Eskenazi talked to the author of that post:

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 team’s 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.”

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.

Much of the piece is withering like that. At one point Eskenazi writes, “Perhaps uniquely among journalistic entities, Bleacher Report has a ‘blanket policy’ forbidding its writers from seeking out and breaking news.” Say what? But yep, here it is under Content Standards on the site:

B/R has a strict policy against writers breaking their own news. 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.

Headlines come pre-written from headquarters, and though the site has hired respectable writers in a bid to class the joint up, Eskenazi talks to current writers there who say they’re run through the grinder:

“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.”

What’s creepy is the manipulation that is baked into the model here. Clickbait, SEO, slideshows, gamification, and the like. Computer models spit out story lengths, according to one source, and they presumably dictate, or at least heavily influence, story subjects, which are primarily about activating the lizard brain.

This is what people want, you say. Bleacher Report is just giving us what we want. Fine. But if it’s the market taken to its extreme, it’s sure fascinating to see how awful the results are.

And it pays to remember, this is what people “want” under the Web as it’s currently structured. Technology changes; models change. Assuming the structures aren’t locked in for good, we need to start to imagine what people will “want” under different models and technological structures. Because this one won’t do.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , ,