The many ways SF Weekly is wrong about Bleacher Report
You may have read Joe Eskenazi’s hit piece on Bleacher Report in the SF Weekly this week, Top 5 Ways Bleacher Report Rules the World!
It’s a hatchet job, Eskenazi likely to have reached his conclusions before starting his reporting. That reporting did not include a direct attempt to contact me, though I figure prominently in the piece and am ridiculously easy to reach if you have an Internet connection and know a few people in San Francisco media circles.
Eskenazi writes that B/R’s publicity agency told him that those he asked to interview were “not available.” But a good reporter would at least try to reach me directly. He also didn’t talk to some of our most prominent Lead Writers, who might have said things that didn’t fit the anti-B/R narrative.
NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller did say some of those things in a blog post he sent me, unbidden, Wednesday.
Instead Eskenazi quotes Michael Hall, NESN’s director of new media, Vivek Wadhwa, a high-tech entrepreneur who Eskenazi identifies as “a researcher and tech columnist for Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the Washington Post” to make him look like a journalism expert, and various current and former B/R writers and editors, most of them anonymous.
Here are some of the inaccuracies in Eskenazi’s piece:
“A lot of what Bleacher Report has done has been lowest-common-denominator crap, and horrible,” Kaufman admitted to the audience. His task was to alter this perception of the company.
Might as well start with the lead, and with me. Eskenazi quotes from a talk I gave on a panel at Google. Tellingly, he doesn’t link to the video of that talk.
First, I was not hired to “alter this perception of the company.” I was hired to continue efforts that had already begun to improve the quality of the work on the site.
Second, Eskenazi’s quote selection obscures the point I was making. Talking about the “lowest-common denominator crap,” I was referring to the early days of the site, when anyone was allowed to sign up and write.
And while I did talk about how advertisers demanding better quality is “the market speaking,” that was only half of my point:
And the readers, complaining on Twitter, complaining everywhere, complaining in our comments. “This is a crap article. Bleacher Report is terrible.” It was not a decision made by the CEO who got tired of his friends saying at parties, “Boy, Bleacher Report is terrible.” It was a market-based decision to increase the quality.
In other words, contrary to a basic assumption of Eskenazi’s piece, and Wadhwa’s absurd quote about Bleacher Report being responsible for “a dumbing down of the web,” Bleacher Report’s adherence to market principles—the “giving people what they want” that has Eskenazi and others clutching their pearls—led directly to a decision to raise the quality of the content on the site.
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.
Page views are not “the currency of success at Bleacher Report.” They are a part of the formula, sure, but page views alone won’t send anyone rising up the chain.
Bleacher Report is a meritocracy, and those who thrive, moving up to Featured Columnist spots and paid positions as writers or editors, are those who write or do video well, meet their deadlines, engage with their readers or viewers, act in a professional manner—and hell yeah, draw a crowd.
Earning a promotion to “chief writer I” earns a writer a free Bleacher Report sweatshirt.
Update: This is not an inaccuracy! I misread. You do indeed get a sweatshirt when you hit Chief Writer I. You don’t get the awesome hoodie until you achieve Featured Columnist II status. My mistake, and I apologize to Eskenazi for having said in this space that something he got right was wrong.
“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.”
The dozens of full-time Bleacher Report writers and editors who started out as unpaid members of the Writer Program seem to think being “an all-star Bleacher Report journalist” is a pretty good deal. They are often found writing about that in the Success Story category of this blog. That category also has posts from others who have turned a spot in the Writer Program or the Sportswriting Internship into opportunity elsewhere.
Former B/R writers have gone on to work at ESPN, the Miami Herald, CBSSports.com, Rivals.com, the Star-Ledger, Minorleaguebaseball.com, Dime Magazine, Scout.com, Heavy.com and on and on.
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.
First, the virtual crumbs argument: A basic assumption of those who criticize Bleacher Report and other sites that use unpaid writers seems to be that those writers are fools. Writing for no pay? Those people must be stupid.
People don’t do things unless they have to or want to, and nobody has to write for Bleacher Report. It’s not like we’re the only factory in a small town so you have to work for us on our terms or starve. Writing for Bleacher Report is pretty damn voluntary. Nobody’s going to do it unless they feel like they’re getting something out of the deal.
That something might be pay or a chance at pay, which, again, is real, even though not everyone gets there. It also might be the ease of using the platform rather than maintaining the back end of an independent blog. It might be the chance to reach a large audience, the educational resources, the editing and feedback. Maybe it’s the badges, medals and real-life goodies like sweatshirts.
For most, it’s probably some combination of those things. But nobody’s arm is being twisted, Bleacher Report isn’t trying to fool anyone, and we really don’t think our writer base is a bunch of fools.
As for the 90 percent: Wow, an estimate by an anonymous source. That’s the kind of journalism you won’t get from Bleacher Report!
While the percentage of paid contributors to Bleacher Report is relatively low, the vast majority of our unpaid contributors write infrequently, while our paid contributors write a lot. We value our unpaid contributors and work hard to make writing for B/R worth their while, but the content on Bleacher Report that’s created by unpaid writers makes up nowhere close to 90 percent of what appears on the site.
When this writer questioned the length of an assignment, he was told that it was determined by “our computer model.”
I canvassed the staff: Be honest, folks. Has anyone ever said anything like that? Would anyone? Everyone said no. Maybe there’s a liar in the bunch, but since there’s no “computer model” that determines story length, it’s unlikely.
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 team’s capable defenses … 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.
If Grantham had been assigned that piece about Tom Brady or its headline, Eskenazi would have been extrapolating a company-wide editorial policy from an 18-year-old—the story ran almost a year ago—who simply didn’t know what the policy is. But the fact is, Grantham chose the Tom Brady angle himself to fulfill an assignment in the b/r U training program. He not only came up with the idea of Brady as hugely overrated, he defended it from several angles on an assignment worksheet.
Here are the instructions for the assignment Grantham wrote about Brady for. Nothing in them asks writers to take “hyperbolic” stances or positions they don’t agree with.
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.”
This time with an anonymous writer, Eskenazi is extrapolating a policy from one person’s misunderstanding of the way things work.
Let’s go back to Matt Miller’s blog post.
“I’ve never been handed a headline I couldn’t say ‘no’ to,” Miller writes. “I’ve never been told what my stance was on a player or a team.”
Miller is a star at Bleacher Report, the most-read columnist in the site’s history. Maybe he gets special treatment?
Nope. Other B/R writers chimed in in the comments. “I’ve received assignments where I didn’t agree with the position,” wrote Featured Columnist Kelly Scaletta. “The response was always, ‘Give us a HED that has the same keywords but with a position you agree with.’ They might tell you what to talk about, but they never tell you what to say.”
“I, too, have yet to find an assignment I couldn’t talk to the assignment desk about if I was uncomfortable with it,” wrote another Featured Columnist, Phil Watson. “I’ve been nothing but impressed with the dedication and professionalism of those I’ve encountered at B/R.”
This shouldn’t be surprising, because Bleacher Report writers are expressly instructed not to write stories they don’t believe in. Here’s an excerpt from a Writers’ FAQ by then-Sportswriting Internship Feedback Editor Joel Cordes, now a B/R NBA editor:
I was assigned a topic/angle that I didn’t really believe in, but then I wrote about it anyway … Should I have done that?
Writers should never write things they aren’t comfortable with. If you disagree with a basic assumption of the assignment, let your assigning editor know.
“We never want writers to write things they disagree with,” NFL Deputy Editor Dylan MacNamara says. “Ten out of 10 times that leads to s— work.”
Here’s an excerpt from a separate FAQ, given to sportswriting interns:
Can I Change My Assigned Headline?
We encourage our interns to work with the assigning editor when it comes to adding keywords and tweaking ideas. You’re free to offer suggestions whenever you want. Just make sure that you’re communicating with your editors before publication and that proposed changes are OK’d by them.
“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.”
Again, Eskenazi extrapolates from one writer’s experience, when all that writer had to do was talk to someone.
“Any writer I’ve worked w/ on site can vouch that’s a CHOICE, discussion,” McCollough wrote. “It’s a totally misleading number, and it’s not representative of author choice. I’ve never refused discussion of best way to write something.”
Well, there’s more, but you get the idea.
There’s a great story to be written about Bleacher Report, about the creative destruction it has brought to sports media; about the passion of the sports fans and aspiring writers who are crashing through the gates of an industry that’s still trying to figure out what’s hitting it; about the innovative methods that have driven its explosive growth and turned it from a ridiculed afterthought to a prized acquisition by an industry giant.
A good reporter can find that story. One who’s looking for nothing but villains and idiots will—and did—miss it by a lot.