Well, after just over a year of writing, Bleacher Report has fired me.
To be fair, I hadn’t written anything in over a month, and had missed quite a few deadlines before that as a result of a particularly busy couple of months at the job that I actually get paid for. To be even more fair, they didn’t forbid me from writing anymore, in fact, they encouraged it; I was just stripped of my “Featured Columnist” status.
Perhaps “demoted” would have been a better word selection.
Anyway, I promise I’m not bitter, I get it. I honestly do appreciate everything that Bleacher Report has done for me. I’m a better writer now that I was when I started there, and I learned quite a bit about the realities of producing content online. However, I do feel compelled to put a bow on my experience there, and to explain why I don’t plan to return to writing for Bleacher Report ever again.
Like I said, I get it. I don’t presume to think that my writing or not writing for Bleacher Report will have any impact at all on its overall success or failure, but that knowledge won’t stop me from labeling my demotion as a business decision.
As much as B/R toots its collective horn about writer development (and they do put a sizable amount of resources behind it) the website is successful because it distributes an incredibly large volume of content with incredible regularity at an incredibly low operating cost. If a writer who had previously produced a lot of content (which I did) had recently produced considerably less content (which I had), that writer would have very little value to Bleacher Report (which I apparently did). It would only make sense for B/R to show that writer (me) the door.
I wasn’t particularly surprised when I received the emails from my MLB assignment editor and the Featured Columnist editor revoking my FC status. I wasn’t surprised, and I wasn’t really anything else either. Emotionally, I was blank.
At first I thought maybe I should be disappointed, but I had become increasingly disillusioned with B/R (more on that later). Still, I wasn’t happy about the decision either. After all, this was a group of professional editors telling me that I was no longer good enough to occasionally headline a small section of their website.
After I thought about it for a bit, I mostly just felt relieved.
Prior to writing for Bleacher Report, I had a very negative opinion of the site. So negative, in fact, that my expression of that opinion in this very space earned me a “don’t knock it ‘til you try it” recruitment to Bleacher Report’s internship from its chief of writer development, King Kaufman. I battled feelings of hypocrisy for a bit, but ultimately accepted that “don’t knock it ‘til you try it” is a perfectly fair way to think.
I completed the internship, and did quite well, ultimately landing an FC gig covering Notre Dame foootball. My editors were cordial and generally very helpful, especially Joel Cordes, Greg Pearl, and King Kaufman himself. I very much enjoyed the first few months of my time there. I met more than a couple of very talented writers, writers to whom I wish nothing but the best going forward. Covering Notre Dame was a delightful hobby during the season; I felt closer than ever to my beloved Irish and felt my writing improving all the while.
When the season ended, I encountered a problem that I imagine just about every sportswriter has run into once or twice. There were no games on the horizon, but I still had a two-story per week quota to fill, as did the four other featured columnists that were tasked with covering Notre Dame football.
I probably spend more time than is healthy thinking about the Irish, but even I quickly ran out of interesting things to write about. Having emptied my clip of college football thoughts, I requested a transfer to a role covering Fantasy Baseball, another passion of mine, and one whose season was just beginning. Things were great once again, as I was flush with ideas for content. However, after a few weeks, things began to feel repetitive.
I tried to mix things up, pitching an idea for a weekly column that combined lists of waiver wire pickups with current pop culture phenomena, but I was quickly rebuffed. My editor told me that angle wasn’t the sort of content that Bleacher Report was looking for. I don’t want to be too precious about my idea, but it seemed like the sort of thing that people might want to read, and when I did write it up, it often attracted more traffic than my assigned articles. I never quite understood why it wasn’t good enough to warrant a regular slot in the rotation.
As the season moved along, my frustration grew.
At one point, I was asked to write the same article about “Buy Lows” two weeks in a row. When I responded to the second consecutive assignment, wondering if it was a mistake, my editor confirmed that I was indeed supposed to write the same thing twice. When I asked for a different assignment and was initially declined, he seemed surprised when I told him that no, my list of buy lows would not change demonstrably from one week to the next.
This is when my worldview began to butt up against that of my former “employer”.
(I’m not really sure whether I should call Bleacher Report my employer, as I worked for them for over a year, but made a total of just $350, plus a couple of free t-shirts)
To be clear, this isn’t a problem that I have only with Bleacher Report, it’s a problem that I have with this era of internet journalism as a whole. I get the business end of things; pithy titles loaded with sticky search terms bring in page views, page views bring advertisers, and advertisers bring dollars.
You’ll notice that the little eco-system I described above does not include the words “quality” or “writing”. In the grand scheme, these things don’t matter all that much.
Ok, maybe I was a little overzealous there. Quality does matter, but only to a certain extent. If a website demonstrates lack of quality editorial so offensive as to deter a significant percentage of its readers from ever visiting that site again, it matters. That sort of total disregard for the reader will ultimately lead to declining page views, and in turn, declining ad dollars.
However, as long as a site can generate reams of content that isn’t a constant stream of unmitigated crap (getting people to write for free and offering training along the way is a great strategy for this) on a large, search-engine-optimized platform, the content really doesn’t have to be that good for the site to be successful.
Bleacher Report touts each article’s “reads” on its front page, but that’s a misnomer. The count tracks page views, and that’s a very important distinction.
A “read” is registered as soon as a new viewer loads up an article. Unless Bleacher Report is secretly administering post-view reading comprehension tests before it registers another tick in the “read” count, the “read” tracker doesn’t actually measure reading at all.
This is where it gets interesting: I think Bleacher Report could care less if its readers ever actually read anything. Once an ad fully loads, B/R can collect cash from its advertisers, and on the business side, that’s priority number one.
I’ll put this as clearly as I know how: Bleacher Report is a website built on producing content that readers don’t actually have to read.
B/R doesn’t actively encourage its readers not to read anything, but it does actively try to create an experience that requires very little effort or engagement from them. I happen not to agree with it, but this is a perfectly acceptable business strategy, one that’s borne out in B/R’s content.
The most heavily promoted articles are slideshows, loaded with pictures and media that make life easier for the reader, because reading, thinking, and learning are all very stressful and demanding, certainly too stressful and demanding for an average sports fan.
Again, I can’t stress enough that there is nothing empirically wrong with this strategy. I won’t claim to be a shining beacon of journalistic integrity, I work in advertising, after all. My point is only that Bleacher Report asks very little of its readers, and only slightly more of its writers. As both a reader and a writer, I would hope that distributors of content would expect a little bit more out of me.
Bleacher Report has invested quite a bit in improving its production, but the site will always value quantity over quality.
There are plenty of reasons that Bleacher Report was recently purchased by Turner for an estimated $200 million, but quality of content sure as hell wasn’t a primary selling point.
I like to write.
I like to write about things that are interesting to me. That’s why I started doing this in the first place.
I don’t like to write about things that are obvious or unnecessary.
I also don’t like to search Getty Images for pictures that match a pre-determined headline. I don’t like to stretch a thought that could have fit onto one page aross ten pages. I don’t like to make big deals out of things that aren’t.
I don’t like to do things I don’t like to do unless those things result in something positive for me, someone I know/love, or the world as a whole.
Writing for Bleacher Report, I found myself doing quite a few things that I didn’t like to do (see above), without those things resulting in any measurable advance toward the greater good for me or anyone else, excepting of course the management of Bleacher Report.
I accept that many of the “things I don’t like” that I listed above are realities of internet journalism, proven techniques for attracting a large volume of readers.
However, positing that these things are important assumes that my goal as a writer is to attract the largest audience possible.
I don’t get paid to do this. I do it because I like it.
My goal as a writer is to write interesting things that interesting people might find interesting. If my pursuit of that goal eventually leads to the development of a large following and/or a paying gig as a writer, that’s wonderful. If not, that’s ok too.
That realization is ultimately what led me to decide that I’ll no longer write for Bleacher Report. My demotion was certainly a catalyst, but I can honestly say that I’m not just taking my ball and going home.
My goals as a writer and the site’s goals for me as a content producer are disparate. Call it “irreconcilable differences”.
So with that, I say thanks and good day to you, Bleacher Report. I do not wish you continued success, nor do I wish you continued failure. I am completely ambivalent toward your existence, but at least that’s more positive than what I felt a year ago.