The Bad and the Ugly on Bleacher Report

*Warning: This post has nothing to do with baseball or the Phillies. You may have ascertained that by the title, but it’s worth mentioning before a 1,400-word essay.*

If you’re one of my followers on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me make and re-tweet snarky comments about Bleacher Report. For the uninitiated, Bleacher Report “provides news and fans’ opinions of sporting events”, per Wikipedia. Essentially, if you have a pulse, know what sports are, and have a computer with an Internet connection, you are qualified to write for Bleacher Report — just as you are with typical blogs.

Regular bloggers and mainstream media types, often in opposition to each other on many other subjects, seem to agree that BR is a travesty and an eyesore. One need only peruse the home page to get a feel for the quality of content provided at BR. Some examples as of this writing:

  • Full Scream Ahead: 10 Teams With the Most Momentum Heading Into 2011
  • Dwight Howard Trade Rumors: 10 Moves Orlando Magic Can Make To Keep Him Happy
  • Penguins Show the NHL Who has the Biggest Johnson

For more examples, check out Dustin Parkes’ list of the “Top Eight Worst Bleacher Report Baseball Posts Of All Time Ever In The World”.

Just a cursory glance at BR provides a window into the authors’ thought processes:

  1. Think of a player, team, or issue that is interesting or in the news (Dwight Howard)
  2. Think of a way to talk about it in list-form (Trade rumors)
  3. Think of things to put in a list (Trade proposals, realistic or not… mostly not)

(And the irony of the above list hits… now.)

BR’s style encourages thoughtless list-making. Anybody can make a list. Anybody can Google “Dwight Howard trade rumors” and find a picture of him on Google Images. One need possess no writing skills and no analytical skills to publish a post at BR. Most people do not have elite writing and analytical skills, so BR is a perfect venue for them to see their name in a byline, unchallenged. That makes BR a content factory.

This is why most bloggers and mainstream writers dislike BR. For the mainstream guys and gals, they (and I speak entirely in generalities here) had to go into debt to earn a college degree in journalism and worked long hours covering high school field hockey for a small-town newspaper before landing their professional baseball/football/hockey/etc. gig. They constantly have to answer to editors and superiors when their work is subpar, and must adhere to strict journalistic standards.

The blogosphere is a meritocracy, as Will Leitch famously said on Costas Now on HBO. For the most part, bloggers with poor writing and/or analytical skills do not succeed because people will end up going to the blogs with better writing and/or analytical skills. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part this holds true. Most bloggers pay money out of their own pockets to purchase a domain name and to acquire server hosting (or otherwise join on with an already-existing blog), spend many hours per week writing and editing multiple posts, and following up with commenters because their writing is a passion.

Bloggers have to earn their keep. Phillies Nation didn’t become the best Phillies blog on the planet (R.I.P. The Fightins) by making top-ten lists of arbitrary names and details. They certainly didn’t start out with over 125,000 Facebook followers. At the start, they were a passionate group of Phillies fans who had to prove themselves to the community, just like everybody else.

What BR provides is a platform of equal significance to the best and worst of the community. Better writing and analysis is not rewarded in the slightest, which means the bad writing and analysis is subsequently rewarded.

Thumb through the biographies for BR authors. On most of them, you will find self-admitted “aspiring writers” looking to break into the sports writing business. They are on BR for fame and notoriety; they are not there out of genuine love of sports and writing about them. In other words, they are leeches feeding on BR’s ability to put them in the spotlight, deserved or not. Are these the people you want to shine a light on and say, “Yeah, this is what we’re all about”?

Furthermore, a requisite of list-making is having a pre-developed idea. This list is titled “10 Current Players Freddie Freeman Could Develop Into” and authored by Will Brown, who is “going to school in hopes of being a sports journalist in the future”.

Why ten players? Why not nine or eleven? Obvious questions, but being beholden to round numbers is the bane of solid analysis. What if there are only seven legitimate players to compare to Freeman? The additional three are thrown on arbitrarily to suit the list format.

What is the criteria for comparison? Flipping through the slideshow yields no answers. The one thing in common is that they mostly play corner infield spots and are well-known players. Most likely, the author went to a leaderboard for MLB players, sorted it by 1B and then 3B, and picked out a few recognizable players haphazardly.

A good analyst would have a defined system for comparison. So if the results yielded James Loney and Daric Barton rather than Michael Young and Ryan Zimmerman, the author’s conclusion isn’t affected since it wasn’t made beforehand, despite that those players aren’t as interesting or noteworthy. Even better, perhaps he learns that his hypothesis is wrong and goes back to the drawing board, rather than publishing a flawed theory.

BR recently hired King Kaufman, a former writer and editor for Salon.com. In his first post from his new home, he talked about BR’s reputation, admitting some of BR’s faults, and change. “My main job here is to try to help improve the overall quality of the writing,” he wrote.¬†Many have poked fun at him for trying to put lipstick on a pig.

I’ve had no contact with Kaufman other than participating in a Scoresheet league with him last year (and I stopped paying attention to my team in May), and he certainly didn’t ask for my thoughts on his project. From what I’ve read of his work, he seems like a smart guy and a great writer — a perfect candidate to tackle an enormous project like this. But if I had to offer some unsolicited suggestions to him, they would be:

  • Lose the slideshow/list format. Entirely. Prove that your community is not comprised of page-view scavengers. Some of them — more than I gave credit to, probably — are in it for “the love of the game”.
  • Do not judge the writing based on page views and comments. They are not great indicators of quality. Remove the page view counters on each article.
  • Hold writers to a standard. Maybe you lose page views from the lack of “WAG” posts featuring pictures of scantily-clad women, but you bring your website up several notches in credibility. And, you know, you lose that whole misogynistic, objectifying women thing. I’m not a businessman, so maybe this idea is foolhardy.
  • Feature writing, not pictures. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with losing the slideshows, but compare BR’s main page to that of Baseball Prospectus. On BR, I am being enticed to read articles for the subject; on BP, I am being enticed to read articles for the content. A subtle distinction, yes, but it does make a difference — especially for a website that wants to foster a community.
  • Reward better writing with better real estate. Have real BR moderators (community-based or hired) read posts and reward the better ones with “featured” status and being listed on the front page. It’s basically the system they have in place now, but with some legitimacy behind it.

Bleacher Report can continue being nothing but a content factory. They can continue to call upon average Joes to be, as Dustin Parkes called them, “boner providers” — luring men to click on more pages and more ads with the allure of scantily-clad women and top-ten lists. If, however, King Kaufman wants Bleacher Report to have any future credibility as a first stop on the Internet highway for quality sports content, then he needs to clean slate and take away the incentives for his content providers to be lazy and incompetent. Or, more accurately, the disincentives for them to be hard-working and competent.

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