7 Stages of Grief At Bleacher Report University

B/R U through the eyes of its pupils
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Thanks for ruining foam, b/r

Image via Mashable.

Last Saturday, CNN replaced longtime content partner Sports Illustrated with Bleacher Report. Whether you find this depressing or not depends on you, mostly, but the difference between the two is stark. It could be argued that Bleacher Report, in its spammy silliness, is a better fit for CNN. But the symbolism of the move is obvious, and serves as further proof that Bleacher Report is, for better or worse, winning.

As the Stan Gable to Buzzfeed’s Lewis Skolnick, Bleacher Report has spent much of the time since its inception in 2008 dominating Google searches. That the articles at the top of these searches are as inaccurate and content-farmish as they are bland and repetitive is well-known among those who bother knowing about such things; that they top those searches because of proprietary SEO gaming and other faintly sketchy tactics is, too.

But Bleacher Report is profitable, and Turner owns it, and so there it is on CNN, and there Sports Illustrated is not. Which might not be bad, but it certainly is weird. Even if it wasn’t one of Time Inc.’s most respected properties, SI is still home to any number of respected writers on a wide array of topics; Bleacher Report, which Turner (CNN’s parent) acquired in August for around $200 million, is Bleacher Report.

Every SEO-based news website produces plenty of crap, though, which is lamentable in its own right but also part of how the internet works. What really pisses people off about Bleacher Report can be found in the full-spectrum demolition that appeared in San Francisco Weekly last October.

The piece makes it clear that Bleacher Report has turned a profit dressing old-fashioned content farm tactics in appropriately sports-y competitiveness. “Writers earn ‘medals’ for high-trafficking or much- commented articles and ‘badges’ based on monthly performance numbers,”  the Weekly’s Joe Eskenazi explains. “Along with a running pageview count, these plaudits are visually represented on a writer's profile page.” XBox achievements, essentially, though it doesn’t feel that way to B/R’s writers. “Within the Bleacher Report community, [medals and badges] are a point of pride,” one B/R writer told Eskenazi. “It's hard not to feel like you're getting somewhere if you have a bunch of badges.”

But, as the writer tells Eskenazi, all writers get for those badges is the haunting realization that “you're just working your way up to being an all-star Bleacher Report journalist.”  That being an all-star Bleacher Report journalist barely pays at all doesn't help ease the pain either. (We, for one, also pay writers in exposure instead of cash, it should be said.)

And from a financial perspective, it’s easy to say that B/R is just playing to win the game, which it is their job as a business to do. But what an ugly way to win. Bleacher Report's restrictive rules pertaining to articles written by the site’s rank and file (on everything from topic to word count to word choice), along with some gentle-to-nonexistent editing, tends to produce flat, near-identical writing. Factor in Bleacher Report’s general shamelessness in non-labor matters -- intentionally misleading/overhyped headlines, serial keyword abuse, fatuous slideshows that artificially boost page counts -- and you’re left with a site that’s easy to dislike. On the grand scale of ugly things businesses do, gaming Google’s algorithms and exploiting eager-beaver fan-journalists is less egregious than refusing to clean up pollution or funding warlords; it's probably closer to making employees work “voluntary” overtime. Still, it's on the shit scale.

So why, given that not paying most of their writers ever is part of the Bleacher business philosophy -- and given further that B/R writers are tasked with standing out from a vast sea of fellow workers who have been molded and made to write in exactly the same way -- would anyone choose to write for Bleacher Report? And how does Bleacher Report get these thousands of writers to write in the same platitude-rich, flat-affect anti-style? Answering the first question takes you to some dark places. The second one, though, I can tell you a bit about. That’s because I enrolled in -- audited is more the right word -- the site’s primary means of writer conveyance: Bleacher Report University.

***

No, there aren’t any frats at B/R U and, yes, there is a syllabus. Or at least there are eight “assignments,” -- which more accurately, should desginated as seven assignments and a final -- that looks something like this:

Each assignment has steps to help you master B/R’s “reporting” -- or whatever the word is for creating content for a site with a ”strict” policy against breaking news -- model. The first section, “Key on a Keyword” is the playbook for the Bleacher Report numbers game. The assignment begins innocuously enough: students are told to Choose Your Word(s) by picking a topic from a B/R “keyword list” filled with terms as broad as “WWE News” and as specific as “Roberto Luongo.” You are then asked A) why that phrase is popular and B) why it’s important to us. The first step is a familiar pedagogical prompt; for a site that allows writers to start at the age of 13, it could even be useful.

And from there, things gets progressively Bleacher Report-ier. The next step is Crafting a Headline,which is usually a headache left to editors. B/R simplifies the process, breaking it into three tasks: “(1) well-chosen keywords; (2) well-ordered keywords; and (3) compelling appeal to human readers.” Even mentioning headline crafting is odd, though, because as Tom Ley revealed at Deadspin, Bleacher Report prefers to generate headlines for writers when the circumstances call for it.

And then there’s the final step of the first assignment, Optimize Your Text.

This one, right here, comes as close to encapsulating the problem (well, the non-slideshow problems) with B/R as any mildly coherent paragraph ever  will. Here, in a torrent of SEO buzzwords, is the B/R model in miniature (emphasis mine):

Keyword-rich headlines don’t by themselves guarantee search-engine visibility for published B/R articles. On the contrary, search-engine algorithms also factor the position and frequency of in-text keywords when determining an article’s placement in keyword-specific search listings, which means you should optimize the text of each of your B/R submissions by...(a) including your best keyword as the first word(s) of the text; (b) including all of your primary keywords once each in the first paragraph of the text; and (c) including all of your primary keywords at least 1-2 more times in the subsequent text.”

In one sense, this is just the old warning against burying the lede, and in that way, it’s another bit of useful advice. But when framed like this -- out of any literary or journalistic context, filled with vague buzzwords and with no explanation beyond “algorithms also factor the position...” -- it undermines the basic goal of teaching and writing: to give context to the abstract and make the complex simple, preferably with jokes.

If this is about crafting a well-written story with a coherent argument or purpose, it’s only accidentally so. (UPDATE: Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey points out that had I actually done these assignments, which I did not, I would have received the same personalized feedback on style and content that all B/RU enrollees do.) For the third time in as many tasks, B/R has concerned itself with keywords, the proper optimization of text for search engines, and very little else. Their lack of interest in the unique and engaging is clear in their odd deconstruction of what an article is supposed to be: non-keywords are the things that surround the keywords. An article is a product with keywords in it. On to the next assignment.

 

We "Target An Audience” by Choosing a Tribe and Analyzing Their Readers. This assignment, maybe more than any other on the B/RU curriculum, has the buzzy fatuity of a memo from a political consultant: “Internet readers flock to compelling ‘grassroots’ commentary about their favorite teams and topics. If you want to build a loyal following, there's no better way to start than by earning respect from a herd of hardcore fans.”

Writers are tasked with choosing for themselves a beat, and to “write what they know.” From there, a suggestion is made with regard to finding angles for a given story: look at the most popular stories on B/R for each subject.

***

It’s an uncomfortable fact of life on the internet that even the most carefully wrought bit of writing is, finally, content: a commodity to be consumed or sold or leveraged, but ultimately a commodity. Even if there’s something depressing about the way that Bleacher Report makes this plain -- joyless business prose; repetition of self-satirizing phrases like “appeals to human readers”; the processing of  any and everything having to do with sports into fodder for meaningless debate -- it can’t be said that they don’t understand the business. And so, after the first two assignments provide content-makers with the ability to create suitably keyword-stuffed content and properly aim it at a built-in audience of (um) “hardcore herds,” the third assignment brings us to the money-maker: it is time to bake the slideshows!

This section is called “Pick the Best of All Time,” with the unspecified after-instruction being “and then jam it into slideshow format.” There are explanations at to why these lists are important -- according to the “Why It Matters” section: "'Best of All Time' slideshows are among the most popular B/R content items. If you want to establish your reputation as a crowd-pleasing author, you’d do well to pepper your portfolio with a smattering of Top 10 (or 20 or 50) lists” -- and how to go about creating ones that will maximize visibility. Then the assignment literally explains how to make a list:

  1. Frame Your List (Pick topic for list)

  2. Do Your Homework (Research topic for list)

  3. Profit Assemble Your Slides (Make list *with pictures!!*)

Finer points are found within the steps: ask yourself “why I ordered keywords the way I did,” ask yourself “why the title appeals to human readers.” Writers are instructed to come up with honorable mentions for arbitrary lists they created themselves. There is no emphasis, and barely a mention, on criteria. The assignment is to catalogue, compare and countdown every single tangible thing in the sports universe. It is not to wonder why, or explain how.

Explaining how, would be nice, however. If only to highlight the difference between a list of “The Best Jets QBs of All Time” and the Bleacher Report equivalent. Which, while likely having the same headline, would be more aptly titled “The Abyss 2: Sadness Train to Oblivion.”

The fourth assignment, “Speak Via Videos,” may be the most obvious and self-explanatory of the assignments, which is saying something given the two separate and equally detailed explanations of how to create slideshows. Here we learn that “moving pictures really are worth a thousand words.” Also made clear: after selling you on the idea that “there’s never a bad time for a well-crafted video slideshow,” you should feel comfort in the idea that you can also “be liberal in including videos with your ‘old-fashioned’ analytical articles”, with the quotes around “old-fashioned” hanging like stink lines from the saddest cartoon ever.

This fixation on the fine points of content- and context-free slideshows spills out to the sixth assignment, “Cater to the Masses;” the third of the seven lessons (and the third of four, consecutively) to deal with the construction of slideshows. Here, pop-culture/sports mashup slideshows are the topic of concern. The details of this section are too depressing to go through, so I've put the important bits up on the left. The preamble (not pictured) is especially heartbreaking, distinguished mostly by the -- maybe belated -- appearance of a certain wearily apologetic tone. “For better or worse, readers love breezy sports-and-culture stories,” one section begins, as if to say: "even if increasing profit margins means never having to say we're sorry, we're sorry." There’s a faintly beer commercial-y tone to the encouragement that “if your friends ever catch you compulsively checking the latest gossip on TMZ, you’ll be able to tell them that you’re just, um, ‘advancing your sports journalism career.’"As if they’d believe that one.

***

Eventually, it’s time to tear down the old regime. Lesson five, “Beat Against the Mainstream,” directly precedes the already-mentioned “Cater to the Masses” which is either hilarious or saddening, depending on your perspective. What’s more surprising, maybe, is that this section is actually useful insofar as it gives B/RU students a brief lesson in the importance of minority opinions. That the instruction materials present it along a purely capitalist/jungle perspective -- the three steps: Enter Your Habitat, Survey Your Competition, and Carve Your Niche -- fits nicely with B/R’s emphasis on high-time-risk/small-monetary-reward competition between staffers. It also explains why the supremely reasonable warning to be suspicious of conventional wisdom feeds so clearly into one of the worst things about Bleacher Report -- a strident, empty-headed contrarianism.

But, because B/RU frames all this as a game -- reality as a habitat to survey and carve up -- there’s an implicit encouragement for writers to go to the Skip Bayless-y edge out of simple dumb reflex. And so tendentious, silly, argument-for-argument’s-sake arguments appear. The idiocy of the arguments range from the ur-dumb  -- “Tom Brady is the Most Overrated QB of All Time” -- to the esoteric-dumb -- “The Rock: His Win at the Royal Rumble Helps Usher in a New Attitude Era in WWE”  -- to the just-dumb -- “Is Colin Kaepernick an Overrated Quarterback Heading into Super Bowl XLVII?”.

These qualify, by B/R standards, as “taking a stand.” Encouraging writers to think beyond B/R’s usual don’t-think-about-it-too-much parameters is good. Contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake is not good. This, coupled with the rest of the syllabus to this point, makes it clear that unique perspectives or reasoned arguments are not the purpose, here; the goal is more specifically a way to increase production. The overarching goal is to get a hate-click on some strident headline; everything else is everything else. That niche isn’t going to carve itself out of the habitat, after all.

It’s not so much strange that B/RU would save “Develop a Unique Voice” for the last lesson as it is surprising that it’s in there at all. After all, everything that has preceded this lesson seems to militate against the very possibility. The first six lessons on the syllabus focus on constraints and mandates designed to create conformity in nearly every aspect of writing, from the presentation of individual paragraphs to the very format of the article, with strong suggestions on word count -- between 250-500, the optimal length for B/R's McNugget consumption model -- and an emphasis on hamstringing writing by including as many keywords as possible. Having this as the ultimate lesson puts an odd spin on things, especially with graduation so close at hand.

It’s no surprise, then, that it rings not just hollow, but frankly sappy and weird. If the “Beat Against The Mainstream” lesson felt faintly like Alec Baldwin’s monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross, this section’s advice to Follow Your Heart and Flaunt Your Style is jarringly Mr. Holland’s Opus. It shouldn’t be surprising that self-actualization advice from multimillionaire content farmers to their striving day laborers comes off strange, of course. But there’s something almost touching, after all that emphasis on conformity and uniformity -- all those formulas for contrarianism and one-size-fits-all techniques to Beat Against The Mainstream -- about B/RU’s late-in-the-day insistence that there’s more to all of this than that.

***

And then it’s time to graduate, and claim your degree in Deconstruction of Writerly Experiences. This is a tough time in any student’s life, a sudden confrontation with the capital-f Future and the manic search for a spot in it. Bleacher Report University does its best to mitigate against that: the seven lessons prepare your cubicle for you, and prepare you for your cubicle.

Efficiency is prioritized and preached, uniqueness is marginalized (if given some late lip service). Students have been taught a series of formulas, mostly by rote, and told that they apply universally. Then they are told to get out there and earn some badges. And off the proud graduates go.

Except that Bleacher Report University grads never quite leave campus. Writing worth reading comes from writing and editing, but also from asking questions and reading and reading and reading (and reading). Bleacher Report University’s suggestion that B/R writers can learn more about writing effectively by reading only the work of others in the community who have had the same training -- and who operate under the same strictures -- creates uniformity across the network, but also ensures that B/R writers won’t grow, or won’t grow in any way but to become more and more like each other. Take every critique of higher learning in circulation, in other words: the bullying conformity, the profiteering, the joylessness and rote professionalization. Then turn it into a slideshow.


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Comments

My short stint writing for Slideshow Report was a terrible experience.

I was once told by an editor (sadly, I believe he is one of their most senior editors) that if I wanted to "make it" at B/R, that I would have to step out of my comfort zone and write whatever will get clicks. If people are reading and commenting on your article, then you're making a name for yourself no matter how negative the feedback is. Force controversy where possible, don't be afraid to go against popular opinion and essentially bait as many readers to click on your article as possible.

I understand why aspiring sports writers turn to B/R. It's not easy to make it as a writer, and there aren't always a lot of options available for young writers looking to get their foot in the door. B/R preys on these types of people and exploits them for cheap labor. They get a lot of traffic (which is the only thing they're good for) and you want that as a writer. You just have to dumb down your writing and shame yourself for having associated yourself with the garbage that is B/R.

They dangle the potential to get paid a meager amount to write for B/R whenever they can but, in reality, 99% of them will never get that opportunity. I've talked to some of the paid writers and they said they get paid peanuts for hours of work. I even had an editor tell me that if I'm looking for a paid gig with B/R, that I would have to conform to their style and do things "the B/R way" (which, to me, translated into forget everything you learned about journalism and turn yourself into a traffic whore).

I bet Shoals, who probably can't talk about his experiences at B/R due to some sort of NDA I'm sure he had to sign, is ashamed to have ever written for them. They can try and hire all these big names to clean up their image, but they're not fooling anyone. Trash is trash no matter how much you try and dress it up.

Um, #ClassicalPitches on this one, SD, if you're into it. Holler at us.

Nick,

there's a lot of doses of truth in this excellent article, but we should be blaming/framing Google and the dominance of "search" as the disease, B/R is just the symptom.

Regardless, I'm sure that touchscreen tablets and mobile phones will lead to a massive reduction in search, and the sites that thrive on SEO over quality content will fade into the sunset. After all, these sites (about.com) are a Google PR tweak away from total irrelevance.

While I agree (wholeheartedly) with the idea that the "dominance of 'search'" is the *real* problem, I think that to act as though B/R is "just the symptom" is a case of ignoring the tree that subsists on human flesh from the forest because the forest is filled with a bunch of jerks as opposed to just the big one.

B/R exploits the system which, to me, is fine. So does Buzzfeed (full disclosure, one of my dearest friends in the world works there, so I am a wee bit biased) and eHow and About.com. But Buzzfeed et. al, don't poison the greater cultural discourse in the way that Bleacher Report poisons the greater sports discourse. And although they do accept contributions, they don't nearly as rigid or dangerously stifling a system as the one B/R created deploys.

Essentially, my issue -- and the reason I wrote the piece, which David Roth did a wonderful job of editing -- is that this training (and their entire MO) is really bad for the long term sustainability of sports writing, given the steamrolling nature of the B/R business model.

What the SF Weekly story and all the other research I did for this piece made clear to me is that B/R is one of the savviest, most well run/ruthlessly efficient companies in journalism. They didn't stumble into this sports-journalism-world-changing role they have, it's something they planned and wanted to do. That's fine. What I have an issue with is how they, specifically, go about it on the back end.

"Appeal to human readers”
Are there non-human readers? What sport sites are catering to them?

I thought that was weird too, but I realized that what they mean by that is "After the search engine finds the article because we've gamed the search algorithm using key words, write this in a way that would actually make a person want to read it". I probably should have mentioned that in the piece.