One of the most notable developments in the online media world came when Turner Sports acquired Bleacher Report in August 2012. The site has made numerous high-profile moves since then, replacing Sports Illustrated as CNN's sports hub, being promoted on Turner's various sports broadcasts and making big hires of well-established journalists such as Mike Freeman and Howard Beck. However, there's still plenty of criticism of it and debate about its place in the sports landscape, and that's not going to end any time soon. It's worth taking a real look at where Bleacher Report has been, where it is and where it's going, and particularly how the Turner acquisition has changed the site. Through numerous e-mail and phone interviews over the last month, Awful Announcing has compiled a variety of perspectives on Bleacher Report's past, present and future; in total, they seem to indicate a dramatic shift from where the company was pre-Turner, with a new focus on big-name hires and professional writing and a substantial increase in the advancement curve. Whether that's for the better, for the worse or somewhere in between likely depends on your perspective.
Perhaps the most notable change in Bleacher Report is where its top writers are coming from. Keep in mind that for a long time, the site was seen as a place that "embraced [a sports] fan base in a way no other media outlet had — by giving them a voice." One of the B/R founders, Dave Nemetz (who's no longer with the company), said at the 2010 Blogs With Balls in Chicago that he didn't see B/R as a direct competitor to the likes of SB Nation, but rather as a training ground for writers.
“We’re our own part of the ecosystem,” he said. “We kind of help people develop. A lot of our writers go on to writing at newspapers. … It’s almost like a player development system for writers.”
That's hardly the case when you're bringing in names like Freeman, Beck and others though, and in fact, co-founder Dave Finocchio (the only founder still with the company, he currently serves as the chief content and product officer) told Awful Announcing in an interview last month that early comments about B/R being a voice for fans never really represented what the site was trying to do.
"That was never the goal," Finocchio said. "We very much wanted to create a product around teams and sports topics. Our vision for where we plan to take the business and where we plan to invest hasn't changed at all."
Finocchio said the early focus on unpaid fan writers was out of necessity.
"We had no money or very little money," he said. "We had enough money to pay a few engineers, we didn't have enough money to pay ourselves. … We figured out early on unless we scaled the size of our audience, we didn't have a prayer of building a sustainable business."
He said that led to some content that gave B/R a bad reputation.
"We created content that wasn't always the best fit for our brand."
Finocchio thinks the site is drastically different now and hires like Freeman and Beck prove that.
"I'm very proud of where we are today," he said. "I think we're considerably ahead of where people accuse of us being. Those guys are awesome, they're great reporters, they're consistently going out and creating great content.
Finocchio said a key goal with the hires of established journalists was to give B/R the ability to start conversations, rather than just react to reporting from elsewhere.
"We want to be on the front.end of starting conversations more than we have been," he said. "I want people to say the Bleacher Report of 2013 is really different than the Bleacher Report of 2010."
Writer development program manager King Kaufman said those kinds of hires weren't made to boost B/R's reputation, but it's a nice side effect.
"The reason B/R hired guys like that is not to boost the site's reputation but because they're great sportswriters," Kaufman said. "We want to create the best, most fun, most informative, most entertaining sports site, and the best way to do that is to hire the most talented people you can find. But sure, we'll take the side benefit of a reputation boost. It created something of a stir when Howard announced he was coming over—a New York Times writer going to Bleacher Report! Hopefully that kind of thing convinces people who have a negative view of Bleacher Report to take another look. That's all I ever ask of anyone: Take a look at Bleacher Report, now, and make an honest assessment based on what you see today, not on your preconceptions or what you saw three years ago."
How is working at B/R going for the outside hires? Well, Freeman told Awful Announcing that the environment has been a positive.
"Every promise made has been kept," he said. "Everything I expected has been surpassed. Three of my favorite places to work were The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Florida Times-Union. B/R is right at the top. The editing is among the best I've ever received. Mainly, good to be at a place where you're treated well."
It's notable that the editing focus isn't just at the highest levels, either. Jonathan Willis, a freelance hockey writer who started contributing to B/R last month, said the editing process at B/R is quite similar to the newspapers he's worked with.
"It's much more comparable to my experience with print publication than what I've done in the past on the digital side," he said. "At most of the sites I write for my role has a lot more independence, at least on the web side; Bleacher Report is the first of my web-based contributions that features pretty much constant dialogue with editors on subject matter and the approach we take to any given story."
Every change carries positives and negatives, though, and one criticism of the new Bleacher Report that's come up a lot recently is that a focus on hiring established outside journalists makes it difficult for internal people to work their way up to the top, negating that "player development system." Kaufman says there are still opportunities for B/R writers to move up, though.
"And yes, there's still room for what you're calling "in-house" writers to grow and thrive at Bleacher Report. Bleacher Report is still a meritocracy. Is it difficult to reach top positions? Hell yes. Shouldn't it be? Howard Beck put in a decade at the New York Times to get one! Like I said, we're playing in a bigger league now than we were a few years ago, so the competition for top spots is going to be much tougher. But there are also more total spots than there used to be. There's plenty of opportunity at Bleacher Report."
One of those in-house writers is NFL/NFL Draft lead analyst Matt Miller, who started with B/R in October 2010 and has become one of their key NFL voices. He said B/R provided him more opportunities than any other outlet at that time.
"My start date with Bleacher Report was October 22, 2010. At the time I worked in social media marketing and really did not like my day job. Most of my time was spent watching college football prospects, writing and managing for New Era Scouting and doing online searches for journalism jobs. That's what led me to Bleacher Report.
At the time, B/R was a more open platform, but there was an application process and you had to be approved to write. I sent over a handful of samples from my previous work and was lucky enough to be accepted into the program. I chose B/R because I was naive enough to think that if I could get my work in front of enough people, someone would hire me full-time and tear me away from the day job that I really didn't enjoy. It's one of those things a 20-something year old can do and it seems perfectly normal, but looking back it was really a long shot. I did quite a bit of research into B/R, emailed back and forth with friends in the sportswriting industry (and ignored their advice) before ultimately getting the right feeling from B/R and the people who reached out to me after I applied.
It's also important to note that B/R was really the only place that wanted me. There were other outlets that were fine with the idea of my contributing there on an unpaid basis, but no one made me feel like I was wanted other than Bleacher Report."
Miller said while he's seen B/R change substantially since his start there, he thinks the transformation is for the best.
"As a veteran of B/R, I've seen a lot of changes. Three years ago I could have never been in a position to break news stories, and that's something that I've been doing more of as my own contacts grow. On a company level, B/R's reputation has improved tremendously. I don't think anyone's shy about saying some of the early work was not good (mine included), but we've all grown together. I think the overall perception of B/R has improved not only because of the ability to lure away well-known writers from major publications, but also because the B/R Farm System works.
The Turner influence, at least in my eyes, has been huge in allowing us to be aggressive in adding featured talent. Getting a Matt Bowen or Mike Freeman isn't something we could have done pre-Turner. I don't deal with the NBA side of things, but our hires there are a huge credit to the support Turner is giving us and the belief outside B/R that we're trending in the right direction.
I would also say the Turner partnership has been huge for our reach and overall credibility. Seeing B/R branding on TNT, CNN and other Turner properties has been huge. My friends actually recognize where I work now, which is a big change from three years ago."
Miller was the only homegrown writer amongst the five lead writers the site announced in 2011, and he's one of three of those guys (along with Dan Levy and Josh Zerkle) still with the company. Some would say it's impossible for anyone to duplicate his rise in the post-Turner era with the focus on hiring established talent. He doesn't agree, though.
"It's been my experience that no matter who you are or where you came from, if you're committed to doing good work and busting your ass every day, B/R will promote the hell out of you and your work," Miller said. "When B/R announced the five lead writers back in August of 2011, I was by far the least recognizable hire. But I'm still here, and I think that speaks to B/R's pride in developing and promoting homegrown talent. They could have easily replaced me at some point in the last three years and hired a more well-known draft analyst, but they've stuck behind me. So I do think there's room for developmental talent to rise through the ranks at B/R, and I think those people will likely be incredibly loyal to the company because of the investment B/R made in them."
Kaufman said the professionalization of the site means it isn't a starting point for most any more, though.
"We have hundreds of paid writers, dozens of them full-time," he said. "Almost all of our traffic now comes from stories written by paid writers. We still have unpaid writers. B/R is still a place where a talented person can take an important early step, but it's no longer a place to start your career. Our standards are too high now for someone with no experience to apply successfully to the Writer Program. That's a big change."
However, he feels there still are significant opportunities for in-house writers, and he said B/R is still pushing in-house writers to develop and advance.
"In-house writers are absolutely improving," he said. "We see it all the time. You pretty much have to improve if you want to stick around, because we're always evaluating every writer. Other than the "stars" we've been adding lately, few writers are great coming in, so if they're not willing to work on the things they need to work on, they probably won't last long."
Willis is an external hire, but one coming in at a lower level than Freeman and Beck. He said he's convinced opportunity to advance exists at B/R.
"I wouldn't have signed on otherwise," he said.
He said while big-name writers may make advancement more difficult, their hires carry positive benefits as well.
"I'm not a long-time B/R guy, but I know how I'd feel if I was," he said. "I'd feel like this is a tremendous opportunity, because a rising tide lifts all ships. The recruitment of people with high profiles brings more attention to the site; for the good writers already here it affords them an opportunity to be discovered by an audience that might not have been attracted to Bleacher Report in the past. If I'm on the basketball side, the chance to publish my piece side-by-side with Howard Beck's is an unreservedly good thing."
Levy said he was initially worried there wouldn't be a place for him after the Turner acquisition, but that hasn't proven to be the case.
"Shortly after the company became part of Turner, I had a conversation about my future with Dave Finocchio because I was nervous the model would change and guys like me would be left in the dust," he said. "Six months later, I was talking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN about replay in baseball. With me, Dave and all the higher ups have kept their goals, their vision and, most importantly, their word incredibly consistent throughout. We've hired some awesome writers recently, but to me each of them makes sense for the site now and for the future."
Levy said he still gets a lot of the same criticisms about Bleacher Report, and he sees the point of some of them, but doesn't think they're all fair.
"I do think it's difficult for any site to be all things to all people, especially with as many writers as we have. To me, yes, there may be such a thing as too much content. I do think we're too headline-driven at times as well. But our best work does rise to the top, and our back-end is phenomenal at getting the stories we want to the most readers.
Are they always the stories I'd want? No. But 2,000-word pieces on the Eagles quarterback woes aren't for everyone, so the slideshows and rankings "the internet" hates do serve a key part of our audience too.
Every major site deserves some criticism, but it's funny that some people still rip a place that has changed its business model to focus more on professional writing and has consistently hired writers and editors at all levels, all because of what the site used to be."
Finocchio said he still wants in-house talent to feel they can succeed, too.
"We did very much want to build, and still want B/R to be thought of as, a meritocracy," he said. "We want B/R to be a place where top talent can develop and hone their skills."
So, what's the takeaway here? B/R's content and hiring have certainly changed under the Turner regime, particularly with the addition of high-profile writers like Freeman and Beck. Those hires definitely make it more difficult for internal people to advance, at least to some degree. Has B/R's content gotten to the point where it's a must-read site? Is there enough potential to advance to make it worth working there? Where you stand on those questions likely depends on your perspective, but it's notable that B/R definitely isn't just a voice for fans or "a player development system for writers" these days, and it's turned into much more of a traditional media company. Decide for yourself if that's good or bad.