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Tom Ziller, King Kaufman and others debate Bleacher Report

While it's not unprecedented to see sports media members sniping at competing outlets or personalities (hello, ESPN and Fox Sports 1, Richard Deitsch and Darren Rovell, etc), that's been a little more unusual on the web side. Many of the big web-first outlets are still relatively new, and many writers move from place to place, so a common approach is to avoid criticism of competitors in case you want to work there someday. That makes it unusual and notable when a prominent writer does speak out against one outlet, as Tom Ziller did last week with a scathing critique of Bleacher Report in the wake of the departure of their lead NBA writer Jimmy Spencer.

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Ziller is the lead NBA writer for Bleacher Report competitor SB Nation, but he posted this on his own blog and started it with a disclaimer that it was his views alone. Still, it's remarkable to see a take this fervent from one online writer on another online outlet. Here's the key part of what Ziller wrote:

This is the cover story for the invention of Bleacher Report, yes? The democratization of sports opinion. A place where all the talented up-and-coming sports writers of the world can make a name for themselves, build an audience and eventually get paid. This was what Bryan Goldberg told the world. I mean, it’s right there on the About page, describing the intent of B/R …

An amplified outlet for writers whose unique voices were routinely drowned out by cookie-cutter analysts and celebrity “experts”
 
That’s the vision, and it’s absolutely hilarious given the actual implementation of that vision. B/R did well to recruit those unique NBA voices mentioned above. And B/R was so good at fostering those unique voices that … none of them stayed more than a few months. From what I can gather, most of them sprinted out of the company.
 
Why? Because what B/R actually wants are not unique voices. What B/R’s business model relies on is cookie-cutter writing. Quite literally in many cases: I have it on some authority that even for these Lead NBA Writers, these recruited unique voices, column topics and the angles to be emphasized are typically assigned. Like, it’s not even “write about Kobe.” It’s “write 10 ways in which Kobe is better than MJ, and be mostly serious about it.” It’s the definition of cookie-cutter writing, and it’s something no one needs.
 
That understandably sparked some reaction across the web. Interestingly enough, though, the response from inside Bleacher Report itself was rather muted. When I contacted B/R writing program manager King Kaufman late last week to ask for an interview about Ziller's criticisms, here's the response I received:
 
I don't want to respond to Tom Ziller's piece in an interview. It's based on uninformed opinion, not facts. Our focus is on creating quality content and I'm proud of the work our writers are publishing every day. Bleacher Report is absolutely a good place for good writers. I'm excited about our future. We're investing in building our audience and developing our editorial staff. Two of our most recent hires, Mike Freeman and Matt Bowen, are great examples of that.
 
Others weren't as diplomatic. One of the most passionate criticisms of Ziller's piece came from Tim Wood, the former B/R managing editor, who took aim at Ziller's critique on his own blog:
 
Those that have taken the time to give B/R another look, to see behind the curtain, they know there’s no supercomputer robot spitting out headlines.
 
It’s called analytics, knowing what the consumer wants and delivering more of it to them. We have built our analytics team and have some of the smartest folks I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with on that team. These are folks with strong sports backgrounds that just happen to be better at maneuvering their way around analytics spreadsheets than most people.
 
And, to toot the horn for a minute, it’s a large part of why B/R has left competitors like SB Nation in the dust. I spent the bulk of my day in constant contact with editors on conference calls, online group chats and video calls, and the editors in turn spend most of their days talking story ideas with writers.
 
We have an assignment structure, no doubt. The concept that this is a bad thing? Well, Tom and I will once again have to agree to disagree. 
 
Meanwhile, I contacted Ziller to see if he still felt as strongly in the wake of the blowback he got for his initial piece. Here's what he said Friday:
 
Here's my thinking a couple days later. Still not speaking on behalf of SB Nation: these are all my own thoughts. My piece was solely about B/R's leadership having little success in keeping notable NBA writers because B/R's "house style" (not just the traditional SEO stuff, but low-value argument-spurring commentbait and non-SEO clickbait too) is not compatible with valuable, unique analysis. They make it work with outside hires in other sports, but apparently not the NBA. When a writer's touch is stripped off what is purported to be unique, quality analysis, you're left with little of value. That's the lesson I take from the revolving door. I only wrote about it at all because the NBA web writing world is pretty tight-knit — based on the reception, I think this question has been gnawing at a lot of people. I gave answering it a shot, and stand by what I wrote.

 
While it's unusual to see this kind of intense criticism levied at particular writers and outlets within the online sportswriting world, one that used to be marked more by cooperation and collaboration (of course, Bleacher Report has been criticized before, but that criticism had largely dried up in the last while thanks to some of their high-profile hires), it can be seen as a good thing from at least one perspective. It's refreshing to see an actual debate about an outlet's policies and practices. B/R staffers and Ziller obviously have differing opinions on how accurate his initial criticisms were, but the responses from Kaufman and Wood are interesting in what they in turn reveal about how B/R works and what the company is focused on. Wood's stance in favour of an analytics-heavy approach is particularly notable; at that point, he and Ziller are agreeing on some of what's going on at B/R, but putting vastly different interpretations on it (as well as on the analytics that SB Nation does).
 
From this corner at least, it's good for writing consumers to see these kinds of discussions. Who they side with and what outlet they end up reading is completely up to the consumer, but having public conversations about how different outlets operate seems potentially valuable. It's useful to know how an end media product is created, and while there's a sense of that with newspapers, TV and radio thanks to the many, many books and articles about those entities, most web outlets are new enough and different enough that no one on the outside necessarily knows what happens behind the curtain. Discussions like this one provide some insight there, and that can be interesting information for readers. 
 
This also might be a sign of the evolution of web sportswriting. The outlets involved are getting bigger and more solidly-funded (SB Nation has plenty of resources, and Bleacher Report was recently acquired by Turner), and perhaps that's taking them more towards the intense competition model we've often seen with newspapers, radio stations and TV networks than the spirit of cooperation and collaboration we often saw in the earlier days of the sports web. That's not all bad: if it means more writers and more outlets are willing to say what they're thinking about competitors, that can lead to useful information for readers. It also might mean we see more media criticism of online outlets, which has plenty of value. Whether you agree or disagree with informed critics, their observations tend to be valuable: at the very least, they show what some people are thinking.
 
It would be disappointing to see web outlets completely abandon the cooperation that was a large factor in in early success for the sports side of the internet, though. Criticism doesn't necessarily have to lead to bitterness and intense outlet-to-outlet fights. We'll see how things play out going forward, but the view from here is that these kinds of discussions are worthwhile. You can agree with Ziller or Kaufman, or have a viewpoint in between. Regardless, it's hard to say that more discussion about different outlets' practices and polices is a bad thing.
Andrew Bucholtz

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing. He also covers the CFL and other sports for Yahoo! Canada.

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