A very interesting tectonic shift is gradually happening surrounding what may be the biggest success story of modern sports media. In the past couple years, Bleacher Report has grown from a bustling site of unpaid, amateur writers to a multimillion dollar behemoth with the full backing of Turner Sports. It’s been transformed from being the butt of jokes across the interwebs to having its promos read by the likes of Marv Albert during major sporting events. A $200 million dollar acquisition will do that for you.
But another more subtle, yet perhaps equally as interesting transformation has taken place. For years the harshest criticisms of Bleacher Report came from outside the company. And to tell the truth, b/r was an easy target thanks to their endless arrays of slideshows, conflicting pieces of content whose sole purpose was to draw cheap pageviews, and their gaming of the SEO system. Any site that posts a slideshow about the worst natural disasters in sports history deserves to have their legitimacy called into question. So does a site that does this.
In response to those criticisms, and with a dumptruck full of Ted Turner’s money, Bleacher Report has worked fervently to gain legitimacy. It started with the much ballyhooed Lead Writer program and the promises of a pathway forward for the Bleacher Report bourgeoisie to climb the ladder to notoriety, fame, and getting paid for their writing.
In truth, Bleacher Report has come a long way in a short time and many of those outside criticisms have quieted down substantially. The writing quality is much better and the site has been able to hire respected journalists from major outlets. The likes of Howard Beck, Mike Freeman, Kevin Ding, and most recently Jason Cole are huge for b/r’s respectability in the sports media space. A sportswriter moving from the New York Times to Bleacher Report five years ago would have been a sure sign of the apocalypse. Now it’s expected.
But as Bleacher Report has invested more capital in big name hires, some writers who built the foundation of the site from the ground up are speaking out and bringing a whole new dimension to questions surrounding this new media giant.
The most recent example is a lengthy (and I mean lengthy) piece of prose from former Bleacher Report intern and featured columnist Tom Schreier over at Deadspin entitled “The Top 200 Ways Bleacher Report Screwed Me Over.” Schreier claims that Bleacher Report took advantage of his desire to climb the ladder at the company while pouring out content, choosing not to compensate him for his work and instead paying outside big-name hires. While it is a very detailed odyssey inside the b/r machine, this paragraph best summarizes the piece:
That is exactly what is happening at Bleacher Report. Many young writers, unable to find a job with the newspapers or other media outlets, join B/R hoping to hone their voice and develop their writing while making enough money to keep the dream alive. Instead, they are strung along while their work subsidizes the salaries of better-known talent from established publications and not really given a place to go once they are good enough to generate traffic with longer articles. They’re not considered a Sports Illustrated, Grantland, or Sports on Earth-caliber writer, but they’re also no longer beginners. They just get lost in the middle.
This story from inside Bleacher Report about getting stuck in the middle runs counter to what was promised the army of b/r contributors when the company was bought by Turner Sports from the company blog:
Bleacher Report has always been a meritocracy. Those writers who distinguish themselves on the site put themselves in position for paid opportunities as they become available. As part of Turner Sports, Finocchio says, there will be more opportunities for more contributors.
It would be one thing if this was a lone story about the new inner-workings at Bleacher Report, but Schreier isn’t alone in voicing frustrations with the company from within. Outlets from The Classical to Deadspin (mostly through its Bleacher Report Report branch) to SF Weekly have featured critical testimonies from the Bleacher Report bourgeoisie.
In the interest of fairness, it is worth mentioning that we’re only talking about a handful of writers among an uncountable number of them. And there are many Bleacher Reporter employees who will happily give testimonies praising their time at the company.
But in light of these much-publicized criticisms coming from within, it’s worth lifting up what King Kaufman told our Andrew Bucholtz back in November. He maintained the belief that Bleacher Report is still a meritocracy, and there are still chances for those unpaid writers to climb the ladder, but that the competition to move up is much more difficult than it used to be.
“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.”
Time will tell what happens with those opportunities and whether the working middle class of Bleacher Report still feels they exist.