The news that long-time newspaper and CBS Sports veteran Mike Freeman is moving to Bleacher Report (which Awful Announcing was first to report) is notable from several standpoints. For one, it’s an unconventional move for a big-media outlet writer as well-known as Freeman, but it’s one that may pay off for him. Beyond that, it’s something that may further boost B/R’s profile and enhance its already-ongoing efforts to gain credibility as a serious sports site. Perhaps most importantly, though, it may serve as a sign of the future on two fronts: a wave of newer, web-based outlets looking to take on established players, and a wave of well-known journalists and writers flocking to jobs with these newer outlets.
For Freeman, this seems like an understandable move even without knowing what Bleacher Report offered him . His work at CBS has often been impressive over the last six years, but it’s not always given top play given their extensive stable of NFL writers. Meanwhile, while B/R already has plenty of notable NFL writers (including Josh Zerkle, Matt Miller, Ty Schalter, Aaron Nagler, and others), Freeman seems likely to become one of B/R’s biggest names given his previous prominence. That should mean he’ll get plenty of promotion from them. Moreover, as Freeman told SI’s Richard Deitsch (item #9 in this column), there are lots of new multiplatform opportunities at B/R for him, especially on the video side:
“I was intrigued immediately,” he said in an email. “I’ve been a fan of the site and I think the potential for Bleacher Report is as great as any sports website today.” Freeman said he starts with B/R on Aug. 12. He’ll write NFL columns as well as appear in video. He’ll also be doing investigative reporting and longer features. “It was a chance to diversify myself as a journalist,” Freeman said. “I’ve done television — mostly on the Jim Rome Show — but I want to do more and I’ll be doing a great deal of video for B/R. A number of sports sites are moving heavily into video and I think B/R does that as well as anyone and we’ll only get better.”
This makes sense for B/R too. Yes, the site’s certainly improved its credibility from its former internet punchline days thanks to the hires of smart, well-known writers like King Kaufman, Dan Levy, Will Carroll, AA staff writer Brad Gagnon, Zerkle and others. However, it’s still novel to see someone with a traditional background as impressive as Freeman’s jump to them. Deitsch calls the move “the site’s biggest hire to date in terms of a mainstream sports writer,” and he’s not wrong. B/R has plenty of resources these days thanks to their near-$200 million acquisition by Turner Sports last year, and using some of that money to lure a guy with a substantial mainstream profile will only help to improve B/R’s reputation as a serious site for intelligent sports news and commentary, not merely something to make slideshow jokes about. B/R certainly has improved overall from a quality perspective over the last few years, but that’s likely more noticeable to writers and intense sports fans who have noticed some of their favourite writers migrating there. Moves like the Freeman hire should help boost their profile with more casual fans, and these kind of moves should help them start to be taken more seriously by journalists everywhere, not only as a source of news and analysis, but as a place to perhaps consider working if the right offer came along.
B/R is far from alone on that front, though, and it’s notable that many other online-only players are making similar moves. Grantland’s brought in a lot of talent over the last few years, including Jonah Keri, Bill Barnwell and Holly Anderson, while Peter King’s new football-only site The MMQB has also brought in notable newspaper veterans such as Greg Bedard and Jenny Vrentas, plus well-known online names like Doug Farrar. However, both of those sites are closely linked to bigger media outlets (ESPN and SI, respectively), and writers for both have wound up showcased by those larger outlets. Similarly, ESPN.com is hiring tons of newspaper vets in their quest to have a beat reporter for each NFL team, but those reporters will likely see plenty of TV time as well. USA Today’s various online initiatives (including USA Today Sports, Sports on Earth (with MLB Advanced Media) and the newer For The Win) are a little different, as they don’t have a natural TV partner, but they’re a substantial enough player that they’ve been able to feature well-known names like Tommy Tomlinson, Chuck Culpepper, Patrick Hruby, Lindsay Jones and more. B/R is a little different: while it’s been promoted on-air by Turner personalities, we haven’t yet seen as much crossover from the web to the airwaves. That may change with the hiring of Freeman, and it may particularly change if they keep making hires along those lines. Beyond that, though, it’s worth pondering if it’s only outlets backed by big media that can make these kinds of moves.
The feeling here is that it may well soon be more than just big sites or sites with big-media partners able to bring in well-known journalism vets like Freeman. Sports journalism on the web’s still a pretty wild frontier, and while it’s certainly not the easiest thing in the world to capture an audience, there’s enough of a sports audience out there that it’s worth trying for many sites. Moreover, the market doesn’t appear to be saturated yet: sites like For The Win, Sports On Earth, The MMQB and more seem to be finding success despite only launching recently in Internet terms. It’s also interesting to see new one-writer-focused sites like Peter Gammons’ new Gammons Daily. Opportunities abound on the web, and not just for major media organizations: it would be interesting to see a startup tech company create a new sports site and instantly try and make a name for themselves by grabbing a noted journalism vet, and it’s not inconceivable.
Consider the pressures at the other end, too. Things in print media continue to deteriorate on many fronts, and even wealthy new owners like John Henry and Jeff Bezos aren’t necessarily going to reverse all of those trends, especially not by paying or treating staffers well. In fact, we’ve seen some try to crack down on staffers’ ability to do outside work: that’s reportedly what’s at play in Dan Pompei‘s recent decision to leave the Chicago Tribune (oddly enough, right after he was honoured by the Pro Football Hall of Fame). It certainly doesn’t seem too likely that newspapers are going to become incredibly profitable again in the near future, and without that, they may not be able to retain much of their top talent. That could lead to opportunities for existing or new sites to step in and snap up proven, well-known writers. Of course, these hires do carry a degree of peril for both the sites (what if the writer can’t adapt to his new environment?) and the writer (what if the site’s demands are unreasonable, or if it suddenly collapses?). That’s true with anything meant to put your name on the map, though. We’ll see if newer sites hiring well-known writers proves to be a lasting trend or merely a monorail fad, but the feeling from this corner is that this one may be here to stay.