I remember the first time I ever came across Bleacher Report. It wasn't that long after I'd left my post as editor of Deadspin, and I was in a purposeful detox from the Internet. (After three years of 20 posts a day, I needed a break.) I was looking up a game story from the night before and typed "Kevin Durant" into Google News. Up came six different stories about Kevin Durant from Bleacher Report. Wow, I thought. I don't know what Bleacher Report is, but they must have quite the staff of researchers and reporters. They covered that game from every angle.
As it turned out, Bleacher Report did not have quite the staff of researchers and reporters covering that game from every angle. Its ascendance over the last three years is one of the more depressing developments in the sports world, but also one of its most inevitable. It all culminated -- until the next culmination, anyway -- Sunday night, when All-Star Game "analyst" Reggie Miller mistook a Bleacher Report aggregation of Wright Thompson's amazing Michael Jordan story for ESPN for the real thing, crediting writer Timothy Rapp with the interview and the scoop.
It is tempting to blame Reggie Miller for the mistake, considering he's Reggie Miller and, as a broadcaster, is basically one ongoing run-on sentence of a mistake. (Considering how much fun it was to watch Miller talk as a player, it's sort of shocking how bad a broadcaster he is.) But it is not Reggie Miller's job to sort out story sourcing, or understand story aggregation, or nail down proper journalistic attribution, any more than it is the average viewer's. Miller's mistake was indicative of the larger problem: Bleacher Report exists to fool people into thinking Bleacher Report is a real site with real information.
Now, that's a blanket statement, and one that's not entirely fair for a site as large as Bleacher Report's. There are hard-working editors and writers there, though they were mostly brought in later in the process -- established names like King Kaufman, seemingly meant more to give the impression of higher quality than to ensure the actual production of it. (Kaufman seems to spend his time now training B/R writers and swiping back at the many B/R detractors, a quixotic endeavor if there ever were one.) This has always been at the heart of Bleacher Report: You get the content first, and if some of it turns out to get better, that's great, but beside the point. Bleacher Report is here to flood the zone.
This has been extremely frustrating for those in journalism -- for years, it's been the one thing that unites "traditional print" and online people -- particularly because Bleacher Report has been so successful with their strategy. Bleacher Report has often combated criticism through populism, saying they're giving young writers an opportunity they wouldn't find otherwise. I sort of hate that explanation, but I grant that it's probably more my personal annoyance than anything else; I think all those kids should have just started Blogspot sites or Tumblrs and made it on their own, meritocracy-style, but that's old-person get-off-my-lawn crankiness on my part, and isn't all that helpful to the kids themselves. (Many of whom are working their cans off.) I tend to discredit people who have Bleacher Report on their resumes, but that doesn't necessarily make me right -- and besides, people like me will just get older and more irrelevant.
We're mad not because Bleacher Report is inherently terrible, but because it always felt like they were cheating. They got huge and popular through internet tricks, rather than establishing a reputation through hard work, consistent quality or even, you know, any sort of point of view whatsoever. But that's not fair either, not anymore. Thing is: Everyone's cheating online. Everybody uses Search Engine Optimization tricks and splashy headlines and hashtags and whatever helps get eyeballs; Bleacher Report just did it first and better. (And all told: Google News' search engine has gotten a ton better at filtering out B/R stories than it was three years ago.)
What I think really rankles about B/R is that it was a reverse engineering enterprise from the get-go: It was created by business people trying to game the system, the type of people who refer to all work as "content." They didn't care what was in the content; they just wanted as much of it as possible. This isn't new either: Yahoo bought Associated Content, essentially the same company, in 2010 for $100 million, and it's now known as Yahoo! Voices.
It's easy to ignore Yahoo! Voices, though. It's not so easy to ignore Bleacher Report, now that it's owned by Turner. Last year, when Turner bought B/R for "under $200 million" -- I always love that construction; so you know, I'm getting paid "under $200 million" for this column -- Turner immediately installed B/R as its online "content provider," replacing Sports Illustrated. Now, SI has had some troubles in the last few years, but it's tough to come up with a more calamitous headline embodying the issues facing sports journalism over the last decade than "Bleacher Report replacing Sports Illustrated on Turner broadcasts."
Which is what leads to people like Reggie Miller crediting an aggregator -- not a dirty word, by the way; aggregating is one of the things the Web does best -- for an exclusive interview with Michael Jordan. To his credit, B/R writer Timothy Rapp sent everyone to Thompson's piece on Jordan, just like he had in his original post. It's not his fault Miller skipped past the attribution. But Reggie Miller isn't a journalist, and doesn't know or care about any of this stuff. He just reads what the card tells him to read, and the card says Turner owns Bleacher Report, and Turner pays him.
And these days, we do what the people pay us to do, because the ground beneath us is so often shifting. That's what's so scary about Bleacher Report. It's not that they're so horrible. It's not that they use black magic Internet tricks to get traffic. It's not that they use young writers to work for peanuts to boost the company's profits. (After all, every publication does that.)
It's that they're winning. It's that the dealmakers are entirely in charge. It's that there are a lot more people who think like Reggie Miller -- people who have no time, interest or inclination to find out the "real" story and just quote the first thing they see and move on -- than there are like you and me. Turner made a big deal out of apologizing to Thompson after the game, but a lot fewer people saw that than Miller's initial mistake. And a lot fewer than that, I suspect, cared one whit. That's what's scary: Eventually, maybe no one will. After all, we have Turner telling us how great they are 10 times every broadcast.
Bleacher Report will just become part of the fabric of sports. As much as I'd like to think that the bigger they get, the more they'll care about enterprise reporting and quality narrative journalism and all that foofarah, I bet we bend more to meet them than they bend to meet us. The fear is that history is on their side, not ours.
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Also: I can't think of a site as large as Bleacher Report that needs a redesign more than they do. Lord, that hideous font! Spend some of that cash on a redecorator, would you? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you're yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you're pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I'll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.