Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bleacher Report: The final project

The Internet has spawned rises in popularity of many fields and interests. Journalism is one of them.

From the massive amounts of blogs to creations as specific as iReport on CNN, the standards have changed. Originally meant to be reported by people with journalism degrees and press passes, the news is now being brought to consumers by anyone, from anywhere, with an enthusiastic interest and some free time.

In sports, it’s the same way. Fans from all over the country are getting a chance to follow their favorite teams, and notify the public of what they see. And they’re doing it on Bleacher Report.

Thought up in the summer of 2005, with a prototype appearing in 2006, Bleacher Report has quickly become what it labels itself on the home page, “the open source sports network.” Anyone can join. Anyone can write. Anyone can participate, evaluate and criticize.

But Bleacher Report isn’t just the home of massive amounts of sports journalism. It’s the home of good writing. Articles cover all ground, ranging from objective and balanced to slanted and opinionated, and include predictions, commentary, running game notes, and even advice for that other growing sports trend, fantasy.

And the site is only growing. Bleacher Report moved into an office in San Francisco shortly after the February 2008 formal launch, pays its staff members, and has its articles appear at the forefront of several hot sports topics. The writers are in the thousands, the funding is in the millions.

“We certainly hoped it would (reach this point),” site creator Dave Nemetz said. “The idea was that there was a gap in the world of sports that wasn’t being put on display, and if we got fans together, there’d be more coverage than anywhere else on the web.”

The beginning (map available here)

The success has come fast for a site that began with such modest expectations. The concept for Bleacher Report originated when Nemetz was a student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. A Bay Area native and avid sports fan, Nemetz grew tired of the limited coverage he could find of his favorite teams, namely the San Francisco 49ers, San Francisco Giants, San Jose Sharks and Oakland-based Golden State Warriors.

Nemetz noticed his best chance of following his teams was on the internet. Soon after, he found blogs, a sign that sports news existed beyond the pages of the Los Angeles Times.

“What drove me to create the site was that I grew dependent on the internet to get news on my favorite teams,” he said. “I discovered blogs about my favorite teams, and some of them were good. It struck me that there were fans out there capable of good insight.”

He wasn’t alone. Enlisting the help of close friends and fellow Bay Area natives Dave Finocchio, Bryan Goldberg and Zander Freund, the group went to work on a website prototype. Though they had an idea of what they wanted the site to be, and websites to serve as inspirations, the specifics had not yet been worked out.

“When we started out, we didn’t know where we were headed,” Nemetz said. “College Humor was an example, and Wikipedia has been an example of what we try to do. And ESPN has been the golden standard of things.”

According to Freund, now the site's community general manager, in charge of promoting member interaction and building up the site's community, it was clear amongst the four what they didn't want the site to become.

“We didn't try to be a catch-all web 2.0 sports site from the get-go. We created an identity early on and have stuck to that identity for the most part,” he said in an e-mail. “We didn't try to be a sports betting site/fantasy games site/sports chatroom/celebrity sports gossip site all rolled into one. We started out as and continue to be the place where fan-journalists come to publish their opinions on the world of sports and engage in stimulating debate.”

With continued effort from Nemetz in Los Angeles, Finocchio in Chicago, Goldberg in San Francisco and Freund in New London, Conn., the prototype was finished. Soon after, in Menlo Park, Calif., the website was launched. The content, originally, was provided only by the co-founders and focused only on Bay Area teams.

It didn’t last that way for long.

“We always intended to cover a broad range of sports. We didn’t have just the California focus. We never tried to limit it,” Nemetz said. “We’d take writers from wherever we could get them. We started with ourselves, and kept going from there.”

Freund said that the website is now at a point where its content surpasses that of other sports networks, including the one in Bristol, Conn.

“We provide a far greater breadth of coverage than that of any other sports media outlet,” he said. “We publish 500 and counting original editorials per day, compared to sites like ESPN which publish less than 20. On Bleacher Report you can find original editorial analysis on just about anything that matters in the world of sports.”

Maintaining quality

Shortly after launching, the site began to grow. Writers joined from all over the country, enchanted by the idea of writing about their teams and seeing their names attached to their products. Staff positions were created, some of which were aimed at keeping the writing at a consistent quality.

One of those positions, managing editor, went to Ryan Alberti, who turned his eagerness for people to read his writing into an eagerness to improve the writing of others.

“I got started with Bleacher Report just as the site was getting off the ground,” Alberti said. “I was motivated by authorial vanity as much as anything else. There was definitely an ego kick involved in seeing my work published on the web.

“Over time, that thrill yielded to the satisfaction of helping other writers polish their own work.”

Alberti’s position enables him to clean up the content of the site if necessary, and the site is designed to have the higher-quality stories make it to the front of the page. Even with those steps in place, he said that the writers on the site are talented enough to make his job easier. As the site has grown, some of the stories written by Bleacher Report writers have been picked up by other companies.

As its writers are being featured more prominently, Bleacher Report is getting noticed and regarded more and more by the online community. Mark Hendrickson of Tech Crunch is an example of a fan of the Bleacher Report style, saying that the site reminded him "how knowledgeable and opinionated about sports that [sic] ordinary people can be."

Alberti said there are ways that the site makes sure its best writing is the material getting viewed by outsiders.

“Factors like article relevance, user ratings, and writer ranking are weighted most heavily in assigning placement,” Alberti said. “In general, the system does a pretty decent job of letting the cream rise to the top.

“That said, the quality of the work on the site is and always will be determined by the quality of Bleacher Report writers. Bleacher Report is just a platform. It's the writers who provide the content. If the work is good, it’s because the writers are good—nothing more and nothing less.”

“An open platform”

Bleacher Report’s fast start can be attributed to the same fact that makes for a bright future: There are plenty of sports fans, and there are plenty of sports fans that are determined to have their opinions heard.

“I think the site has become not only a community, but an addiction for some people,” said Bleacher Report editor Tim Coughlin, a Northeastern alum, former Patriot Ledger sports co-op and current Brockton Enterprise part-timer. “Some people are totally absorbed. I've seen people admit they started spending three hours a day on the site cold upon discovering it.”

Joe Beare, a journalism major at Northeastern who worked as a sports writer for the Patriot Ledger and is a Bleacher Report contributor, agreed, while echoing Nemetz’s feelings towards spotty coverage of his favorite teams.

“I originally joined Bleacher Report as a San Jose Sharks writer because I felt that the fanbase was being misrepresented in the main stream media by poor, uninformed journalistic coverage,” he said. “Bleacher Report has managed to do so well because its readership and its writers are one in the same, primarily.”

From the disenchanted fan to the writer looking to see his name published, to the up-and-coming journalist looking to get connected to a growing site, Bleacher Report is giving a pen to a nation of sports enthusiasts, eager to show they can write a little bit, too.

“It’s really an open platform,” Nemetz said. “In many cases, it’s the fan looking to get their voice out there, or the aspiring writer looking to enhance their portfolio.

“I’m incredibly proud. It’s been a lot of hard work, with no guarantee it was going to work out. But it continues to grow, and it’s been an amazing experience.”


BJ Roche said...

Great report!

I found this an interesting and comprehensive look at the development of a web publication, and I hope you don't mind if I pass this along to my UMass students!

It's particularly interesting that this started with a college student with a big idea--it shows there are still opportunities for people with passion, brains and the willingness to work hard.

Drew Bonifant said...

Thanks for reading, BJ! You're right, BR's success just shows how a good idea needs only dedication and a little help to become a reality. Feel free to share it with whomever you like.