TEAM ZILLER
The algorithm’s problem with unique

Obvious disclaimer is obvious: I write for SBNation.com, a competitor to Bleacher Report. No one at SB Nation sanctioned, requested or even knew I was writing this.

Jimmy Spencer just parted ways with Bleacher Report after six months as its NBA Lead Writer. And sadly, he’s not the first great NBA writer to be ushered into that chair only to disappear quickly. Bethlehem Shoals, my old Works writing partner at FanHouse, fled. Zach Harper. Holly MacKenzie. Rob Mahoney. Ethan Sherwood Strauss. And now Jimmy. I honestly don’t know the situations surrounding how most of them left — there’s little I hate more* than talking business with internet friends. But I know that they are all talented writers who have built careers (before and after B/R) on the strength of their talent, hard work and, most of all, original voices. 

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.

Oh, it’s something people will click, because it’s begging to be argued with. And that’s the problem with B/R’s implementation of that vision: where they were going for unique, they ended up with #SlatePitch commentbait, slideshow clickbait and aggregation Googlebait. And based on how writers are championed — for getting the most pageviews — it makes sense that it would turn out that way. It largely offers literally nothing that you can’t get elsewhere …

… except for those unique voices.

I don’t follow the other sports closely enough to know whether B/R has had the same problem keeping talented writers there. I know Dan Levy has been there a long while, and that’s really good. That’s … it? No offense to anyone I’ve left out, but what NFL, MLB, soccer and NHL stuff I read, I read from non-B/R sources. (In all honesty, mostly SBNation.com and my favored teams blogs.) I come to B/R only to read what the NBA Lead Writers produce, and then I click the little ‘x’ in the tab because that’s what years of otherwise cookie-cutter, anything-but-unique B/R content has taught me to do.

The problem isn’t with B/R’s business model. The problem is that B/R’s leadership has long refused to own its business model. The problem is that B/R tells its readers, writers and quite possibly investors (before it got bought) one thing, and then implements the opposite. How hilarious, that B/R’s veritable mission statement all-but-rips the dominant sports outlets — the ESPNs, the Yahoo!s, the CBSes, the Sports Illustratiti (that’s Latin) — by chiding their cookie-cutter analysts. Strip away the unique voices B/R has run off, and where do you get your unique voices? ESPN. (That’s where Sherwood is. And about a billion other unique voices through TrueHoop, Grantland, Insider, etc. God, their NBA coverage is expansive and excellent.) Yahoo!, where they have Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman, a triptych of grace, supreme talent and out-of-the-boxedness. CBS, where Harper has found a home with lovable maniac (and superbly unique voice) Matt Moore. S.I.? Rob Mahoney is there, with one of the most talented young writers I’ve ever known in Ben Golliver. Holly Mack is with Sportsnet in Canada. Shoals is doing Shoals things at GQ and from Wieden + Kennedy. 

Our NBA page over at SBNation.com has Paul Flannery, Mike Prada, Seth Rosenthal, Ricky O’Donnell, Mark Deeks, Jonathan Tjarks and a whole host of other young up-and-comers, none of whom make cookie-cutter analysis their business. The other sports have stellar folks in place, too. And because SB Nation is so rife with abundant and unique talent, at the very moment I’m typing this out Jon f’n Bois has the lead story on the NBA page in what is without question the most unique exegesis on Tracy McGrady I’ve seen.

No offense to the writer in question, who is no doubt a fine scribe and hard worker, but the lead story on the B/R NBA page right now is a #hotsportstake on LeBron as the best player in the world, replete with a solid career biography of the mysterious small forward.

An amplified outlet for writers whose unique voices were routinely drowned out by cookie-cutter analysts and celebrity “experts”

Huh.

Unique for the sake of unique isn’t good for business, and it’s not even necessarily good for art. But sincerity is nice. When you say that your company exists for a reason, and you dismiss that reason so relentlessly in your implementation — when you wring it out of the process — then you need to reassess why you exist and what you’re saying to the world.

Bleacher Report is trying to convince the next generation of Strausses, Harpers, Spencers, Shoalses, MacKenzies and Mahoneys that this is a place where their unique voices will be fostered. Given how unique voices have been handled by the site’s NBA leadership to date, it seems unlikely. If B/R wants to be taken seriously by those who don’t take it seriously, treating its good writers like writers and not disposable content bots*** would be a nice first step.

I do worry sometimes about the next generation. If I were coming up these days and I wasn’t well-versed in the strata of modern sportswriting on the web, I’d probably be attracted to B/R because of the image they project: the gamification, the clear path to something that sounds important. And the algorithm and those editors would suck the voice right out of me. I fear too many good young writers trying to find their way in an industry in upheaval are learning how to write the B/R way, and I fear for how bland and, dare I say, cookie-cutter sportswriting will look down the road because of it. How many of the young bucks on that B/R leaderboard page are wasting time coughing up 600 words of what the assignment editor wants when zero words would do instead of developing their voice, their skills, their unique path toward readership.

Maybe in this way it’s a blessing that my friends who did time at B/R lasted only a little while. More of a Sabbatical than a re-education.

* Kobe, duh.**

** Also milk.

*** It’s only a matter of time.

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