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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Bleacher Report ups its game by taking contributors to school

The sports site wants to keep its every-fan appeal while helping writers polish their skills.

There’s a reason most pro sports teams hold training camp before their season starts: Everyone needs to tighten up their game. Carrying over that theme, the team at Bleacher Report has created a program to better develop the skills of their thousands of contributors.

Bleacher Report U (or b/r U, as they’re calling it) was built as a way of helping aspiring scribes become sportswriters for the era of new media. The program emphasizes online skill (seizing on keywords, understanding SEO, using multimedia) as much as independent and critical thinking, the kind that makes for shrewd columnists and commentators. As a brand built on a pro-am model, reliant on journalists, paid contributors, and fans/independent bloggers, the notion of a training regimen could be interpreted as a push toward being all-pro. Not so fast, says King Kaufman, who oversees writer development for Bleacher Report — they’re not in this to turn everyone into Bob Ryan or Rick Reilly. “We’re not trying to churn out an army of old-school sports writers,” he said. “We want our writers to be themselves. We want them to be their best selves they can be.”

Bleacher Report already has a style guide they ask writers to abide by, but the new program includes more aggressive training in audience development. “To be a writer you need an audience and you as a writer are going to be the main person to find that audience,” Kaufman said. Since the students (all voluntary, B/R writers aren’t required to go through) are non-traditional, so is the program, with a curriculum that offers eight modules writers can follow at their own pace. Treating each module as an assignment, writers go through the process of analyzing and pitching ideas that get published as articles. So as they learn about keywords in the news, building slideshows, and targeting groups of readers, they’re still producing content for the site. Each assignment comes with its own mission, including:

— “To use Bleacher Report’s slideshow publishing format in devising a “Best of All Time” list related to your favorite team or sport,” in which the writer is advised they’ll “do well to pepper your portfolio with a smattering of Top 10 (or 20 or 50) lists”

— “To defy conventional wisdom in commenting on an overanalyzed news topic,” in which the writer is asked to “contribut[e] your own revitalizing insight to the stale conversation” on a subject.

— “To establish yourself as a source of expert analysis in one of B/R’s team- or sport-specific communities,” in which the writer is asked to identify the “3-5 core values that have the strongest influence on my analysis”

One assignment requires writers to “fuse sports and pop culture in a reader-friendly slideshow,” which on first pass sounds cold, calculating, and almost nakedly huffpostian. But the program’s goal, Kaufman said, is to acquaint writers with the tools and methods many online publishers are employing. Bleacher Report seems to recognize the new reality, shake its head and shrug its shoulders, telling writers on the same assignment: “For better or worse, readers love breezy sports-and-culture stories. If you really want to maximize your fanbase, your best bet is to give the people what they want.”

Giving people what they want seems to be working for Bleacher Report, which touts monthly unique visitors around 8.5 million and 350 million monthly pageviews. They’re publishing more than 500 pieces a day and have a stable of 6,000 contributors, about 2,000-3,000 of them actively writing each month, Kaufman told me. The goal is, like any good athlete, to get bigger, stronger, and faster, and one way to do that is helping writers, be they journalists, hobbyist, students, or aspiring columnists, improve their talents. The benefit to writers going through the program is the experience and exposure, with an opportunity to become a featured columnist on the site after completing the training. What Bleacher Report is doing seems like the next step in the contributor/user content model of online news, where we’re past the idea of whether to let outsiders in and move on to how to make the outsiders better. Not only does that show explicit value in the community, but it’s a float-all-boats proposition, one that helps Bleacher Report’s bottom line but also writers, some of whom have wound up getting hired for full-time gigs after their stint on the site.

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The appeal of Bleacher Report, Kaufman says, is that it’s a community of fans, people enthusiastic about teams or particular sports, and that sets it apart from more straightforward sports news sites. They don’t want their writers to suppress what makes them excited about sports — they want to amplify it. “We want that passion. We want that advocacy. We want that — you could call it fan perspective or non-professional experts. We want that,” he said.

Kaufman, who has written about sports for The San Francisco Examiner and Salon.com, joined Bleacher Report in the winter to work specifically on developing writers. Serving as informal writing coach to the gaggle of contributors has also given Kaufman a fresh perspective on the future of sports writing. There are more avenues for aspiring writers to take their work, and there are lots of people interested in writing.

“A lot of people are confident and optimistic about making a living, writing, commenting, talking on TV, video, or radio about sports,” he said. “I think that’s a cool thing. As a journalism guy, I’m happy that there’s optimism in this area.”

Photo from Roel Wijnants used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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