I Love Tom Ziller’s NBA Work, But His Bleacher Report Critique Is Lazy

One of the few components of Tom Ziller’s blog post that I found useful was his disclaimer, so I’ll co-op it here:

I write for Bleacher Report, a site that once saw SB Nation as direct competition. No one at Bleacher Report sanctioned, requested or even knew I was writing this.

It must be lonely in the elitist clouds. I read these anti-Bleacher Report blog posts from time to time and it evokes a number of emotions.

First, I laugh. It amuses me because Tom, a talented NBA writer for SB Nation, worries that B/R is the future of sports journalism, and yet, I worry even more that posts like Tom’s are the future of sports journalism.

It’s lazy, built on assumptions and written from such an elitist soap box pandering to the minions in Ziller’s Twitterverse that have made it a sport to take potshots at Bleacher Report.

Ziller, like so many before him, use words most folks have to look up on Google like “exegesis” and, hey, it must make sense because he’s using SAT words. (Though I must thank Tom for giving me another Scrabble word that will stump my competitors.)

It also amuses me that Tom cops out and says he doesn’t know how most of the former B/R writers left because “there’s little I hate more* than talking business with internet friends,” but he uses these writers as a centerpiece for the latest hatchet job in taking down the evil B/R.

Once the laughter passes, I get angry. I think of all the work that my colleagues and I have put in to building Bleacher Report, all the work that countless writers and editors have put in to continually raise the editorial standards at B/R and it angers me that they have to feel even the slightest bit of shame for calling B/R home.

Then I’m proud once the emails and Gchats start coming in from writers. They want to defend B/R on Twitter or on their personal blogs. And most times, I have told them to take the high road.

It’s an edict from above, and given CEO Brian Grey and VP of Content Dave Finocchio’s track record for making correct business decisions, I respect their PR approach, though it’s different than my own personal strategy.

I would have liked nothing more than to get out in front of telling our story when pieces like the SF Weekly story came out, another story filled with inaccuracies — but one where our company could have helped our cause by talking to the reporter as part of the piece, in my opinion.

In fact, the day the SF Weekly piece came out, I found myself on the first panel discussion at Blogs with Balls, an ever-growing online sports media conference. When the inevitable discussion of the story came up, I absorbed a couple lowblows from panel moderator/SB Nation employee Amy K. Nelson and took the high road.

Now, I find myself parting ways amicably with B/R — they wanted a managing editor based in San Francisco instead of South Carolina, while I am a displaced New Englander trying to get back north instead of west.

So while I’m sad to be parting with B/R, the upside is I can speak out a bit more when I see pieces like this.

I grew up in a journalism world where competitors didn’t feel the need to eat their own to make themselves look better. Sure, there have always been media wars, but nothing like we see in today’s online media.

If we got beat on a story, we bought the guy from paper B a beer and said, “I’ll get you tomorrow.”

But this notion of SB Nation being the elite media property … well, it once again makes me laugh.

Folks like Ziller speak of B/R and use words like algorithms and Googlebait. They use B/R’s past mistakes to make their argument, but have never bothered to give B/R another look. Tom’s “x”-ing out of stories is more about his allegiance to SB Nation than it is to actually giving B/R a good look again.

I’ve said this many times to those who would actually listen. Things like the slideshow making light of a tsunami, they were mistakes. But as media properties grow, they make those mistakes. We used that as a teaching moment at B/R and an impetus to speed up growth in editorial standards and changes to our publishing technology.

Those that have taken the time to give B/R another look, to see behind the curtain, they know there’s no supercomputer robot spitting out headlines.

It’s called analytics, knowing what the consumer wants and delivering more of it to them. We have built our analytics team and have some of the smartest folks I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with on that team. These are folks with strong sports backgrounds that just happen to be better at maneuvering their way around analytics spreadsheets than most people.

And, to toot the horn for a minute, it’s a large part of why B/R has left competitors like SB Nation in the dust. I spent the bulk of my day in constant contact with editors on conference calls, online group chats and video calls, and the editors in turn spend most of their days talking story ideas with writers.

We have an assignment structure, no doubt. The concept that this is a bad thing? Well, Tom and I will once again have to agree to disagree. I saw on his SB Nation profile that he loves freedom and I’m glad he gets that at SB Nation (and I am also rooting for the taco truck to get to your house quicker, Tom).

Our editorial structure is quite different than SB Nation, so any kind of comparison is a bit suspect to start. SB Nation advertises itself as a collection of independent blogs under one roof. It’s like Subway, one company with an overriding philosophy that has a lot of franchisees running their own shops.

Bleacher Report is owner operated and sets the rules for the one really big shop they run.

B/R has a structure that combines our analytics learnings with old-school budget meetings. We’re constantly talking about what our readers want and trying to deliver that to them.

In the middle of that discussion, writers are always bringing up story angles or opinions that may not be trending on Google right now, but nonetheless, need to be told. And editors are given the freedom to make judgment calls on where to mix those assignments into the writers’ daily work flow.

B/R has a foundation in operating under Google’s rules for search traffic. But search is just one part of the operation. Where in their earlier days, B/R was more dependent on search traffic, it is but one part of the operation now. Their Team Stream app and newsletter program have exploded, as has direct traffic to the site.

While B/R always valued its relationship with Google and with search, it’s become much less prominent as the brand has grown.

And I’m not going to talk about search like it’s a four-letter word. I’ve told this to countless up-and-coming writers — if you’re snubbing your nose to SEO best practices, you’re giving up a huge advantage. The best fishermen know where the fish are biting. The best online writers know how fans search for their work, and they use SEO not to trick or game the system, but to actually use the system to best build their personal brand.

That mouthful said, did B/R appear in way too many Google searches a few years ago? Yes. Why? We got too good at search optimization, and I’m not going to apologize for that. Part of the reason there’s less B/R at the top of search results is not because Google somehow penalized them. It’s because all other major sports properties have finally caught on that search is a valuable component of the traffic mix.

Let’s talk about gaming the system. I’ve seen SB Nation specifically publish the kind of empty-shell “Googlebait” Tom describes in droves around big events — to the tone and volume Bleacher Report would never have dreamed of.

In terms of quality work, I’m not arguing Tom’s point. SB Nation does great work and has an outstanding stable of writers. When I see that great work, I find myself sending that writer a virtual beer and it makes B/R work that much harder to “get ’em tomorrow.”

At the end of the day, Bleacher Report writers are unique. Their accomplishments are too many to list, though King Kaufman does a great job of it in his blog. One I’ll add to that is Mike Schottey’s great work reacting to the ESPN/PBS debacle, the kind of hustle that was called out by Richard Deitsch.

As for the former B/R writers Tom mentioned, they’re all great. As he well knows as an editor, writers move on to different gigs and sometimes, it’s as simple as the relationship not working out. The Jimmy Spencer situation, I can’t speak to specifics as to why the relationship ended as I was not involved. I recruited Jimmy heavily and as a reader, I’m very frustrated that he’ll very soon be writing for some other site than B/R.

To use the NBA writers to paint a broad brush against B/R, it’s just lazy.

Are there things that B/R needs to improve? You bet. I agree with Tom on one point. The “top writer” rankings on sport section fronts, based on page views, need to go away as B/R evolves its writer base. And knowing B/R’s strength at evolving, I bet they will.

But there again, I’m not going to apologize for the gamification (ooh, another evil word, apparently).

It’s a corporate buzzword and I hate corporate buzzwords, but the concept is genius. Writers are among the most competitive people out there, and I know from personal experience that even with 23 years in the business, I still loved watching myself rise the top-writer rankings.

Does there need to be an evolved way of measuring “best” writers beyond just reads? Absolutely. But the idea of writers rising from level to level, it’s just one of the brilliant components to the B/R model.

One thing I know, having seen the work that B/R does: they will improve. I’ve never seen a more impressive group of individuals come together as a team with one goal in mind: constantly evolving to be the best sports site they can be.

Just once, before the next Tom Ziller takes the next potshot, it would great if they’d just take the time to study the evolution of B/R.

Stop putting the tsunami screenshot out there, stop eating your own and just do the work. If and when there’s an actual balanced critique, I can’t wait to read it.

There’s plenty of things Bleacher Report has done wrong, but I know from seeing it firsthand that they’ve owned the mistakes and learned from them. And at the end of the day, there’s plenty more that B/R has done right.

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