Always The Same Mistake

Always The Same Mistake

Submitted by Brian on February 4th, 2011 at 5:48 PM

warning: internet/sports journalism/meta post. it's six on friday so no bitching.

A life preserver belt on blue water. 3D render with HDRI lighting and raytraced textures.

via press coverage

Way back in the mists of time when I'd just been fired from my engineering job for not doing much actual engineering I was wondering whether or not I actually wanted another one when Jamie Mottram emailed me. He asked if I'd be interested in being a "lead" for the college football section of this Fanhouse thing he'd convinced AOL to start*. I said yes and my career as a pants-optional blogger started.

A couple years later, Mottram was at Yahoo and I was on the phone with a guy who seemed to put "-ize" at the end of every verb trying to convince him that Adam Jacobi was a key asset even if he kept posting conversations with Joe Paterno in which he decried DIRTY IRISHMEN. This was the middle of the end, and a couple months later I was out, too.

By that point I didn't much care. I'd stopped posting much because headlines like "God Not A Big Fan Of Sam Maresh, Says Sam Maresh" were getting converted into things like "Sam Maresh Has Further Health Problems." The thing I owned was making sufficient money that I didn't have to put up with aggravation for ten bucks a post.

When I latched on with Sporting News a couple months later it was mostly so I could tell people I wrote for Company You've Heard Of X when that was convenient or lent credibility, and when that got shipped over to SB Nation I cut my workload there down to a couple things I do weekly. The business story of the blog is gradually in-sourcing all of the writing I do, even if it's about the World Cup.

"We're Not Bleacher Report"

Elsewhere, not so much. When AOL decided to blow Fanhouse up and give the Sporting News the brand for five million a year, I wasn't surprised. Ben Koo made a case that it was a stupid move, but we are talking about a company that's had a half-dozen people run Fanhouse in under five years, let Mottram walk out the door, immediately undermined his replacement with HAWT TITS, reversed course on that after 90 seconds, and then did another 180 to hire Jay Mariotti. It's not a surprise AOL has changed course wildly, hoping that doing the exact opposite of their last stupid idea will be the opposite of stupid.

What is something of a surprise is the naiveté shown by some of the outgoing. Dave Kindred interviewed a few of them for IU's National Sports Journalism Center and it's like they've never been part of an aging relic with a declining legacy business before:

"In December," Lisa Olson said, "we were told how great we were doing." Once a columnist at the New York Daily News, Olson remembered The National strutting on stage in 1990, a national sports newspaper hiring good people from everywhere. She thought of FanHouse that way, a gathering of veterans on a journalistic adventure. "We were all experienced and qualified, not some 25-year-old bloggers," she said. "The motto was, ‘Go, go, go. Grow, grow, grow.' And we did. Then, this. It's devastating."

This one in particular even referenced "The National," which lasted all of 18 months. Another complains "we had no idea this was coming," etc. More than one takes shots at bloggers. There's the one above, and then there's the EIC who ended up axing me** stating that when they arrived Fanhouse was nothing more than "a quirky blog."

The theme running through the piece all the way up to Kindred, who titles it "Waiting for the day readers march in and demand an end to the dreck," is journalists bemoaning the fact that their quality isn't recognized as they die by the thousands and Bleacher Report is getting eight-digit funding rounds. Kindred uses the recent press conference in which Jim Boeheim slammed the reporter who asked a question about point-shaving because the internet's been talking about it as a leaping-off point. You'd think they'd know by now.

You Are Bleacher Report

So… the column and those quoted in it are rife with misconceptions that speak to why AOL abandoned ship and why newspapers will slowly bleed readership until internet natives are at the helm in 20 years, at which point they'll just be another voice in the clamor.

They are:

Believing Bleacher Report is in the content business. Bleacher Report is not a content company any more than Demand or Associated Media. It is an SEO/marketing company that runs garbage through filters until it comes out with google/newsletter gold. The way they do this is clever, but their success—likely overstated anyway—has nothing to do with the success or failure of people who write for a living.

Believing Fanhouse content was functionally different than Bleacher Report's content. I only subscribed to the college football bit in my RSS reader, but it was a progression of boring AP-style articles, Clay Travis columns, the leftover guys who got in the door under Mottram who were cheap and non-controversial, and Brett McMurphy breaking stories about USF. Meanwhile the larger site had Marriotti.

You know what Mariotti and Travis are? They're trolls. They write controversial things they don't believe for attention. How much of the vaunted 50% non-AOL traffic—the same figure we were told, BTW—was either SEO or people stopping by to tell the various trolls why their stupid arguments were stupid? Mariotti is just a Bleacher Report writer with an editor, and he's the star attraction. This is not hyperbole.

A personal example from my time there: slideshows were pushed ever harder until people started editing posts to stick in random slideshows, hopefully vaguely sexy slideshows, whenever your post could be tangentially connected to one. Slideshows, man.

Fanhouse journalists complaining about how their quality is not appreciated aren't quite right. Anyone who reads above a third grade level can tell there's a vast gulf between it and BR, but when that gulf spans the gap between "offensive to the English language" and "newspaper stuff mostly about things I don't care about" it doesn't matter. Instead of widely loathed you're ignored unless you're breaking news, which is ephemeral.

It's no secret that I hate Deadspin. At least, I hate its bottom 20% and don't care about its middle 70%. But even though I don't read it much I still remember a dozen thingsgreat things—it's published in the past year. If there's anyone who understands making it in internet media it's Nick Denton, and he's decided on lots of dongs and lots of outstanding, smart, highbrow content that people will post on their Facebook wall. Minus the dongs, I try to do the same thing for my niche. That's quality that separates you from BR, not spelling "lose" correctly.

Believing a site that gathers metrics similar to Bleacher Report is long for this world. You can't out-troll Anonymous.

trollface

I'd love to know what Fanhouse's direct hit numbers were. Nobody went to Fanhouse from a bookmark. Fifty percent of this site's hits have no referrer; Fanhouse was probably under 10%. Again, that's Bleacher Report except BR has a legion of halfwits voting and commenting on each other's posts to get more RadPoints*** . And if you're like Bleacher Report except you're paying people—giving people benefits—you lose. How many BR halfwits can you vaguely curate for one Jay Mariotti salary? Thousands, and their content is no different except for the platform. Once that platform enjoys content-sharing deals with, oh, say, the Washington Post, the guy with the benefits is screwed.

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Bleacher Report's secret is that it's awesome at being terrible. It hammers that dong demographic. Here I try to be really specifically awesome for a niche. Deadspin has it both ways. Fanhouse was just okay at the dong demo, okay at the boring stuff, and there wasn't one thing in the history of that site anyone would remember two days after they read it. That's the same mistake they always make.

When Mottram left for Yahoo he corrected the mistake he made with Fanhouse by creating a suite of independent single-source blogs that are run by a guy. You can tell because each of them comes with a picture.

imageimage

Not all posts are by these guys, but they own the blog in a way no one owned Fanhouse. Each is "quirky" to some extent. The soccer one has regular posts in which an obscure Polish goalkeeper rants about corn and his neighbor and the week's events. Doctor Saturday annually embarks on a defense of the recruiting-industrial complex. Each one is a central part of its sports blogosphere, written extraordinarily well by people who may have worked in newspapers but didn't live them. Most of the contributors are just people who write well. They haven't been blown up, and Mottram ascended the ladder at Yahoo to do the same across the company.

I don't know what to do about the fading ability of people to pay responsible news-reporting types. Fanhouse was run by incompetents and destined to implode anyway. But I might miss it if it wasn't so goddamn boring.

*[I imagine him crashing through the window of a conference room holding dozens of high-level executives on a chandelier, sword in hand, rose in teeth.]

**[Not that he should have kept me and my two posts a week output.]

***[mwa ha ha. Seriously, though, points here are for troll control and have only incidentally grown into an e-peen contest.]