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Another NYT Writer Leaves for a Web Upstart, But That's Not the Real Story Here

Credit: Getty/Saul Loeb

In this week’s New Yorker profile of Bryan Goldberg, founder of the much-maligned women’s-interest site Bustle and co-founder of the much-maligned sports site Bleacher Report, author Lizzie Widdicombe makes reference to the latter’s “lingering bad reputation” and quotes Goldberg’s own web product director: “I’m a big sports guy, but I never liked Bleacher Report. The content sucked.”

The method behind the madness of Bleacher Report, founded in 2007, has been amply described and exposed: The site rose to pageview prominence by employing legions of underpaid and inexperienced writers to churn out articles and click-happy slide shows frequently designed simply to fit pre-existing headlines, which themselves were chosen on the basis of their friendliness to search engines. “Every publication has produced its share of jarringly bad writing,” SF Weekly’s Joe Eskenazi summed it up last year. “Yet Bleacher Report, powered by thousands of hobbyists and publishing more stories in an hour than many sites produce in a year, has lapped the field.”

But last year Turner, the Time Warner subsidiary that also owns CNN, TBS, and TNT (on which more in a second), plunked down $200 million to buy the site. And it now appears they are making a highbrow play by hiring several respected journalists, led by widely respected New York Times basketball writer Howard Beck, whose job-change was announced Tuesday. “This is a thing,” Deadspin’s John Koblin noted a few hours later. “This is a big thing.”

“I know people will be fixated on what they think they know of Bleacher Report, but this is really the start of something new,” Beck told me Wednesday morning. He will be switching from his job at the Times, where he was primarily (though not exclusively) a beat reporter for the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, to being a nationally focused writer.

But his move, as Koblin also noted, was not really about the Times. In fact, at the Times, Beck was to be transitioning to a national beat anyway. It was about changes at Bleacher Report, he said. “My perceptions of Bleacher Report probably were like a lot of people’s,” he noted. “It was, ‘Oh that’s the site with all the slide shows and top ten lists.’” But, he continued, “This was just a really intriguing opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new era for the Bleacher Report. The site’s existed for six years, but this is clearly a different direction they’re taking now under Turner.”

“The important point here is not what Bleacher Report has been, it’s what Bleacher Report is becoming,” he added.

The temptation here is to throw in a Nate Silver reference (oops) and to paint a pattern of Times sports-desk attrition (National Football League writer Judy Battista left for NFL Network over the summer), but this is not a great reading of what happened. “Howard was phenomenal for us. He left on great terms—because he’s a huge talent and a seriously good man,” Times sports editor Jason Stallman emailed. “He just got an offer he couldn’t refuse. The Bleacher Report is apparently throwing a lot of money at this new effort, and clearly they figured that tapping talent from The New York Times would help give them credibility.” He added, “We’ll just do what we’ve always done when this happens—we’ll hire another major talent very soon and our basketball coverage will shine.”

Beck declined to comment on the role money played in his decision. But he did describe his new job as “multimedia,” encompassing Bleacher Report video and podcasts—and, though he declined to comment on this too, perhaps roles on both TNT and NBA TV, a cable channel backed jointly by TNT and the NBA. “I believe those opportunities will be there—I’m hopeful those opportunities will be there,” he said. (Will TNT start a “Pardon the Interruption”-type show featuring Beck and Charles Barkley? I mean, shouldn’t they?) It seems likely, in other words, that he is getting a significant raise.

The family-controlled, relatively small, and disproportionately prestigious New York Times Company has an established track record of not being able to pay some of its more talented journalists what the going market rate might be. Sometimes, these journalists leave; sometimes, they stay, effectively taking a pay cut in exchange for the halo that comes with working for the Times. “I don’t think there’s any diminishment whatsoever,” Beck said when asked about the Times’s reputation. “And that was one of the tough things about leaving, was knowing I was giving up that cachet, but for the challenge of trying to establish a cachet for someplace new.” 

So what is Bleacher Report—or, really, Turner—up to? “The new additions build on the company’s commitment to bolstering its real-time, comprehensive coverage of teams and topics including breaking news surrounding the league,” said the company press release, describing the four new hires as the “anchor” of their National Basketball Association coverage. “Including breaking news” is an especially notable mission for these journalists, given that, as Eskenazi reported, Bleacher Report previously had “a ‘blanket policy’ forbidding its writers from seeking out and breaking news.”

In its previous incarnation, Bleacher Report had a good thing going from a business perspective: At the time of its purchase last August, reports pegged the site’s monthly visitors as high as 25 million and pageviews as high as 175 million. Something, in other words, justified the $200 million valuation.

But Bleacher Report is no longer a stand-alone website whose goal is to amass pageviews and make money off the subsequent advertising revenue. It is the flagship Internet outlet of a company that also is partnered with the NBA in NBA TV, and whose flagship TV outlet, TNT, will air several dozen regular season games, the All-Star Game, and nearly half the postseason. Hiring Beck gives them the opportunity to burnish their reputation as a go-to place for all things NBA.

There’s more. Unlike the NFL’s and Major League Baseball’s, the NBA’s current television rights deal expires fairly soon, in 2016. The NBA, like other leagues, will be looking for more than just the highest bidder when it negotiates its next contract: It describes broadcasters as “partners” because broadcasts are the chief way fans experience the league. It won’t just want the biggest deal. It will want the arrangement that portrays and displays the league and the sport in the most appealing light.

When it is negotiating time, Turner’s most obvious rival will be the other current NBA rights-holder, Disney, which airs games (including the NBA Finals) on ABC and on its sports juggernaut based in Bristol, Connecticut.

Making Bleacher Report respectable almost certainly has as much to do with that as anything else. The other relevant media outlet in this story isn’t The New York Times. It’s ESPN.

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