Bleacher Report is one of the largest sports content providers on the web but its content has at times caused consternation for traditional sports media members. SI.com sat down with CEO Brian Grey a couple of months ago for a wide-ranging interview. Grey was previously the SVP/GM of Fox Sports Interactive and GM of Yahoo! Sports.
SI.com: The reputation and credibility of Bleacher Report has been a topic among bloggers and the mainstream sports press. How do you perceive Bleacher Report's credibility in the sports media landscape? Grey: I view our credibility as extremely high with consumers. That is a landscape I look at first and foremost and I look at it very objectively -- the amount of people that come to the site on a frequent basis. If you look at comScore, we are one of the most-visited daily sports sites behind ESPN and Yahoo Sports! So I feel that there is a brand, a resonance, and the content is interesting and compelling to consumers. That is important.
In terms of people like you, professional journalists, people that see what we are doing, maybe they look at it and say: "Well, that is not as good as our stuff." That is an audience we are very mindful of. Bringing on a guy like King Kaufman was done in that spirit. Our writer base is now a little over 5,000 and that number has come down. There is an application process that did not exist a year ago. You have to apply to get onto Bleacher Report. We take very seriously those applications and what that leads to is people we can track and say, "Apply based on your background, writing samples, journalism experience and passion." We then give them assignments and ask them to write about certain topics. All of that leads to a [writers] score, and that score while somewhat subjective, is at least a starting point that we can manage from.
We can then watch as they perform and produce content going forward. We can encourage them, and they can move up to what we call featured contributor status. If they come in and start to trend lower than the score we gave them, this is where King comes in with tools, training, and tutorials. It is what we are thinking of as a Writer HQ or even a BR University. There will be a lot of material King publishes though his blog and makes available in a central location to help contributors improve various aspects of their writing. If they respond to that, great. If they don't, we have an ongoing process where we are evaluating that and some of those folks will be asked to reapply.
SI.com: Why was the CEO job of Bleacher Report attractive after working at Fox and Yahoo!?
Grey: I met the Bleacher Report guys when I was at Fox. We did a partnership with a number of folks in the sports media 2.0 space and even from that vantage point, I was pretty intrigued with what they were doing and what their mission was. When they circled back a little over a year ago do to a CEO search, I had moved back to San Francisco and was in venture capital. I got a chance to look under the hood and was really fascinated with this model and what's going on in digital publishing in general. The sports piece added good context and familiarity.
But it was really what is going on digital publishing and the mission around creating a platform for a lot of people who wanted a voice to be heard in sports but had only been heard through sports-talk radio call-in shows, letters to the editor or writing comments on stories. Having been at bigger places and wanting to do something at an early stage that was new and different and did not have a predictable path was intriguing to me.
SI.com: Why as a sports consumer should I read Bleacher Report?
Grey: We are hyper-focused on the consumer side. One of the things -- and I saw this at Fox and Yahoo! -- is people cannot get enough content about their teams. Sports is tribal and that phrased has been used by [Fox Sports chairman] David Hill and others. It is very much about your teams. But when you go out there, unless you are a Yankees or Cowboys fan, a lot of the media outlets from a programming standpoint are more national in focus. So if you are a Texas Tech football fan or an Oregon State football fan like I am, there is not a lot out there for you. Being able to deliver an experience that goes around teams and topics that people care about is a core mission from a consumer perspective of what Bleacher Report is trying to deliver. That's seeing a lot of resonance with fans. They know through us we can deliver them a lot of different content from a lot of different angles and perspectives about their teams. But we are also able to aggregate the best of the rest that is out there.
SI.com: Do you find the site to be tasteful? Grey: I do.
SI.com: Why? Grey: I guess you would have to help me understand what tasteful means. SI.com: I'm intentionally asking an open-ended question. Grey: I go back to our consumers. I go back to our readers and the response we get from our audience and the consumption we see from our audience and the avidity they have for our content. We think it's hitting a spot that does not exist in the sports media, this broad voice around teams and topics that you don't find in other outlets. I think tasteful is a subjective term and the best way for us to evaluate that is are people consuming our content and finding what we are producing engaging.
SI.com: Let me read you something you've probably seen. Earlier this year, veteran sports writer Dave Kindred called your company"a content farm whose plowmen fly the fanboy flag, "All The News Fit to Steal." What's your response to a traditional sports writer firing on your ecosystem, calling you fan boys and saying you rip off traditional media?
Grey: First of all, I never met or spoken with Dave and I'd love to. If somebody of his stature and sitting in his chair looks at us and wants to engage in a conversation about what we do, much like you and I are doing, I would relish that. I think there is a lot of misperception about who we are what we do, how we do it, and how we are continuing to evolve to do it better. Specific to his comments, I don't what fanboy refers to.
SI.com: I don't want to speak for Dave Kindred but he seems to be saying there is no objectivity in the writing and it is essentially cheerleading copy?
Grey: Again, we are a sports content publisher powered by thousands of voices that I think have credible opinions and see everything that people sit in the press box or go in the locker room see today. One of the things that has changed most dramatically over the past five or ten years is the notion that access is a little different. People can see everything, hear everything and they have opinions. They know a lot about these teams and they want their voices heard. I think that is what the bulk of what we see getting published, people who are really knowledgeable about their teams. The genesis of Bleacher Report on one level came from seeing a lot of the comments teams that would hang off articles written by people that would go to a game and maybe see that team play once. Those people would write something about the team, leave, and the fans would say that this is not accurate. That was the genesis of saying, "Hey, there has to be a way of letting those people who are really expert about those teams be heard and have their voice."
SI.com: Who is reading your site and who do you want to read your site? Grey: We want to reach a fan base. We pride ourselves, given the number of contributors we have and the number that we think our model will support, on bringing people in that can write about multiple angles of a team. Some of them might be serious, hardcore X and O's to more pop culture and the lighter side of sports. One of the things that hit me right in the forehead was when the Giants won the World Series and I was navigating my way to the office the morning of the parade. I saw the throngs of people, and I realized that not everybody is that hardcore, X and O's fan. Few people in that crowd probably cared about what Aubrey Huff's OPS during the postseason, yet they were fascinated by the storylines, the characters of the team and the emotion. There are a lot of fans that crave content about their teams and heroes that are not that hardcore fans. So that's the wide swath we are trying to reach with our content.
SI.com: How many contributors do you have? Grey: We have over 5,000, and that number has come down considerably since the early days of Bleacher Report. That's the number that are quote, unquote approved to publish on the platform. Not everyone of those is writing every single month. The number will vary in a given month or week.
SI.com: Who are these writers? Grey: I'll give you three different profiles that we see. There are a lot of people who study journalism at the undergraduate level and they are looking for a way to build a brand or portfolio and get them on a path to get paid to write about sports. We give them a platform to do that.
Another profile is people that may already be writing. They could be writing about Texas high school football but they really want to be writing about the Cowboys. They could be writing about non-sports and this is their outlet for sports. But probably the biggest slice is the profile I call "lawyer by day, Giants fan by night." These are people that might not aspire to this as a full-time career but they really love their teams and have perspective around their teams and want an outlet more than sports-talk radio or writing a comment at the bottom of an article. What is good about our platform is we can accommodate that person who wants to write two stories a week, 10 stories a week, or 10 stories a week for three months. For them, it is an interest no different if they are a mountain bike rider or it's some other hobby that they are passionate about.
SI.com: How would you define Bleacher Report's editorial standards? Grey: Once you are approved, you get exposed to our writer guidelines and all of this tutorial and information. All of that is available for you to see as you go through the process. We are constantly evaluating and evolving those guidelines and making sure inherent in that is our subjective definition of what is acceptable, what is quality, and what is not acceptable for our writers to be writing about.
As content gets published, there are another two layers where it gets evaluated. One is in the review cue. Before a programmer decides to publish a piece of content say on the front of Bleacher Report.com or the front of our NFL section, there is another opportunity for a programmer to review the content and flag it and say this is really good or not that great.
Then there is the editing process. Every piece of content is edited, and has one trained editorial editorial person who is giving the contributor feedback. One of the things King is starting to do more actively is working with the writers on-one-one and start to give them feedback directly, starting with our top-tier writers.
SI.com: Do you game Google with alogrthryms and through search and SEO?
Grey: Our approach is to really pay attention to what consumers are looking for. There is a notion of consumer demand that any company needs to be mindful of. What is that people want to consume? We think that is inherent in the way Google, Yahoo!, Bing, Facebook, Twitter and anybody that is touching consumers and has an ability to understand what consumers are looking for operate. We take advantage of that consumer demand, or those signals, and use that to inform what we produce from a content standpoint. That ends up from an outside-in looking perspective of gaming the system. But we do not do any of the techniques that you would call black hat. We are certainly not a content farm. We produce original content. We're not aggregating other people's content. It is produced and original content. If you can pay attention to what people are looking for and use that intelligence to produce content that people are looking to consume, from our perspective, that's kind of where digital media is going.
SI.com: How much does and should sex play into your content? Grey: That's a good question. The Swagger area is one that has evolved extensively even since before I joined. We have a male audience so there is this aspect of sports meets entertainment meets women. Every male site, every sports site, has some angle of it. You have you Hot [Extra] Mustard area. I go back to what is the right balance between that content, and all the other content. You'll notice that the Swagger content lives in its own section and we are moving to a model where less of it will show up in standard article pages. But it will certainly will have its place in our mix.
SI.com: Old school media types would say there is an exploitative factor in using people to produce cheap content. You are not the only place that does this, but your writers are not paid, right?
Grey: We have evolved to where when we see contributors who perform and become experts in certain topics, that is another opportunity we want to make available, paid opportunities.
SI.com: Let me be direct. Why is this not exploiting a labor market?
Grey: We look at this as an opportunity for a lot of people that have never had a chance to get into where you sit. It is a chance to go on that path. And a lot of people want that. For us a great outcome would be our contributors to be hired by Sports Illustrated or ESPN.com or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We have had a handful of people who have become full-time writers at other outlets. That is something we really embrace and we think we are giving a platform for them to go down that path. But there are a lot of people that just do this because they love the game and love sports. It's at their discretion. They own their content and they are free to take it and go sell it to someone else.
SI.com: How confident are you that you now have better checks and balances so we don't see a repeat of this incident?
Grey: Listen, that was an unfortunate incident. We learned a lot from it. It has helped us advance even further. But I will say that even before that, we had taking huge strides to get to the point where things like should not happen. But it did. We apologized and we have gone another round of making sure there are more filters and better decision making. If you look back, the writer had all the right intentions. He was not trying to say anything negative. In the opening he talked about his heartfelt sympathy for what happened and was using that as a starting off point for the piece. Again, not great judgment but no malcontent from the writers' perspective.
SI.com: Is the writer still working for you?
Grey: We asked the writer to take a little break, reflect. Whether we go back and reapprove him to be on the platform remains to be seen. He was very contrite about it, and understandably so. Also, that the piece was published on our site was another place where we broke down. I feel very comfortable that we will get better every day at being able to have the right subjective quality bar compared to our objective quality bar, which is how much consumption how interested fans are.
SI.com: How much news breaking do you want to do?Grey: We don't put a huge premium on it. We don't think we can compete in that space and we are not even convinced we need. We think a big part of our value is once news is out there, we can bring a lot of voices and a lot of perspective around it.
SI.com: Where should this company be in five years? Grey: We really want Bleacher Report to be the place where people write about sports. We want to be a publishing platform that continues to satisfy a consumer demand that is out there for fans who cannot get enough information about their teams and topics that they care about. We want to be that today, we want to be that one year from now and five years from now.
There are other content features we want to add as people go to more mobile and tablets and TV screens. Do you have the goal to be the No. 1 most trafficked sports site in the country? We'd love to. ESPN and Yahoo! compete in that space and I ran one of them and have competed with the other one in my lifetime. I am very respectful of both and am a good friend of [ESPN digital media chief] John Kosner. They are pretty far up there so it is a lofty goal but it is certainly where you shoot. You are not in this business to be fourth or fifth.