How I respond to the haters
I am no longer an employee of Bleacher Report.
For many years, I quietly allowed a litany of "haters" to criticize the website that I co-founded. In many cases, I took their anger to heart and helped make the site better. In very few of those cases did I offer any sort of response.
But I can respond now. Because I am unemployed, and I no longer speak for Bleacher Report in any official context. I'm solo.
And in the last week, Bleacher Report has been the target of continued vitriol. The haters just keep on coming. Fortunately, one of the critics — a prominent sports blogger named Will Leitch — was classy enough to express himself in an even-keeled manner. You can and should read his entire piece here.
Below is my email response to Will Leitch. It could just as well be a response to Deadspin and all of the other haters who still criticize Bleacher Report:
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Bryan Goldberg <REDACTED>
Date: Wed, Feb 27, 2013 at 5:37 PM
Subject: I created Bleacher Report. Here's my response to you...
I'm Bryan -- we've never met, but I thought that I would send you an email.
I founded Bleacher Report several years ago, and I've always cared what people say about the site. I don't respond to public posts about BR for the most part, but there are two reasons why I am sending you this letter.
The first is that I left Bleacher Report a few weeks ago, so I am at more liberty to speak freely on the topic. Everything I write is my opinion only. The second is that I was having coffee with your former colleague [REDACTED] an hour ago, and he was such a nice guy that I figured you might be as well.
With that in mind, I will now make a few disparate points that respond to your article.
1. Bleacher Report is — and always was — a very good business. And I take pride in that. My co-founders and I started it as a business, and it was born out of a business plan that I co-wrote shortly after college. During the time that we owned it, the company was never a huge profit maker, but it was always healthy enough to attract investors and (ultimately) a major acquirer.
A lot of journalists view the Bleacher Report business with contempt. That's their prerogative. But their attitude is a disservice to their field, and their refusal to evolve will dig them into a deeper hole. Every week, it seems, the industry spits out more ominous news. The "spin off" of Time Inc. is just the latest example. When journalists criticize a publication for "putting profits first," then they are biting the hand that feeds them. Don't want profits? Fine. Then don't expect a job in 10 years.
These journalists are also guilty of closing the door behind them. That is, their bosses are scared to cut newsroom workers, so they just agree to buy-outs and "hiring freezes." It's ok to screw over the next generation of journalists, right, so long as you keep your job? Well, guess what? Somebody noticed this phenomenon and offered opportunities to these young college students. We did.
Finally, you point out that the company was "founded by business people trying to game the system." Yes, I am a business person. I am an equally strong writer. But as for your suggestion that I "gamed the system" somehow? That would imply that the system was good enough to be gamed. Far from it. The system was so broken, that it really did not deserve the honor of being called a "system" at all. The smoldering wreckage of debris known as "the publishing business" is unfit to be called a "system," because a system is assumed to be — at a minimum — self-sustaining.
I do take writing seriously. And for all of its success, Bleacher Report was my first attempt at changing the media industry. Some things did not go as planned. Many did. We built a great site, and in the future, I am committed to launching publications that better balance the commercial goals against content quality goals.
2. The criticisms lobbed at Bleacher Report are continuing to lose their efficacy. Why? Because the website is getting so much better. I don't want to walk through the history of the company in detail. We launched in 2007 when "user generated content" was a promising concept, and the experiment didn't fully work — we responded by removing 90 percent of our writers from the system. Then we started paying writers. Then we brought in people like King to mentor the newest writers. Then we started hiring prominent writers on a full-time basis. Then we started hiring video talent.
In all, Bleacher Report created hundreds of jobs, many of them in the Editorial field. Not only that, but we pay a lot of writers on a freelance basis. A ton of them, in fact. Do they make less money than a freelancer once did? Of course. See point (1) above to understand the company's reasoning there. But the journalist community needs to take a step backwards and look at the big picture. Bleacher Report is creating a lot of Editorial jobs at a time when almost everybody else is cutting them. And — no — Bleacher Report is not the "reason" why the industry changed. The industry was in a death spiral well before we founded the company. These jobs are all accretive to however many (or few) jobs might have existed without us.
Your article, however, proves all this better than anything I could write to persuade you. Why? Because you couldn't really put your finger on a criticism. You touched on a few things that you didn't like, but ultimately acknowledged that your complaints were either backwards-looking or ones that can be equally attributed to other prominent publishers (SBNation, Huffington Post, etc.).
Bleacher Report had its hiccups out of the gate. We get that. It was a company founded on a shoe-string budget that took off like a rocket ship, and the (very) young team of founders had to fight like hell to corral that growth. It took us a couple years. That's an eternity in "Internet years," but ask yourself what The Sporting News or CBS Sports achieved in that same time period? Nothing. That's what they accomplished. I'm proud that our scrappy and hard-working team of founders and early employees were able to correct course and keep getting better. And, after all, that is the only thing you can ask of a person or a company... keep getting better.
3. Your final paragraph was interesting, and it deserves its own response. You questioned whether Bleacher Report will ever "care about enterprising reporting or quality narrative journalism," and speculated that other publications will become more like BR. I'm no longer an employee of Bleacher Report, but I can respond to that with my own opinion.
First, I'm not sure how much sports "reporting" we need in the era of Twitter. Most athletes can't stop themselves from giving interesting quotes to the masses via Twitter or Facebook (much to their agents' displeasure). And as for the type of stories that "insiders" need to "break" — i.e. today's news that Alex Smith was traded for a 2nd round draft pick — do we really care who found out first? I believe it was Jay Glazer, but I'm having trouble finding the initial source. Needless to say, I don't think that he risked his life or dodged rocket-propelled grenades to uncover it.
The point is, my generation just does not care about the "insider game" of building relationships with GMs and team presidents in order to get a "scoop" three hours before the guy at the other newspaper can get it. Honestly, I'm not sure that people with close relationships to team owners and GMs should be simultaneously writing opinion pieces. Maybe we should put up a firewall. Some guys break the news; some guys analyze it. Bleacher Report gained popularity because the writers were unencumbered in saying whatever they wanted to say. And I would rather read a passionate opinion that is not constrained by the manacles of some "20-year relationship with team ownership."
Let local writers like Matt Maiocco be the guys who "break the news," and we can see how great a business that turns out to be for his employer, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat newspaper (note: I don't mean to say that with sarcasm, but I'm not sure how to avoid it). Maybe the young generation of writers have turned to blogging because they were never put into a position where they could build and foster a multi-decade relationship with team ownership. The middle-aged journalists who talk about "cutting your teeth," and "meritocracy-style journalism" — to use your term — are completely delusional. There is no opportunity for young journalists to prove themselves. They can follow your lead and spend the next four years typing away on Blogger, or they can go to where the audience lives. Bleacher Report has millions of email subscribers and millions of mobile app installations — that sounds like a better place to "cut your teeth."
I take a lot of pride in co-creating Bleacher Report, but I got a lot of help from the arrogance and antediluvian attitudes that emanate from so many newspapers and journalists over the age of forty. They have no idea how hard it is to make it as a writer today, and maybe if they were more compassionate, or saw value in doing anything other than saving their own skin, they would look in the mirror before criticizing the 20-year-old "scabs" who write for Bleacher Report.
Furthermore, the average consumer wants a mix of "quality narrative journalism" as well as "fun" and "entertaining" content. Many websites, including Bleacher Report, push the limits of "top ten" lists. But people love them. That's not anyone's fault. I read Business Insider in addition to the Wall Street Journal. Do you know why? Because I would rather learn about the "five biggest points that Ben Bernanke made in his testimony today," than read a nine-page transcript or hear some old hack like Larry Kudlow respond to it. Oh, and the fact that I carefully scrutinize Monetary Policy does not preclude me from also enjoying "candy content" on BuzzFeed. A couple years ago, I watched "The King's Speech" and "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" in one sitting — I loved them both for different reasons. I am large, I contain multitudes.
There will always be a place for investigative journalism, so long as we have corrupt politicians and insidious corporations. In other words, it isn't going away. Bleacher Report's existence is completely separate from such efforts, and it can only help the cause of Pulitzer-caliber investigative journalism. Why? Because one day the large media companies of the world will use the profits from the higher-margin, mass-appeal publications to supplement the lower-margin efforts of investigative and "narrative" journalists. That's why we have parent companies, synergies, and editorial executives to figure out the appropriate content mix.
In short, Bleacher Report is a great business, a great company, and it is helping the media business by shaking up a model that was already doomed. Our site was one of the first in what will prove to be a decades-long effort to rebuild the "system," and I am hopeful that Turner can keep making Bleacher Report a better example of business co-existing with editorial.