What Jiu Jitsu teaches us about media companies
For a brief period of time, I studied Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. And I wasn’t very good at it.
Nevertheless, I put in a real effort and put up with the not-so-appealing aspects of it -- having some dude squash my face into the ground, gasping for breathe while a normally-stoic Korean teenager choked me, etc.
At a time when martial arts, and the UFC in particular, has grown in popularity, the very act of fighting has changed, both in reality and in the popular consciousness.
Gone are the days when 80s action stars traded punches with German terrorists. Today, we understand that fighting usually takes place on the ground, with a lot more grappling than striking. You are just as likely to win a fight by choking your opponent with your legs (i.e. a triangle choke) as you are through a good old-fashion nose break.
And while a black eye can hurt -- you would probably prefer one to the mind-numbingly excruciating pain of a simple (and well executed) arm bar.
Fighting requires a lot of physical attributes -- strength, quickness, flexibility, tenacity, pain threshold... but there is one ability that stands atop the heap. The supreme physical attribute.
Because until you’ve had your ass kicked by a tiny Asian girl, you really can’t begin to appreciate the helplessness forthcoming when 90-pounds of weight are precisely placed upon your sternum.
Balance is one of those concepts that people don’t appreciate nearly enough. But for a lot of companies -- and media companies in particular, it is a critical one. In fact, if I were to summarize my last company, Bleacher Report, in one sentence, I would call it this: A seven-year exercise in hyper-attention to balance. That’s it.
What sort of balance?
The balance between content quality and content quantity.
The balance between original content and aggregation of other sites’ content.
The balance between paid staff writers and unpaid outside contributors.
The balance between getting stories out quickly and carefully proof-reading them for typos.
The balance between top-down control and crowd power.
The balance between content that readers should want and the content that they actually want.
The balance between advertisers’ needs and those of the reader.
The list could go on much longer, but each of these represents a delicate balance that the company monitors in tremendous detail and constantly evolves.
Over the years, Bleacher Report has adjusted the dials. A good example would be the paid vs. unpaid writers aspect. At launch, it was an open platform. Today, it functions much more as a true media company, while still opening the door to some talented contributors.
But what really empowers new media companies like Bleacher Report is the degree to which the competition has every single dial at either 0 or 10 -- with a complete disregard for balance of any kind.
Old media does not understand balance. They live in a world of switches, not dials. One time, our executive team met with a senior editor at a major publisher. He explained his programming process: “My job,” he said, “is to pick the very best stories we’ve written each day, and to put them on the home page.
Again, it was all about what readers should want, not what they actually want. No effort -- not even a tiny token one -- was being made to figure out which stories users were likely to click. That competency did not exist. The switch was set to “off."
Of course, the inverse can go too far as well. At one point, Bleacher Report had the “give users what they want” dial set to 8 or 9... and the data was telling us that users really, really liked content about Derek Jeter’s girlfriends and cheerleader pictures. But that “give users what they want” idealism started to tarnish the brand and take the site in a direction that undermined who we wanted to be. We were giving users what they wanted, to a fault.
So we turned the dial back, and gave them a lot more of what they should have wanted, even if it didn’t click quite as well.
Another great example is aggregation.
Most sports websites do not link to their competitors’ content. Ever. When we first launched our TeamStream, a collection of the day’s best stories from around the web, our competitors laughed at the idea of “giving traffic to your competition.” One competitor sent us a cease and desist to prevent us from linking to them (we honored it, even though it was total bullshit).
For years, Bleacher Report has adjusted the aggregation dial -- trying to find that perfect balance between homegrown content and the best from around the web. The competition -- ESPN, CBS, Fox -- they are just a bunch of "off" switches.
I haven’t been at Bleacher Report for a long time, and I have no idea where all the dials are set these days, but I know that the editors are constantly making critical adjustments. But now that I live in New York and spend a lot of my time with lifelong magazine editors, I can see how so much of Time Square’s culture is about switches, and not dials.
And when John Henry paid a pittance for the Boston Globe, my guess is that he bought a company full of switches -- most of them frozen into position -- and not a single dial.
[Image courtesy Wikimedia]