Bleacher Report and the evolution of the content farm

Turner Broadcasting confirmed on Monday that it is acquiring the sports-blogging network Bleacher Report for what some estimate to be about $175 million — a deal that was first reported by All Things Digital — to help the Time Warner unit bulk up its sports coverage. Although it is sometimes seen as a second cousin to its competitor SB Nation (now known as Vox Media), the acquisition of Bleacher Report is still a fairly significant milestone in the evolution of user-generated content, and a sign that even sites that have been criticized in the past for being “content farms” can evolve to the point where they attract the interest of mainstream media entities.

As my paidContent colleague Jeff Roberts has reported, the deal has reportedly been in the works for some time, with rumors of a match-up between Turner and Bleacher Report circulating earlier this year. While the $175-million acquisition may not be as much as the startup’s venture backers were hoping for — since it has raised over $40 million in several rounds of financing — it’s still a healthy figure for a site with an estimated 10 million monthly unique visitors.

A validation of the UGC model

The purchase of Bleacher Report fills a nice hole for Turner: as Peter Kafka at All Things Digital explained in an earlier analysis of the potential fit between the two, the Time Warner subsidiary lost control of the Sports Illustrated and websites earlier this year to another TW unit, and that meant a substantial loss of traffic — and the advertising that goes with it. Coincidentally enough, Bleacher Report has almost exactly the same number of monthly unique visitors as Sports Illustrated.

For Bleacher Report, the deal is a validation of the company’s user-generated content model, which some have criticized in the past as being one step away from a “content farm,” churning out aggregated or thinly-sourced content with as much search-engine optimization as possible in order to boost pageviews. Not that long ago, Bleacher Report was seen as a lower-quality version of SB Nation, which some argue takes a more professional approach to the generation of sports content focused around specific teams.

This is the same kind of criticism that was lobbed at The Huffington Post (s aol) in its early days, before AOL acquired the company for $315 million and made it the centerpiece of the former portal’s digital-content strategy, and the same charge that has been levelled against BuzzFeed (which was founded by some early HuffPo backers such as Jonah Peretti and Ken Lerer), and at former Wall Street analyst Henry Blodget’s Business Insider empire. All have been accused of “over aggregation” to drive pageviews, or juicing their numbers by making use of other people’s content, or thinly-disguised traffic boosters like slideshows.

But like some or all of those other outlets, Bleacher Report has made a concerted effort over the past year or so to bring the quality level of its content up to a higher standard: among other things, the network hired professional sportswriter King Kaufman, and invested a lot of time and energy in efforts such as Bleacher Report University, where young writers were coached in how to produce professional-level content.

The disruption of traditional media continues

BuzzFeed has also been moving to broaden its appeal from just funny cat photos or internet “memes” to covering significant political and cultural issues, with the hiring of staffers such as Ben Smith, formerly of the political news site Politico. And The Huffington Post has been bulking up — and arguably raising the quality level of its content — with writers and editors from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for some time now. Even one of the earliest sites to get the “content farm” label, Demand Media (s dmnd), has been trying hard over the past year to ensure that it has higher-quality content as opposed to just SEO-driven spam.

In part, these kinds of moves have probably been driven by Google’s crackdown on SEO gaming by content companies, which it has penalized with successive updates to its algorithms. But Demand and Huffington Post and others have also likely been forced to do so by the knowledge that the pageview-driven advertising game is an increasingly harsh mistress, since the value of that kind of content had been dropping steadily even before Google devalued it. With better-quality content, there is at least the potential to appeal to higher-value advertisers.

But more importantly, what Bleacher Report’s acquisition shows is that the model of user-generated content that it and others such as Forbes magazine and Vox and Seeking Alpha have pursued — in which non-professional writers emerge from a community and eventually become subject-matter experts for a specific market — can be an increasingly valuable alternative to the traditional media. Some smart media players like Time Warner will choose to take advantage of that evolution, and others will wind up being disrupted.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Armchair Aviator and Rosaura Ochoa