Content farms and the ongoing democratization of journalism

If you follow online sports at all, you’ve probably come across at least one site or story from Bleacher Report, the massive sports-writing network that was recently acquired by Turner Broadcasting for an estimated $200 million. Much of the content that draws the 10 million unique visitors BR gets every month is generated by an army of about 6,000 non-professional (and in many cases unpaid) writers, and this has led to criticism that the network is a “content farm” that fills the internet with low-quality writing. But is that true? In a sense, it is — but it’s also a very real example of how the internet has lowered the barriers to entry and democratized journalism.

The latest attack on Bleacher Report came last week in a long SF Weekly article, which said that the network “floods the web with inexpensive user-generated content” and is “a long way from any quaint notions of journalism.” The story includes a number of examples of what it says is the kind of sloppy writing that comes from BR’s volunteer contributors, and the author criticizes the network for focusing on cheap SEO (search engine optimization) tactics, such as “reverse-engineering content to fit a pre-written headline” that is stuffed with popular keywords in order to attract clicks.

Unpaid writers “competing for virtual crumbs?”

The SF Weekly piece also spends a lot of time talking about how a majority of Bleacher Report’s traffic is driven by unpaid writers — like the 19-year-old who admits to author Joe Eskenazi that even he doesn’t really buy the headline on his post. The obvious implication is that the network is nothing but a content farm filled with day laborers who churn out posts to fill a quota, and are encouraged by the “virtual badges” they earn for posts rather than an actual salary. As the piece describes it: “Unable to earn actual crumbs, they compete for virtual crumbs.”

Ryan Chittum at the Columbia Journalism Review characterizes the network in much the same way in a post based on the SF Weekly piece, saying Bleacher Report is engaged in a “race to the bottom.” As he puts it:

“Bleacher Report is a sort of Demand Media of sports, a content farm engineered to get search engine visits with lowest common denominator clickbait.”

These criticisms about Bleacher Report aren’t really a surprise — after all, they have been made about virtually every other digital-media entity from Demand Media and The Huffington Post to BuzzFeed: the idea that user-generated content is just a sop to readers in an attempt to bolster SEO-driven metrics, and that it is an endless rush towards the bottom with little or nothing of actual value to add to either media or journalism.

And as the SF Weekly story notes, even Bleacher Report insiders to some extent acknowledged this: the magazine quotes from a speech given by King Kaufman, who was hired last year by the network to upgrade its editorial standards, in which he says that BR had gotten a reputation for “lowest-common-denominator crap.” Of course, the article also fails to mention that Kaufman and his team have spent a considerable amount of effort on boosting the quality of the network, to the point where it is actually more stringent about things such as plagiarism than mainstream outlets like ESPN.

An alternate route to a career in writing

Not only after the SF Weekly article appeared, someone else added an interesting — and I think important — perspective to the picture: Matt Miller, a senior writer for Bleacher Report’s NFL unit, described how he went from being a would-be sports writer with no experience to a member of the senior team at the network, based solely on his contributions to the site. As he put it:

“Fast-forward to today. I’m no longer in marketing, I now work full-time for Bleacher Report as an NFL Lead Writer. I have benefits and vacation time. I have a salary. I have these things because I was able to work my way to the top at B/R. I wasn’t handed a job based on my résumé.”

This is part of the problem with the traditional media response to “content farms” or user-generated media sites like Huffington Post and Bleacher Report — the sense that they can’t possibly be as worthwhile as a regular content operation because people are writing for free, and therefore the only possible value has to be the creation of low-quality content for cheap traffic purposes. But what about the writers? Why do they do it? And isn’t there value there as well?

Miller’s account makes it clear that there is value: unlike the old days of traditional media, where writers had to toil for years in dead-end jobs with newspapers or magazines or trade publications before some of them could be “discovered” and elevated to the higher ranks of the profession, sites and networks like Bleacher Report, Huffington Post and BuzzFeed give anyone the ability to rise to whatever level their writing ability justifies.

Is the content produced by places like Bleacher Report the equivalent of a mainstream outlet like ESPN or the New Yorker? In most cases, no — but does that mean it is of no value? Of course not. Readers seem to like it, and who are we to say they are wrong? Not only that, but Miller makes the point that he and many other writers see a lot of value in what they have done, even if that value isn’t recognized by members of the mainstream media, because it allows them to bypass the traditional barriers that used to encircle journalism. And isn’t that ultimately a good thing?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users D. Miller and Yan-Arief Purwanto