They’re called “wikis.” Craigslist, Huffington Post, Wikipedia. Web sites where the readers are also the contributors. Huffington Post is probably the closest to a traditional news outlet,
covering politics. More than 3,000 aspiring Keith Olbermanns write for HuffPost for free, in hopes that they will gain an audience that someday, somehow will make them money. Or perhaps they write strictly for the satisfaction of being read by someone, someday, somehow. Huffington actually pays somewhere around 60 folks, at last count, to try to keep order.
Bleacher Report, the most successful sports wiki, follows the same model. According to a June 2010 article in Ad Age, about 3,600 aspiring Erin Andrews (judging by the level of journalism) were writing for free on Bleacher Report. The BR folks rave about having thousands of contributors who cover hundreds of teams and resonate uniquely with readers. Translated, “Amateurs writing dubious crap that other amateurs consume like they were brownies.”
To their credit, it seems like the Web site is trying to get organized. BR’s founders brought in Brian Grey, former GM of FOX Sports and, before that, Yahoo! Sports. Side note: I find it cheesy that sports sites use the term “GM.” I picture the two hyper high school assembly kids on “The Family Guy” — “Hey, he talks like us!” “Yeah, I’m gonna listen to him!”
Grey brings strong credentials, particularly for his work at Yahoo! Sports, where he developed both a strong roster of sports writers and a popular fantasy league operation. Since Grey took over, BR announced $10.5 million in new investments, and syndication deals with legitimate news organizations. He also announced that the site will begin to pay some of its contributors, although the details still seem fuzzy. So maybe the site is ready to grow up, albeit from the Terrible Two’s to kindergarten.
So how has the site gotten to 20 million viewers each month? According to Mark Fidelman, who blogs on social media for businessinsider.com, it’s a combination of aggressive interactive social media and over-the-top fan reporting. The former creates more of a shared feel among sports fans; the latter sets it apart from ESPN and other sites that are trying to do it with a shred of respectability.
It’s a little late for the disclaimer that I am not a fan of Bleacher Report. You have to respect their success, but it doesn’t mean you have to respect their stuff. My distaste was intensified by those annoying e-mail updates. You know, you tell them that you cheer for Auburn, so your e-mail box ends up filled with “The Top 10/Bottom 10 Things Off the Top/Bottom of My Head.” You click through, read them, and realize that, at a cost of free, you paid too much. How can I get those 90 seconds back?
Side note #2: The news industry tried this a few years ago. It was called “push journalism.” You click on topics and the news organization would e-mail you every time an article on the topic was posted. Seems that readers pushed back without answering. It never took off.
Wikis are part of a trend toward “citizen journalism.” Local newspapers and television stations are getting their readers and viewers involved in the news gathering process, to varying degrees. That’s fine, when the citizen journalists are supervised by a professional editor. Otherwise, as in BR’s case, it degenerates into a misinformation spectacle that succeeds because it draws readers, not because it informs them.
Perhaps sports fans are a different bunch. They will read shallow, non-informative stuff from another fan who shares their allegiance. It seems like sports fans seek reinforcement as much as information. Tell me that Nick Saban is a DB, and I will read on, because I think so too, even if the article doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know.
Granted, Bleacher Report has broken a few stories, but it’s at the expense of everything else being thrown at the wall and not sticking. It creates a messy scene straight out of Hoarders.
At least Grey and company have taken steps to acknowledge the mess and begin to clean it up. But with this mess, keep that life counselor handy. There’s a lot to throw away in this long process toward respectability.
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