"Branch Rickey's Bojangles," Or Good Writing, Good Business, and B/R

Mordecai BrownerAnalyst IMay 11, 2009

Jackie Robinson was no noble pioneer.  Rather, he was complicit in the continual subordination of the African-American for white male profits, each day working the sun-drenched dust in a manner repulsively similar to his ancestors, their plows replaced with a glove and a Slugger as the hypocrite Branch Rickey sang along to "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball" and the ca-ching of windfall profits...

Sure gets attention, doesn't it?

It's really easy getting hits on the internet.  The potential of the above, if written with any intent of seriousness (or not, given the popular inability to read sarcasm), is virtually endless if a link were dropped in the right places or spread by the right information loci.

Of course, it's also categorically awful, undoubtedly disingenuous, and potentially dangerous.

But damn, it would get hits and comments, right?

It's tempting as a writer in the information age to publish digital trash, to go straight towards baseless criticism, sex, drugs, violence, vulgarity, gore, and—perhaps the biggest offense of all—writing with search engines, blogrolls, facebook, and message boards in mind.

It's tempting because that's where the instant gratification is, both in terms of internet advertising norms and raw page hits, where quantity indubitably signals quality.  Viva democracy, viva capitalism, and instant gratification and the average internet sports fan seem to go hand in, well, baseball bat.

But let me ask a simple question: when you take these angles, when the words you write are nothing more than conveyor belts of softcore pornography, hatred, and puerile humor, or if they're produced with search engine optimization in mind, are you really marketing yourself as a writer?

Or are you just a factory-built machine pumping out search-friendly terms and attractive themes for the internet crowd?

After all, the average prostitute is great at getting hits.  She's not so good at selling herself as a human being.

Good writing, ultimately, is about communication, and subjective in most cases.  Every great writer has a style of their own, a voice that sounds unique amidst a tidal wave of societal babble. 

Great writers can be imitated often, but never wholly duplicated.  It's not just our fiction greats like Hemingway and Faulkner, but also our common sports writers; say what you will about the man, but a Rick Reilly column is easy to pick from a lineup and a struggle to duplicate.

To be a great wordsmith, to rise above the Internet equivalent of Pauline Kael's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (say, Pat Forde or Gregg Doyel) one needs to communicate ideas and complex thoughts and emotions, a definitive point of view where the reader can see both a real human writer and the lively subject material at hand.

That's writing. 

It's what Ryan Alberti does on a weekly basis, mixing a liberal arts curriculum with consistent observations on humanity through the lens of a current hot topic in sports. 

It's what LJ Burgess does on occasion when his tolerance threshold has been breached, as seen in the splendid and passionate Joe Namath article he wrote awhile back.

It's what makes B/R's college football community a successful place, where we have multiple opinionated contributors who have developed themselves as passionate individuals whose output goes beyond "the Pac Ten sucks!" or Charlie Weis donut jokes. 

BabyTate, for example, infuses his presence with nostalgia and history for all us young whippersnappers who don't know about Pete Dawkins or the Bluebonnet Bowl.

It's what Jameson Fleming does from a more journalistic perspective for college basketball.  His work is rarely, if ever, emotional in any extreme, but a reader leaves his articles more objectively informed about college basketball while still being subjected to his rational opinions.

There are, of course, others on the site, but I point to these four because they all have built brand recognition and have gained regular readership.

They didn't do it with spamming bulletin boards.

They didn't do it with lurid pictures.

They did it by putting out a consistent, high-quality product under their own name.  It works in business.  It works in writing.

It's that simple (and that hard).

Another feature they all had was perseverance and patience.  In this age of instant gratification we all think we can be overnight stars, swept up by electrocurrents into the top echelon by nothing other than being ourselves. 

The populism of the Internet has put ego-centrism on crack, and rankings and top writer spots give the cocky start-up a target to attain in a brief amount of time.

"OMG I was totally like a top writer within two months, I'm sending my resume to ESPN!"

The problem is that building genuine brand name recognition takes time, even for the best writers.  Kurt Vonnegut took over a decade to build a devoted audience worth keeping.  Grabbing a bullhorn and telling people you're a good writer is no substitute, nor will it speed up the process.

In business, repeat customers are infinitely valuable and preferable over short-term gains.  If a hundred people read your articles and walk away remembering who you are, it trumps a thousand people reading your articles and having no clue who wrote it.

This is because remembrance is the key to building brand name recognition and essential to long term success.  A month later, the "writer" who relies on stupid humor and breast shots is no more than just another witless idiot passing along stupid humor and breast shots. 

The "writer" who structures their craft around SEO is nothing more than another blip on the landscape writing faceless articles for the machine. 

The writer who publishes thoughtful, opinionated prose is slowly building a readership, a customer base if you will.

How does the difference between high-quality writing that can build brand recognition and cheap shot articles that generate instant advertising hits apply to Bleacher Report?

It's simple.  Bleacher Report must promote the former and discourage the latter.

B/R can never compete with other sites on the internet for the "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang."  Its (proper and necessary) user guidelines preclude it from ever being a long-term competitor with the lurid and the vulgar.  Solely because of what it is, it can never compete with blogs and specialized message boards for mediocre humor or gimmicky writing.

B/R can be the go-to leader for sports writing and analysis.  Because of the democratizing structure of the internet, B/R can be a legitimate competitor in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, featuring sloppy writing because it garners thousands of instant hits gets in the way of that goal.  Bleacher Report does well in managing its own brand name with its sophisticated editing system, but it could do a better job in managing its front page to appear more attractive to new readers.

Above all else, the B/R community collectively needs to realize that hits are no indicator of quality or long-term value to the site or to the writer.  Some of my own best articles are still under 500 hits.  A few of my worst, including my AOTD pick, are well into the thousands.

That's the nature of the beast and it's a beast B/R needs to contain rather than roam free.

I have little commentary on rankings, AOTD, POTD, top writers, etc. because these are all things that can be corrupted by puerile trash.  Whether writing can be long-term brand recognition outside of the "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is a decision best settled outside of raw numbers, machines, and algorithms. 

As Potter Stewart said of pornography, "I know it when I see it."  We need actual human editors to mark articles that may damage B/R's image as a great place for sports writing, articles that would drive away more prudent or educated readers (a gigantic segment of the population, even for a sports site).

This site's growth to date has been fueled by a passion for sports.  It cannot promote dispassionate trash articles merely for short-term hits.

If you're a writer who wants to pen serious sports journalism but feel like hits give you motivation to go forward, that's okay.  Look up what teams are popular on B/R (Kentucky, Man Utd, Oakland Raiders, etc.) and write about them. Market your work in rational places and, above all else, put quality into your prose.

If you just want to ogle at half-naked women, why do it on a sports site?  This is the internet for goodness sakes.

If you want to quickly write mediocre, bland articles and spam your way to a superficial number one, understand that it will be short-lived, that your confidence will be over-inflated, and if you leave the site no one will know who you are because your "articles" were nothing more than dots being spit out by an android.

Because in the end, that is what it boils down to.

If you write crap, you're replaceable with a hundred thousand interchangeable parts with crappy minds, nothing more than an appliance generating advertising revenue, usually for someone else, and your own name and identity become lost in the sea of the hundred thousand drones all tap-dancing like Bojangles for his movie bosses and drowning in an endless stream of boobs, photoshopped jpgs, lame puns, and hot topics.

Bleacher Report's user base was built on not being a cookie-cutter website.  For it to achieve the maximum possible long-term success, it must be overly aggressive in preventing its image from blurring with the rest of the juvenile, cheap, instantly-gratified sports internet, even if it means risking a hundred thousand hits.