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Waiting for the day readers march in and demand an end to the dreck

Usually, I am put off my feed by really bad sportswriting, of which I have kicked in my fair share. But the other day I came across a Bleacher Report story so terrible from conception to publication that it made me a happy guy.

Bleacher Report, which recently accepted $10.5 million in venture capital, now claims to be the Internet's fourth largest sports site with 20 million readers a month – behind AOL FanHouse, to drop a name, and ahead of the laggards Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports. Bleacher Report calls itself "a national network driven entirely by passionate fans." Print Age dinosaurs recognize that as code meaning that BR publishes "news" "stories" "reported" by fans, some of whom can almost type. It's a content farm whose plowmen fly the fanboy flag, "All The News Fit to Steal."

The truly terrible, happy-making story was committed by TJ Corbs, who typed this thumbnail of himself: "Been watching sports in the Norheast (sic) Corridor and reading interweb newsgroups for many years. I just want to present my opinion without clogging up any newsgroups." Corbs's "story" grew from a teevee anchor idjit's tweet of a Syracuse University basketball point-shaving rumor posted on a poker site's message board. (I'll wait while you re-read that last sentence.) Now that story has been taken off the site. Also, word is that TJ has been relieved of his farming implements. Even the poker-table gossipmonger has apologized for a post that he believed was, y'know, just trashtalk among reprobates.

This dreck makes me happy because, some wonderful day, readers will notice. They will notice what's terrible and what's terrific, yes, by damn, they will. The more of the terrible they see, the sooner they'll look for the terrific. And on some handsome day in the Digital Age, they'll march into the town square demanding the terrific.

Quality matters, and I say so despite this latest piece of dispiriting evidence to the contrary: AOL has walked away from FanHouse. Even as BR's syntactical train wrecks prosper, AOL FanHouse vanishes. Goodgawdamighty, there's TJ Corbs and here's FanHouse's man: "Greg Couch is a national columnist for FanHouse. Previously, he was at the Chicago Sun-Times as a sports columnist, takeout writer and beat reporter. He also was a sports columnist at the Akron Beacon-Journal and a sports writer at the Wichita Eagle. He received the 2007 and 2008 Lisagor Award as Best Sports Columnist in Chicago and surrounding areas, was featured in the Best American Sports Writing and is an APSE award winner."

Corbs or Couch, Couch or Corbs? Corbs reporting poker-table slander, or Couch reporting the Australian Open from Melbourne? Duh. Yet a venture capitalist drops eight figures on BR while AOL sells FanHouse for chump change, $5 million. BR survives on the journalistic burglary of amateur typists while AOL ships out veteran editors and reporters. These developments could cause a romantic fool long in love with journalism to wonder if he ought to have lavished his affection on a more deserving subject, perhaps Mustang spinner hubs. I asked a friend, What's It All Mean?

"I'm convinced this whole thing goes in the box of ‘No One Knows Anything,'" she said. "FanHouse killed itself with the goofy name and the idea that people would wade through AOL to find it. Great writers, terrible presence." As for the new tenant operating the FanHouse franchise at the same site – the $5 million came from Sporting News – my friend asked tartly: "Does anyone under 30 recognize Sporting News?" Finally, she said, "So I don't think it Means anything. Just another media deal moving Monopoly money and pieces around the board. You wanna be the dog or the hat?"

I put the what's-it-all-mean question to the AOL FanHouse editor-in-chief, Scott Ridge. His answer was different only in its brevity and melancholy. "A pure business deal," he said. It was the kind of deal made by a company desperate to reverse the momentum of a decade-long slide toward irrelevance in its industry. To its credit, AOL gave Ridge and his team of 70 journalists the considerable resources necessary to do good work.. "In our first year, we'd created a real news organization out of what had been nothing but a quirky blog," he said. I enjoyed FanHouse's columnists, Couch, Lisa Olson, David Whitley. I saw beat reporters produce breaking news. Ridge offered another measure of success. "At the start, 90, 95 percent of FanHouse traffic came through AOL," he said. "But in a year, that was down to 50 percent. People were seeking us out on their own. That's winning one reader at a time."

The unspoken bonus for AOL brass was that FanHouse's work made the site attractive to a buyer. Without advance notice to Ridge, the brass decided at year's end to dump the site. Doing that, it could cut costs and pick up loose change along the way. A pure business deal: AOL wanted out and Sporting News believed it could make money.

"In December," Lisa Olson said, "we were told how great we were doing." Once a columnist at the New York Daily News, Olson remembered The National strutting on stage in 1990, a national sports newspaper hiring good people from everywhere. She thought of FanHouse that way, a gathering of veterans on a journalistic adventure. "We were all experienced and qualified, not some 25-year-old bloggers," she said. "The motto was, ‘Go, go, go. Grow, grow, grow.' And we did. Then, this. It's devastating."

A FanHouse senior editor, Mike Harris, said, "We had no idea this was coming." Two days before Christmas, he met with Ridge in New York, "making plans for the next year." Harris, too, gives voice to pain. "Quality doesn't seem that important."

He doesn't believe that. No old-line, ink-stained editor believes that. Mike Harris certainly doesn't believe those words born of the melancholy that journalists feel when the business changes under them. I wrote for The National through its 16 months of life and I wrote every week for Sporting News from 1991 through 2006 – until the businesses changed. We both know that quality matters, just as Lisa Olson knows it. "The Sporting News people have said their aim is to make FanHouse a better site than ever," she said. "If they do that, I'll love it."

Oh, one more thing about Bleacher Report . . .

I saw this from King Kaufman today.

Good luck with that.
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