On Bleacher Report, Writing for Free, and the Life of a Writer Trying to “Make It”

Deadspin published a guest article today from a former Bleacher Report intern and writer, naming many of the company’s flaws as it pertained to his quest to become a professional sports journalist.

There is some vulgar language included (It’s Deadspin, after all), but if you’d like to read the article, you can do so here.

One of the main issues the author brings up is his incredible amount of effort he put into doing all of the things that Bleacher Report asked him to do, and getting paid next to nothing to do it. There are other stories and things mentioned, including referencing the writers B/R hired during the past few years, but the overall scheme of this article, and many complaints against B/R, is the unpaid model which has helped drive the website to the top of the sports media food chain.

The idea of writing for free doesn’t make sense to a lot of people, especially not those who have been classically trained in journalism and moved from internships to freelancing to beat writer or magazine editor roles. But in a world where many do enjoy writing for free, and producing halfway decent content as unpaid contributors, being a “volunteer” writer is often the only way to start.

Before I go any further, I offer this confession. I like to pretend like I know what I’m talking about when I write things. When I write about football, I write with a sense of authority, because I am confident that what I write is accurate and defensible.

I have no idea how to make it as a writer. I can’t claim that same level of expertise on this particular topic.

With that said, I do know from my limited experience that writing for free can be extremely rewarding, but it’s obviously not for everyone, and not a long-term solution.

My writing “career” began by starting my own blog, on WordPress, and posting every now and then. It was awful, awful stuff. I’m embarrassed to go back and read it today. But it was how I got my start.

Because that blog was enough to attract the attention of Josh Hill of the Pewter Plank, who quickly snatched me up as a staff writer for the site in December of 2012. I became co-editor shortly after that, and eventually editor once Josh moved on to a different role.

That means I spent about five months as a writer, and one month as a “syndicated” writer, without getting paid. My story is not the norm. My path is not like the path of many. I was very fortunate to be in a good situation, and I took full advantage of it.

I left the temporary job I was working at to focus on my writing full-time, and helped grow The Pewter Plank to record heights during my time in charge. But again, this sort of situation isn’t for everyone.

I was making in a month what I would make in four days at my nine-to-five job, and were it not for a unique set of circumstances, I couldn’t have lived off of my writing profits alone.

I began writing for free for numberFire, as well, after reaching out to editor JJ Zachariason. And similar to my previous writing experience, despite being free, it has been rewarding as a learning experience, an increased opportunity for exposure, and as an example of “free writing as networking.”

But again, my situation is unique. What makes B/R what it is today is a ridiculous amount of content churned out by a variety of different types of writers. The original article I linked to describes the situation for some, but not for all.

Because I also wrote for Bleacher Report, and my experience was nothing like the one described. Was I asked to write slideshows? Yeah, of course. But I also learned, and grew as a writer, and admittedly, got paid.

I worked with B/R under two different circumstances. The first was as a member of their Sports Media Program, which is a certificate program to teach the B/R basics and funnel students into the system and get them involved at B/R. The program never claimed to launch me to star writer status, but it did promise to pass along information to improve my writing skills and give me a chance to write for B/R in the future. And it did just that.

Shortly after starting the program, I was approached to write about the Buccaneers for B/R for the 2013 NFL Season. I accepted, and had specific terms laid out for me as to what I would write, and what I would receive in return.

In both cases, there were never goals or plans to become Matt Miller 2.0 or become a career writer for the company. I was simply taking the opportunities presented to me, and doing my best to improve as a writer and make a name for myself.

And the things I learned at B/R influence my writing to this day. My time as a writer there ended, and I was a better writer than I was at the start.

But like the author of the Deadspin article, I didn’t get where I wanted to be thanks to B/R. Because B/R is a for-profit business which has decided to focus their finances elsewhere. What began as a site full of unpaid writers raking in pageviews is now a reputable source of analysis and information Just like ESPN. Just like Yahoo.

Matt Miller being the “only” “homegrown” writer of prominence at B/R isn’t a sign that the company is betraying its unpaid underlings. It’s a credit to Miller that a serious sports writing outlet would pay him enough to make a living based off of largely amateur work performed prior to his time with the company.

B/R is under no obligation to hire someone they don’t see as a profitable producer of content. Especially not when they can pay much less (or nothing) for a gaggle of other writers producing similar levels of content every day.

Does it suck for young writers trying to make it in the business that B/R isn’t using their vast “minor leagues” to promote to big-time positions? Yeah, it does. But it also sucks that I follow dozens of very talented writers on Twitter who get paid next to nothing by smaller sports sites to create incredible content that’s getting them nowhere in the grand scheme of sports media.

I don’t claim to have all the answers. I wish I knew a better way for the sports media world to work. But it’s certainly not Bleacher Report’s fault that any one person didn’t get hired for a job or hasn’t found the success they deserve.

I can only blame myself for not having a full-time writing job. And I can only keep writing to try to change that. And if that means cranking out “listicles” for Bleacher Report, then so be it.

Because working under new editors, learning new best practices, and getting new input on your work is the only way to truly grow as a writer. Read, write, and listen to your audience. Take every opportunity you can get, and accept every criticism as a chance to do better.

Thanks to Josh, JJ, and Sander for giving me a chance, and giving feedback on my work. I appreciate it, and even if I never turn this into a career, I am grateful that you took the time to give me a platform and provide me with feedback.


40 thoughts on “On Bleacher Report, Writing for Free, and the Life of a Writer Trying to “Make It”

  1. If I had gone to school for journalism, I would probably be upset. The nature of society’s quest to get info as soon as possible has opened up a branch of journalism that is volunteered based. And depending on who is writing it can be hit or miss. Love the balance you bring to the argument here. I always wondered a bit about sites like B/R. I have the app and read the content. Interesting to see how the sausage is made.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A great read! This line in your entry is inspiring, ‘Take every opportunity you can get, and accept every criticism as a chance to do better’. Thanks for sharing. I’ve decided to go back and write again (more feature writing) after a decade of hiatus. I’m looking forward to what my future holds.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, this was definitely an interesting read. Especially since I am just now starting to make a profit from my writing. The competition is enormous and yet it is some kind of literary rat race I still want to participate in. Getting a good solid portfolio together means biting the bullet in most peoples case. Not everyone is as lucky as others. Some have jobs handed to them, then there are those like me who offer pro-Bono work just to get that big name into my portfolio. You have to keep an open mind and a steady level of confidence to succeed in this world. This article hits the nail right on the head. As a result of the endless battle to build a portfolio, I actually just set up an open blog for writers to have their work published. A way to add to their portfolios without the hassle of hoping to get hired. Thank you for this article, it is informative and sheds true light on the life of a writer rather than the story book facade that writing is a rich and famous life style.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for this very interesting post. I am not a writer ( other than leisure one) , my fiance is and we frequently discuss about volunteering for writing. My personal impression is that if you want a professional career you should not write for free nowadays. You might be noticed indeed but most probably asked again to write for free, on the grounds that it would give you more exposure . The lucky chances some people have got in the past are less and less frequent today.
    On a slightly different example we have just found out people volunterring to fill content for tripadvisor : tripadvisor is a company for 12 billions US$ , it is not a noble visionary small company, it seems kind of unadvised to volunteer for them.
    Sorry if i strayed away from your initial subject , but this is a very tempting topic to discuss.
    Thanks again for the beautifully written post.


  5. Thank you for the post! This is inspiring. I’ve been working for the longest time to get my popular science magazine up and this has been very inspiring to me. KEEP WRITING!!!
    With best Wishes


  6. Nice post! Keep up the writing , whether is paid or unpaid! writing is a love. a love that lives inside , no matter what the world shows you , write what is in your heart . And the most amazing thing is that you will be satisfied.
    I encourage you today , you are amazing writer even i read this post i couldn’t exit the page i wanted to know what happened to your writing career!
    Writing is a story! Story of your life.
    Dariush Youkhaneh
    I will be so happy to see you all there!


  7. I am in the publishing industry and I understand your pain. I’m in the education guide market trying to break into trade publishing and it is difficult. For the most part, I also write my blog to showcase my reading but I don’t get advance copies so I can only review books I buy myself or borrow from the library. I too got my start by volunteering. The thing is you can’t volunteer in trade publishing if you have completed your tertiary education already. It’s a stupid system with doors constantly closing on you the more educated and professional you become.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. My older sister went to university for journalism and is in a career now that doesn’t use 20% of what she learned there. She’s told me on more than one occasion that, although she loved the journalism program she was in, she loved media/advertising a whole lot more.
    Personally, I write short stories and a poem here and there that will most likely become short stories in the future (it’s how I plan my ideas with some detail without forgetting them completely when I look back on them later). I have had a few of my poems published but never one of my short stories and never for money. I would rather be getting paid for my work, but I do hold a retail job that covers the bills for now so I can enjoy writing because I love to. I also have a blog on WordPress (my starting point as well) where I do hope to gather a following, if only a small one, learn and meet others who write the same and differently than myself.
    Writing doesn’t have over night, a career in writing can take a lifetime. I still remember the numerous university professors that I had when attending the University of Guelph say, “If you want to be a writer, do not quit your day job!”
    The experience is different for everyone, we just need to embrace and utilize the best we can what is thrown our way.


    • Your professors gave sound advice about writing. I think it must be the same for every journalism college…the professors say the same thing. I also liked what you said about it taking a lifetime. If you’re passionate about it, stick with it. It will come with time.


  9. I never liked so many comments!
    This is my favourite article so far. I think It’s an honour when people want to read more of what you write. I’m very new to WordPress, having made my first post on the 3rd of July and am over the moon that people are interested to hear more of my creative exploits.

    Being appreciated for writing I think is different to getting praise for other things. Saying that I’ve got a lot to learn.
    Can’t wait to hear more.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. You wrote a great article. I’m one of those “classically trained” journalists, though I took my career in a different path to persue marketing and web design. My cousin is currently in school to follow my path, and she’s doing a lot of writing, for free, trying to make a name for herself. I didn’t have a difficult time breaking into paying gigs, but I know it can be difficult. Writing is a hard market to break into. I know it can seem unrewarding at times, but I’m one of those optimists that believes if you hustle hard enough for it, it’ll happen for you. Thanks for sharing.
    Co-owner of Nexus Development & Consulting


  11. Writing is work. Period. There’s research, proofreading and the actual writing. I roll my eyes when I see Craigslist ads where they want to pay writers nothing at all or very, very little. Unreal. You wouldn’t expect a mechanic or dentist to do free work, would you?

    Writing these days is more complex and requires more training. It isn’t just about forming words in a thoughtful and intelligent way. Online writing work now requires a writer to know SEO and how to communicate effectively on different social media platforms.

    I can understand that someone may want to write for free and get some exposure, but it’s only fair for a writer to expect a decent rate for his/her work.

    The good thing about being a writer now is that there are so many options for publication online and offline. Content writing is an ever-growing field,, which is good news for us writers.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! Have fun.


  12. It’s funny, in my opinion it’s the best writing (literary mags) and the poorest writing (content mills) that get paid nada, while the larger commercial outlets in the middle are the only ones that still pay.
    Ah well, it’s a silly way to make a living, I always said so! But hey, you get to write!


  13. I spent all of high school thinking I would go into college and major in journalism, so I did the school newspaper thing and wrote blurbs on high school football games for a community newspaper. I got cold feet about my future, though, and ended up in engineering, taking a break from writing in the process… but I guess the writing bug never fully goes away, since I now just write for my own amusement on WordPress.

    Anyway, that hiatus and return to writing taught me just how difficult it is, and I wish the general public understood that. Like what Eagle-Eyed Editor said, research, proofreading, and writing. There are so many ways to craft a sentence; it gets frustrating, but it’s rewarding when the right words are finally found. I hope it gets better for all of you who have stuck through it all to make writing your full-time career. The perseverance is admirable.


  14. i like when you said “One of the main issues the author brings up is his incredible amount of effort ” . writing is a life . when we know how to tell our story to others by writing than we will be never ever out of it.
    love to hear your story why dont you come to my blog and lets talk :
    everyone is welcome 🙂


  15. Whoa, wait…what??
    “Because that blog was enough to attract the attention of Josh Hill of the Pewter Plank, who quickly snatched me up as a staff writer”

    What does that mean? Was he reading your blog or did you pitch your writing to him? How large was your readership at the time to ‘attract the attention’? Didn’t Josh Hill have more important things to do than trawl the internet looking for novice bloggers?

    And snatched you from where? Did you have to leave a job to join Pewter Plank? Did you give notice, change locations? Work two jobs?

    How does this work?


    • I pitched it to him. And it was a part-time thing I did on the side, wasn’t a full-time thing at all. I’ve never been paid anything resembling a full-time salary at writing, which is why I admit I don’t really have the answers on how to make it just yet.

      My position at The Pewter Plank began unpaid, and it wasn’t until I replaced Josh as editor that I received any money at all. Prior to that, my time at The Pewter Plank and on my own blog were unpaid.

      Because you’re right, very, very few editors are browsing the web to find writers. There has to be a pitch. The network that I was writing for, that The Pewter Plank is a part of, accepts new writers all the time, but all from applications.


  16. I think most businesses, especially creatively inclined, are like this now. It’s very hard to break in anywhere unless you know someone important. Bleacher Report seems to have a lot of very reputable writers yet their content doesn’t come across that way. Probably for job security purposes, no one successful really ever looks for a “diamond in the rough” to become the next big thing. The only industry this happens is with college scholarships (mostly for athletes) where they know they will get donations in the future or profit in some other way off the kids. Now I’m just making myself angry. Great piece!


  17. This is so spot on! 98% of what I write is unpaid, but I live for it. That’s how you know you were born for this. Sure, I’d KILL to get paid for my hard work, and I’ve been looking endlessly for quite some time now, but I’ll never give up.


  18. This is fabulous. As a blogger aspirant, this is inspiring because it shows the brighter side of things and realistically states not to expect a smooth ride all along.

    Thanks for the content. Let’s hope I manage to take the true juice out of it and implement it in my “career”. 🙂


  19. Interesting read. Having been paid as a copy writer, I’m now retooling a bit and wondering about getting more serious in the blogosphere. Can I convert to paid content? I dunno…probably not. Most bloggers don’t. Don’t think I could give it up, regardless.


  20. Thank you for this. I can relate. I have such a burning desire to write and I probably would do “volunteer” gigs to get a bit of experience. It’s a tough go! You have inspired me to push through and persevere 🙂


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