Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel and the Media's Race to the Bottom

OBR Founder Barry McBride on the Manziel story and the media's race for the bottom

Johnny Manziel and his girlfriend had an argument last week and the police checked it out since Manziel was pulled over to the side of the road. Manziel admitted that he had had a couple of drinks earlier, despite being sober at the time.

Manziel, according to every report we’ve seen, drives like a complete and utter maniac. The type of guy who is a menace on the highway.

Perhaps you have heard about it?

The incident has not bypassed the attention of the local media, currently stirred up in a lather of public outrage, anonymous sources, and completely uneducated medical advice.

The Browns, meanwhile, are handling the issue calmly, outwardly supportive but stern, and waiting for the police and league reports to be finished before taking action.

But they’re in a business with guaranteed TV profits, a de facto sports monopoly with only tangential competition.

The media, however, is in an entirely different world. The media has to scratch madly just to survive.

The math is pretty simple. Banner ads on the internet turn maybe $0.25 per thousand page views, meaning you have to get a lot of people clicking to make back enough money, especially on sites with highly-paid staff, to break even. It’s one of the reasons we stick to our premium model here on the OBR, even though we would all be happier if we could have all our content available for free. We choose to remain smaller rather than grow at the expense of being able to hew close to the facts.

There’s not a lot of business models that work. You can have cheap (basically free) bloggers who repeat news others have gathered and keep costs low. Or you can have well-paid staff and churn a LOT of page views. Or be willing to lose money. Or go premium. There’s not a lot of options.

For ad-supported organizations a story like Manziel’s is a chance to drive page (i.e., ad) views to off-set months of lower traffic coming in the Fall as the Browns head again into irrelevance. It’s now or never. You have to take full advantage of this sort of situation.

Everyone is feeling the pressure. Problem is, everyone has the same information. There’s no exclusives (beyond NewsNet5 obtaining the police dash cam video), and just about every site is able to throw up the news pretty quickly these days, so you don’t have a time advantage. Some sites have built-in traffic advantages, either through being well-known or through better search engine optimization, but that’s about it.

In this environment, it’s tough to get attention for your own content. It’s hard to stand out if you stick to the well-known facts.

So, we see dubiously sourced stories saying that Manziel is on the trading block, coming mostly from sports radio hosts with poor records of accuracy, but strong records of attention-seeking. We see stern proclamations, especially from the national media, for the team to cut ties with Manziel or declarations that he’s a lost cause.

The trick here is to plant a flag in the ground. The more extreme the opinion, the more likely it is to get attention. Being reasoned in this sort of feeding frenzy is a luxury for just a few.

There’s little additional information work from. So, you see an eyewitness report on Manziel driving on his way home from Berea. Or you see uneducated public medical proclamations about whether or not Manziel should return to rehab…. without knowing why he went to rehab in the first place.

The news event has brought out the worst in the media, both locally and nationally, as individuals and organizations throw elbows in the media scrum to try to get the most attention (and money) in their direction.

It’s a product of the declining print market and the over-saturation of NFL coverage. Here, it’s made worse since there’s little to differentiate the media and bloggers in a situation where everyone has the same information.

One can understand this intellectually and still be aghast as the swirling media tries to clamber to the top of page view mountain. It’s a race to bottom where we all lose.

Barry McBride is the founder of the OBR. You can follow him on Twitter @BarryMcBride and reach him via email at

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