Between the Reagan and Obama administrations, Joe Yanarella carved out a ham-and-egger journalism career with print publications like the Hudson Valley News in upstate New York and Wizard magazine. Then, in 2009, as the U.S. economy was trying to get out of reverse, he took over as editor in chief of Bleacher Report, a woebegone digital pub filled with aggregated sports content.
If this sounds like a story of a baby boomer struggling in a world of digital natives, it is actually the complete opposite. Over the last six years, Yanarella reinvented himself and Bleacher Report, which today has ESPN and Sports Illustrated not only looking over their shoulders but in many cases trying to catch up with an editorial machine that's laser-focused on social and mobile.
"We've gone from wanting to have 100 articles going up on the platform to a much different strategy," says Yanarella, Adweek's Digital Editor of the Year. (Bleacher Report is also Hottest Digital Sports Publication in our annual Hot List.) "Now we are focused on determining what our 10 to 15 best pieces of content are and finding the ways for them to best play on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and mobile."
Bleacher Report, which was acquired by Turner Sports in 2012 for a reported $200 million, has generated staggering stats under Yanarella's watch.
Videos snagged 82 million views across all social platforms in September, a 560 percent jump over 2014. According to CrowdTangle, the site ranked No. 1 for social shares in the U.S. in October, scoring nearly 28 million likes and shares and handily beating ESPN's 17 million.
According to comScore, Bleacher Report averaged 37 million readers per month from February to September of this year, up 68 percent over the last two years. Three-fourths of the San Francisco-based company's audience now comes via mobile devices, and its 3-year-old app, Team Stream, has grown to around 10 million users. With results like these, Bleacher Report has had a relatively easy time attracting sports-minded brands like MillerCoors, Sony, Ford, Dove Men+Care and Activision.
Bob Dorfman, sports marketing analyst and creative director at San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising, believes that Bleacher Report is "well-positioned to become an even more valuable player in the digital sports world."
"Joe has this really unusual mix of traditional editorial savvy and a hunger for where digital is going next," adds Rory Brown, Bleacher Report's chief content officer. "He's really good at bridging the best of both worlds."
Yanarella pushes his team to develop buzzy content for the fan who's on his or her Twitter feed while watching the game. When Georgia State coach Ron Hunter fell off his chair after his son scored a game-winning basket during this past March Madness, in minutes Bleacher Report tweeted out a meme referencing Life Alert's famous tagline, "I've fallen and I can't get up!"—earning a combined 12,000 retweets and favorites.
"Journalism has been forced to keep up with sites like Bleacher Report," says Jason Sullivan, evp and managing director at Publicis Seattle. "It has the urgency of Twitter, the ability to use localization to follow your favorite team and a constantly improving level of quality and legitimacy to keep fans tuned in during the sports world's biggest moments."
Not long ago, B/R was hardly on the radar of ad agencies or sports fans. Prior to Yanarella's arrival, it was a place where unpaid bloggers got an ego boost with a byline—and nothing else; none of its contributors was paid. Yanarella recalls that his bosses "wanted to build Bleacher Report into one of the largest sports sites in the U.S. My response: with an entire volunteer-writer base?"
Essentially modeling itself as a kind of Huffington Post for sports (and with virtually zero budget), Yanarella built a program called Featured Columnists that identified and promoted volunteer writers who proved their mettle. B/R was also one of the first digital publishers to create major traffic with slide shows. "A lot of traditional outlets criticized our use of slide shows—most of which heavily incorporate them today," he recalls.
Better content led to bigger audience numbers, enabling Yanarella to land some serious talent. The first big fish he reeled in, in 2012, was CBS Sports NFL analyst Mike Freeman. Yanarella then hired Howard Beck from The New York Times to cover the NBA; Lars Anderson from SI to write long-form features; and Jason Cole, longtime NFL writer at Yahoo, to attract football maniacs.
Yanarella has built a writing staff of 300—all of them paid. He is also involved in growing B/R's native-ad business and social-monetization strategy. And last month, he launched a London bureau whose centerpiece is a video production studio that will support partnerships like the one B/R struck with Snapchat earlier this year.
For all his success, Yanarella knows he's a veteran in a youth-obsessed game. "When I was younger, all the fabulous editors were older—now all the fabulous editors are younger," he muses. But when you deliver results, age is just another stat.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Check out the rest of this year's Hot List honorees:
- Media Visionary: Roger Ailes
- Hottest Magazines of 2015
- Magazine Executive of the Year: Troy Young
- Magazine Editor of the Year: Graydon Carter
- Hottest TV Shows and Networks of 2015
- TV Executive of the Year: Bonnie Hammer
- TV Producer of the Year: Greg Berlanti
- Hottest Digital Brands of 2015
- Digital Executive of the Year: Evan Spiegel