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Aspiring Spikeball Pro Laura Wagner Is Leaving Us

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 5: Caedmon Dunbar (red shirt) plays the ball during a game of Spike Ball in High Park. Josh DeGrott (blue shirt) waits to react to the hit as Robbie Dunbar (left) and Naomi DeGrott keep an eye on play. Feature pictures from around Toronto. COVID-19. CORONAPD Toronto Star/Rick Madonik
Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Today marks the final day of Laura Wagner's time at Defector, as she leaves us for some D.C.-based daily. She was responsible for some unforgettable blogs on media, free speech, community, and a burger bag. This is the last she will hear from us until we all meet again—in hell.

Ray Ratto

There was a message from Laura Wagner on the Needless Intrusion Machine saying, "Hey, call me. I have some news, and it's not bad."

It was a lie, of course, as those greetings always are. It was bad news, just not bad news for her. She had been offered a job offending media swine from across the nation on behalf of mercantile planet-eater Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post, and she would no longer use her elven charms and frantic typing fingers in the service of everyone's favorite Gallic website, There would be more money, more visibility, more Wags sticking knitting needles in the eyes of the pompous, mendacious, and stridently untalented.

She was doing that here for less money, less visibility, but the freedom to take even Bezos out for a well-deserved groining when he had it coming—which, let's be fair, is often enough. And while it is now pointless to try and coax her back with even less money and near-invisibility, we can give her her first assignment at the new sweatshop, namely: "Jeff Bezos: The Zenith Of Evil, Or Just Evil's Base Camp?"

We're not trying to pick a fight with Bezos here, but fair's fair. He lured Wagner away with a golden opportunity in journalism terms, and must therefore be punished for his good taste. And the best weapon we know to take down the insatiable gorgon is the redoubtable Wags. She enjoys a good scrap, she is a dogged reporter, she knows the difference between news and fluff, and if the provocation is sufficient enough, she can pretty well pants anyone.

Well, here's the opportunity for the Post to prove it has impeccable taste in hiring, and that's to send her out after Doctor Amazon himself. You want big game, you get a big gun. She could start with how he couldn't close the deal on buying the Washington Commanders even though we know he wanted it and could have bought it with just the money in his sock drawer. She could take off after Amazon's forays into sports television and how they have not exactly put the networks out of business yet. She could just give him a few paper cuts for the outrageous shipping charges on his website, just to let him know she's around.

If she can tackle that, we'll acknowledge that her departure wasn't objectively wrong and that the Post knew what it was doing by hiring the one Post employee who wouldn't blanch at scuffing up the boss. I mean, you know she wants to, and by that we mean you know that we want her to. And we are consistent in our desire to see everyone at Defector thrive—especially when at the expense of the world's third richest man. In fact, there's a hook for her debut piece: "Inside The Mind Of The Galaxy's Bronze Medalist." We'll take it if she doesn't want it.

Jasper Wang

I first met Laura in late 2019, along with Samer and Giri, when we all got a beer at Gold Star Beer Counter to talk about what would eventually become Defector. A week later someone reported back to me, "Wags liked you OK, so I think you'll be fine with everyone else." (I never heard, then or now, Samer's or Giri's opinions of me.) I was glad to have gotten her stamp of approval, and later as her coworker and friend, I came to hold her opinions in high esteem as well. Over the last two-plus years, Laura has at numerous moments pushed Defector to reimagine what a workplace can and should be, and we are a better company for it.

I should also note that we adopted dogs from the same wildly over-competitive rescue, and Wags let me name-drop her in the application. "I know Laura Wagner and her dog Jake (née Joel)" was both a hilarious and really important sentence in my life. My pup, Rafa, is still getting comfortable playing with other dogs, but I hope he and cousin Jakey have a long friendship ahead. 

Luis Paez-Pumar

Laura "Wags" Wagner...what can you say? She taught me how to be weird... and how to play Spikeball.

It's wild that I've worked with Wags on and off for almost five years at this point. Time flies when you're fwango-ing, I suppose. While everyone knows what a dogged and fearless reporter she is, my memories of Wags will be in those moments outside of the reporting. Her talking about some place called "Hagerstown," and the donuts which one can find in said place that are "the best dobuts in the world." Her dog Jake and his ridiculously cute ears. How she went from making a movie list of essentials she had never seen to now being a sicko cinephile. And how she is definitely the answer to the question we always receive in Staff Chats, about which staffer would win a Defector Hunger Games-style competition. I fear Wags, but not as much as I respect her. With salutes and all love: Eat shit, Laura.

Patrick Redford

Laura Wagner is a dear friend and a committed partisan and a person who makes all the right people afraid of her, and I will miss her and her working karaoke-level knowledge of exactly one song dearly. Her commitment to challenging herself and others to be better and take on harder challenges is admirable, so to that end, here is the story of the first time I met Wags.

When we brought her on at the old site, I was still working the night shift. The lower stakes of blogging about a guy getting hit in the dick and balls by a baseball at night, when fewer people read the site, made the night shift the ideal place for a new blogger to cut their teeth, so I was in charge of shepherding Wags through her first few turns at the blog wheel. She pitched a somewhat interesting idea that clearly nobody was going to read—I think it was about an Italian soccer guy or something?—and I told her Sure, sounds great. An hour goes by, nothing. Two hours elapse, I still have not heard from Wags. Finally, 135 or so minutes after she pitches the blog, she turns in a draft and it's short and simple and good. We run it, no problems. I forget exactly when, maybe the next day maybe months later, Wags reveals that a few hours before her first night at Deadspin, her roommate left out a batch of weed brownies on the counter to cool, and like a ne'er-do-well with a bindle to a pie cooling on the windowsill, Wags too was drawn to the sweetie treaties, inadvertently going "Oh holky fuck" mode at her first day of work.

I am sure the word Spikeball will appear throughout this toast/roast, but you should know that the first time we played she told me the rules for a total of 10 seconds, all while running away from me to start the game, so she could be assured of a merciless victory. The last time we played, Jasper Wang and I got her ass, and we are riding a winning streak that's lasted almost a year. Better luck next time!

Drew Magary

Cross Laura once and you’re dead to her forever, so I’ll be damned if I roast her and get on her bad side just as she’s about to join one of the most powerful journalistic enterprises on earth. But also Hagerstown is the Ohio of Maryland. I wouldn’t even stop there for gas.

Giri Nathan

Wags's superpower is the cultivation of beef. Aristotle might have called it the spontaneous generation of beef. No matter the context—circling the Spikeball net, playing a sticky game of flip cup, examining a doofy new media entity, or digging up the dirt on her own employer—she is always able to isolate and intensify the spirit of "I'm gonna fuck you up." It's not surprising that this disposition makes for a brilliant adversarial reporter who swings hard at all calcifying assumptions, institutions, and plutocrats. It's maybe a little more surprising that this disposition can make for a great pal. For all her appetite for Cormac McCarthyesque blog violence, Wags is actually super-chill and fun when away from her keyboard. As such, I can only be proud when she leaves Defector to pursue a lifelong dream: receiving paychecks from Jeff Bezos.

Samer Kalaf

It's difficult to put together a farewell post for someone whose new job will cause them to move closer to where I live; it's almost certain that I'll see more of Wags now than I have in the past few years. That said, at Defector and the old place, I always appreciated her ability to ask questions that spark useful conversations about ideas (both for blogs and the company's mission) that demand a little more thought. She's an excellent reporter who earns the trust of the sources she speaks to, and I admire her competitive drive. I've also been grateful that she, like me, had a childhood affinity for the TV show Arthur and a current affinity for videos of monkeys doing silly thingsIf I were to separate her work style into two prongs, I'd say that Wags is sometimes skeptical D.W., and other times she's evil D.W. One can't exist without the other.

Sabrina Imbler

Wags contains multitudes. She is a Spikeball champion, a parent of Jakey Babie, a blogger extraordinaire. One of the first times I met Wags, she told me about ralphing on the train, which would be the first of (too) many conversations I've had with Defector comrades about vomit.

Wags is also a great pal, and someone I feel very lucky to have met through Defector. Wags is the kind of friend who makes you want to be a better person, not by any kind of rules or shaming but by asking you questions that make you think deeply about things you've always taken for granted. Hanging with Wags is always a good time, but these hangs often left me reconsidering decisions I could make to invite more care, community, and friendship in my own life. Wags is always capable of seeing a better, kinder version of the world, especially when we are too tired or stuck to see it.

Obviously I'm talking about human relationships, but Wags also helped me reimagine one of my own relationships with animals that, for years and years, I had decided I did not like. Monkeys unsettle me for many of the reasons you might expect—uncanny valley shit, sad to see in zoos, how can they open their mouths so big???—but Wags introduced me to me to the work of Danish wildlife photographer Mogens Trolle (@mogenstrolle) who, once a day, posts a Vogue-level headshot of a surreal looking monkey. It is through Mogens, via Wags, that I have begun to rebuild my relationship with primates. The photos are surreally serene, almost airbrushed. Looking at them, I feel connected to these distant evolutionary relatives but also I am reminded of the distance between us. Thank you Wags for spreading the good word of Sophie Lewis, Mogens Trolle, and Spikeball. I will miss you!

Maitreyi Anantharaman

Laura Wagner eats ice cream cones. 

Chris Thompson

Wags kicks a lot of ass and I will miss her a lot. This will perhaps ring strangely when said about someone who is leaving our worker-owned shop for the Fame and Riches and Moral Compromises of the Washington Post, but Laura’s informed seriousness about collectivism stiffened our backbones, I think. It can be hard to stay committed to collectivism, for someone like me: Sometimes it feels much easier to allow little hierarchies and veins of unilateralism to prevail for the sake of expediency. All the people who work here are extremely smart (except me) and cool (except Luis) and serious (except McKenna), but to me Laura is the smartest and coolest and most serious; even going back to Deadspin I had the habit in meetings and big discussions of sort of expectantly waiting for cool brave Laura to speak up and test our proposals and decisions and casual ways of doing things against our values. She's a little bit heroic!

Also she’s very extremely funny and talented. All of her blogs felt like events. Not just the essays and media meltdown write-ups, but also (and maybe even especially) times when she was just silly on the blog. There are almost certainly slimy media dickweeds out there who were relieved that Wags was working behind a paywall at a dipshit fart-recognizing blog, who will now lose sleep at the thought of Wags operating with a Washington Post lanyard. She’s going to kick ass there, on the page and also behind the scenes. Certain of her bosses will hate her guts. That will be how certain of her admiring coworkers, who might otherwise be willing to tolerate the humiliating bullcrap of working in grooved hierarchies or under petty tyrants, will know that those bosses are pieces of shit. It sucks that Wags is leaving Defector, but it will be comforting to me to imagine her givin’ ‘em hell in Bezosland.

Lauren Theisen

There's a lot that I'll miss about Wags at Defector. I'll miss the intensity of her convictions. I'll miss her uncompromising reporting. I'll miss the way she always pushed us to find ways to put actions to our ideals. I'll miss Jakey boy coming into the office.

All of this, however, pales in comparison to what I'll miss most: People giving me credit for her tremendous work. We need another great Laur on this staff ASAP.

Kelsey McKinney

Watching Wags go sicko mode on a story is truly a gift. When she is obsessed with something, it is almost impossible to believe that anyone will be able to stop her from getting the story. She has a tenacity that is almost stunning when you interact with her outside of work because she is so calm and genuine and thoughtful. I love hearing about Jakey Baby, and I will still use his slack emoji. Laura cannot prevent me from doing this by leaving! I love him! I will even miss learning terrible things I never wanted to know about Hagerstown!! 

Albert Burneko

I dawdled and got distracted and didn’t write anything for this blog until the last second, maybe in some hope that by doing so I could make all of this not happen yet. That’s not how it works. Laura is the word “adversarial” made into a person. I mean that in the absolute best way. I’m so sad that she is leaving us, but as a reader I could not be more thrilled to find out what hostilities she will get into with the resources of the Post at her disposal. Gah! That’s not very roasty, I guess. So I will close by saying that fraternal twins aren’t real.

Diana Moskovitz

I'm guessing that by now everything that's needed to be said about Wags has already been said. But it can't be said enough that we'll miss having someone as relentless as her, taking on institutions that need to be taken on. She has always done that with so much zeal, never backing down. And sometimes she even did it using public records and FOIAs (my favorite)!

Barry Petchesky

Laura's final week at Defector has coincided with company meetings, and during one particularly intense, constructive meeting about big ideas for the site's future, it was noticed that Laura was furiously taking notes. This was presumably a sign of her deep commitment, to be paying such close attention to the workings of a company she was leaving. Or perhaps she was stealing state secrets for her new employer. Either way, Laura's notepad was recovered at the end of the meeting:

Wags is a delight to be around and a pit bull of a reporter and a vicious competitor and a tireless advocate for the charms of Hagerstown, Maryland. Why the hell do I know where to get the best donuts in Hagerstown? I shouldn't know that. (It's Krumpe's.) She used to be a fount of hilarious typos—F. Scoot Fitzgerlad, Larry Nascar—but is no longer, proving that we're all capable of self-improvement, except at Spikeball. She shall be missed. Bezos is gonna hate her.

Tom Ley

In the media industry, editors like to give the impression that they provide a lot of value by shaping the minds and hearts of the staff writers who do most of the real work for far less money. I'd like to think that maybe I've passed down a good habit or two to most of the writers I've worked with, but in all the years I've worked with Laura, it's always been obvious to me that I got way more from her than she ever got from me. Any guts or convictions that I bring to this job came from her.

Here's an example: When Laura first came to me and said she wanted to report a critical story about the company we worked for, I was, uh, not immediately enthused. I remember sitting in an empty office with her and feeling my stomach drop as she spoke and I silently contemplated whether this would cost me my job. But it's impossible to be in a room with Laura, listening to her explain why something matters and why it must be done, and not feel your spine straighten up. I said I was in, and we spent the next however many days working together to get the story ready.

The story didn't quite cost us our jobs, at least not immediately, but I'm glad for whatever part it played in getting both of us where we are now.

Billy Haisley

As amazing as it is to be paid to watch an ungodly amount of sports and then write your dumb little thoughts about them, the best part about this job, and the job most of us used to have before this one, is the people. I’ve never felt a stronger sense of belonging and group camaraderie than I did from the moment I joined this band of brilliant weirdos. It was the first time in my life I'd been around so many people who were like me.

For example, until I started working with these people I'd never met so many people who were ridiculously smart, many of them obviously way smarter than me. Similarly, my whole life I'd been confused by what exactly it meant the many times people would tell me how noticeably quiet I am socially ... until the first time I sat on a couch next to Samer.

Along the same lines, I don't think I'd ever met anyone whose absolute LOVE for arguing matched my own until I met the Wagners. No, not Laura and her twin sister (who I don't know well enough to say one way or the other), but rather Laura and her spiritual twin, Kyle. Kyle doesn't work (honestly I could stop there) with us anymore, so I'm going to focus here on Laura. Ohmygod does Laura love her some arguing. I wrote above that her love of arguing "matched my own." I can say with supreme confidence that she will argue with me about that characterization after reading this, just like she would've argued whether I'd said hers surpassed mine or mine surpassed hers.

But unlike my penchant for arguing, which primarily emerges from my love of being annoying and riling people up with tortuously pretzeled lines of reasoning carefully crafted to sound intelligible just long enough for you to pause until you realize I'm talking pure bullshit, Laura's argumentative streak comes from her deep, genuine passion for all and everything. If I could sum up Laura's personality in a word, that word would be "committed." She is outrageously committed to her passions and principles, and while she's far from self-serious (she is a HUGE goofball, most of the time intentionally), she takes the things she cares about very, very seriously—in learning about them, in upholding them, and in defending them. Even when it's 2 a.m. at the bar and the conversation randomly turns to something or other and you can see in the way her eyes get big and she scoots to the edge of her chair that the table is in for it. Even when the person who brought up said topic is an incorrigible bear-poker in it for cheap thrills and a hoarse voice in the morning.

(An example of this would be useful. One time Laura got herself more or less kicked out of a mutual friend's apartment some time between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m. because of an unnecessarily heated argument between Laura and the host about [redacted], a topic with no direct impact on any of the four us there. This might not sound like much, until I tell you that the argument, which had to have lasted the better part of an hour, interrupted what we all had been doing prior, which was taking turns chucking a knife into one of the apartment's walls to see if we could get it to stick like in the movies. Somehow the defacement of prime-location Manhattan real estate was less offensive to our host than an intense argument about [redacted].)

I don't think I've yelled at or been yelled at by anyone in the world more than I have the Wagners. (And woe to those who have have suffered when any two or—God forbid—three of us have been on the same side of an argument.) They are some of my most cherished memories. It's the same commitment that Laura brings to the arguments, on topics big or small, smart or dumb, in her everyday life that make her probably the most inspiring and challenging person I've ever worked alongside. I'm bummed to no longer be able to learn from and laugh with and provoke and push and be pushed by her at work every day, but I'm comforted by the certainty that we will be learning from and laughing with and provoking and pushing and ARGUING with each other until we are old and gray, unless she really takes this chance to escape seriously and never looks back.

Laura has been committed since the moment I met her. I guess that means I’ve been committed too, or else we never would’ve met here in this place made to give asylum for people just like us, a place more than any other where I've most felt like I belong. And now she is leaving. I'd love to continue on with this tribute, but here comes the nurse with my medication, and when I don't take them right when they tell me to, they don't let me turn the TV to my favorite show after. Bye Laura! See you on the outside!

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