How We Got Here
9:30 AM EDT on September 8, 2020
Welcome to Defector, an employee-owned sports and culture website brought to you by the former staffers of Deadspin. Let me tell you who we are, and how we got here.
We are 19 people who want to create a website that you will actually want to read. We hope to give you a publication that exists not just as a name that occasionally pops up in your various social media feeds, but as a daily destination. We aren't here to gratify ourselves or churn out "content," a word wholly devoid of ideas and values, but to create good work that will earn your loyal readership. To that end, this site is built to run primarily on revenue from reader subscriptions, and though we don't ask for your money lightly, we do require it.
This site exists because of the events of Oct. 29, 2019, when we all still worked at Deadspin. That was the day that Barry Petchesky, who had been a writer and editor at the site for over 10 years, and was at that point the site's acting editor-in-chief, was fired. He was marched back to his desk by G/O Media CFO Tom Callahan, who made Petchesky hand over his keycard and collect his things while I and a handful of my colleagues demanded to know why he had just been fired. We'd all sprung up from our chairs and started barking half-formed questions, to which Callahan responded by pointing at one of our computers and sneering, "Just look at the home page."
At that moment, Deadspin’s home page featured stories about wedding dresses, three good dogs I recently met, a pumpkin thief—and no stories about sports. This was purposeful, the staff's response to a memo sent by the company’s executive editor a day earlier that forbade us from covering topics not related directly to sports. Jim Spanfeller, who had been installed by the private equity firm Great Hill Partners as CEO of our company all of seven months before, responded to this act of insubordination by calling Petchesky into his office, firing him, and then telling him to "get the fuck out."
I spent the rest of that day and most of the next huddled in an empty corner office with my colleagues 27 floors above the 45th and Broadway intersection of Times Square. The conversations we had in that room eventually led to all of us making the decision to quit in solidarity with Petchesky.
At this point the staff was used to navigating various workplace crises. We'd had similar meetings before, following resignations, sales of the company, layoffs, collective-bargaining sessions, and even a bankruptcy. We used to joke about how no new Deadspin employee ever made it through their first few months at the site without some kind of company-wide crisis.
This meeting felt different, though. Through all the other troubles we had been able to determine that no matter what was crumbling around us, Deadspin was still ours, and the ability to go to work every day and make the website we loved was worth holding onto for as long as possible. But suddenly we were confronted with a vision of Deadspin's future—one without Petchesky and without the editorial freedom our site depended on—that we simply couldn't accept. One colleague, vaguely recalling all the other existential threats we'd survived through the years, summed up our situation neatly, saying through his tears, "They got us this time."
Within 48 hours the entire remaining staff of Deadspin, 20 people, had resigned. Now, 10 months later, we are ready to start something new.
That's the story of how we arrived at this point, but if you want to truly understand why we are doing this, you need to widen the scope a little bit. The full story is about more than just an irascible staff of writers reacting flippantly to a memo they didn't like. It's a story about what will and won't be tolerated, both by those with the power to shape the present and future of the media industry, and by those who bear the consequences of how that power is wielded.
The version of Deadspin we walked away from was an immensely popular one. Every day, millions of people visited our site—by the end, a good month saw us bringing in around 20 million unique visitors—to see what we had to show them. You could log on in the morning to read analysis of a hockey game, come back a few hours later to a perfectly crafted headline about Lions fans copulating in a parking lot, and then return in the evening to find out that Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend was a hoax, or why Greg Hardy was arrested, or what kind of person NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson really is. Every day offered Deadspin an opportunity—to joke, to argue, to critique, and to uncover. The tenacity with which we seized that opportunity is what electrified the site.
Deadspin didn't acquire all those readers by accident, and the skills its writers and editors needed to run the site every day didn't spring from nothing. The site grew and became a better version of itself every day because of how seriously those who were entrusted with it guarded and improved upon the folkways and traditions that had been handed down by previous iterations.
Will Leitch launched the site in 2005, and from the very start gifted Deadspin with a clarity of purpose that persisted right up until our departure. The site’s motto from its 2005 launch until our last day: "Sports news without access, favor, or discretion." In one of his first posts Leitch explained, "There's a whole side of sports that, because of either corporate obligations or just plain laziness, never makes it into the public consciousness. We specialize in that side."
After Leitch came A.J. Daulerio, who understood that the more Deadspin burrowed itself into the negative space created by traditional sports media institutions, the more vital the site became. Deadspin looked at ESPN and newspapers and other legacy publications the way raiding Vikings must have looked at the shores of Britain, dedicating an entire section to exposing workplace harassment at ESPN, revealing sports media stars like Jay Mariotti and Sean Salisbury as frauds and hacks, and routinely securing stories in ways that would make a journalism professor faint. Those infamous pictures of Brett Favre? Exchanged for a paper bag stuffed with cash.
Tommy Craggs succeeded Daulerio, and during his tenure Deadspin's already venomous bite was imbued with a political sensibility. The scope and ambition of the site also began to expand during Craggs's tenure, and eventually the site that had started with a staff of one accumulated a stable of editors and writers, reporters with dedicated beats, as well as the budget and appetite needed to publish the sort of reported scoops and features that rivaled anything you'd expect to find in a prestigious newspaper or magazine. The site also established culture and lifestyle sections, which brought Deadspin's voice and point of view to bear on all manner of topics, like Gamergate and Wile E. Coyote.
A funny thing started happening around this time: The site that had stood itself up by throwing bombs at various institutions was becoming something of an institution itself. This transformation continued under the stewardship of subsequent editors Tim Marchman and Megan Greenwell, both of whom worked to diversify the staff, further expand Deadspin's coverage areas, and continue landing the sort of big, industry-leading stories that made the site an indispensable daily read.
After a while it was no longer accurate to describe Deadspin as just a sports site (though the vast majority of its coverage remained sports-related) or as a place to find rude headlines about sports columnists. What Deadspin became, what it was on the day its entire staff resigned, was a full-bodied publication. It married muckraking with a 27-word blog post headlined Tony Dungy Doesn't Think Michael Vick Is Being Haunted By Dog Ghosts.
To an uncommon extent, readers wanted to know what Deadspin had to say. When other people in the industry would hear about how much of our traffic came directly through the homepage (as opposed to social media or search), they would stare in disbelief. Whenever someone left the site to go work at another outlet, they would invariably send a grim dispatch about how much they missed Deadspin’s built-in audience.
What was apparent to those of us who had spent years reading and creating Deadspin was that the site wasn't defined by what it covered, but by its sensibility. People liked reading a site that refused to condescend or patronize, that was comfortable telling ugly truths about sports and the world at large, that was rude, that was mean (usually in ways that were more illuminating than gratuitous), and that was whimsical in ways that were never insufferable. Readers didn't come to Deadspin every day just to get their sports news or find out who won last night. They came because they liked reading Deadspin.
Where did it all go wrong, then? There are perhaps too many points on the timeline to discuss. Maybe it was when infamous venture capitalist and Donald Trump confidant Peter Thiel, angered over sister site Gawker's antagonistic coverage of him, secretly funded a lawsuit against Gawker Media from ex-wrestler Hulk Hogan and structured it to cause maximum damage to the company. (A loss at trial in Florida state court in March 2016 resulted in a $140 million judgment and Gawker Media’s bankruptcy.) Maybe it was when debt-laden broadcaster Univision bought the company at auction that August and then spent the next few years failing to figure out exactly what it wanted to do with us. (To wit, Univision seemed to be under the impression that Gawker Media's sites would somehow be able to create television shows that would prop up their failing cable channel, Fusion.)
Even if the dominoes started falling years ago, I never felt the end was in sight until Great Hill purchased the company in April of 2019. They got to work quickly, changing our name to G/O Media, and installing Spanfeller, a veteran of Forbes.com and content mills like The Daily Meal, as CEO. During his introductory meeting with the whole staff, he revealed that though he'd spent his career on the business side of digital media, his true ambition was to publish the next great American novel.
Spanfeller moved through the office like a blunt object, always more interested in how to further monetize the G/O Media sites than in the sites themselves. In an early meeting Spanfeller had with the editorial staff, he told us that his plan was to more than double G/O Media's annual revenue within a year. He went about executing his plan by firing the company's top two editorial leaders, wiping out the investigations desk, and installing a coterie of former colleagues in high-level positions across the company. As Spanfeller molded the company to fit his vision, we at Deadspin found ourselves in a heated confrontation with him.
Our media reporter, Laura Wagner, started receiving tips about Spanfeller's hiring practices from employees in the company's tech and business departments. They raised concerns about his hiring for jobs that hadn't been posted publicly and installing his handpicked hires, mostly older white men with whom he'd previously worked, in positions above qualified women who had been with the company for years.
We started digging into the story not in order to execute some sort of childish revolt, but because not pursuing it would have felt antithetical to everything Deadspin stood for. Our executive editor, Paul Maidment, another longtime Spanfeller crony, disagreed with our judgment and demanded that we cease reporting. Maidment's argument, that covering our own company critically would somehow lessen our journalistic integrity, was unconvincing, and so we went ahead anyway. The story was eventually published, but not before Spanfeller sent an email to the entire company in which he attempted to malign the credibility of everyone involved, including me (I was an editor on the piece).
The investigative story was not the only source of tension between Spanfeller and our staff. Soon it became clear that his plan for juicing G/O Media's revenue involved turning Deadspin into the kind of site it was never supposed to be. He liked to talk about the site's position in the "sports category," kvetching about how poorly our revenue and traffic numbers stacked up against those of ESPN.com and SB Nation. It didn't seem to matter to him that sports fans would visit ESPN.com and Deadspin for entirely different reasons, or that every site ahead of us in the "sports category" had exponentially larger staffs, or that some of those same sites relied on hundreds of underpaid and unpaid bloggers to hit their traffic numbers, or that Deadspin was one of the few sites that earned its traffic without resorting to SEO plays designed to capture clicks from people searching things like "Mayweather vs. McGregor livestream.”
None of that seemed to matter to Spanfeller, because he didn't see Deadspin the way its staff and its readers saw it. To him it was just a valuable brand name within the sports category, and with that brand name came unlimited potential for growth and profit.
Spanfeller had ideas for Deadspin, such as putting box scores and AP-style recaps on the site, which had to be batted away by editors. In one conversation I had with him, he floated to me the idea of Deadspin covering high school sports, one he’d landed on because he'd just had a meeting with someone who had founded a website dedicated to high school sports. When Greenwell tried to explain that turning Deadspin into the kind of mass-appealing site that could rival ESPN.com would in fact kill everything that was valuable about Deadspin, her arguments were dismissed. All we could hope for was that management would eventually lose interest in meddling if we ignored their ideas for long enough.
We also began to receive signals that Spanfeller would prefer the site to cease covering any topics that were not directly related to sports. In the site's final weeks, we were told in no uncertain terms that the company's leadership objected to Deadspin publishing stories like a report on the Chicago teachers' strike and an interview with an overweight housecat.
This pressure, along with disagreements over the broader direction of Deadspin, eventually led to Greenwell’s departure. On one of her last days, the entire staff of Deadspin held a meeting with Maidment, in which we spent about an hour explaining to him the value of allowing Deadspin to be a site that covers a wide range of topics beyond sports. Maidment slouched in his chair and absorbed our indignation. If he exhibited one great skill as a manager, it was his ability to be yelled at for long periods of time.
This was a maddening time, in part because we couldn't figure out why the "stick to sports" mandate was being pushed, or who was doing the pushing. Was it Maidment? Spanfeller? Some shadowy group of venture capitalists in a Great Hill boardroom? And why was this person so insistent on antagonizing the entire staff of a successful website by objecting to such a small percentage of the work being produced by that site? At one point we had our analytics team run the numbers, and discovered that 98 percent of Deadspin's posts were sports-related.
Meanwhile, all of the G/O Media sites were bearing the consequences of Spanfeller's plan for profitability: they had become so choked with advertisements (including autoplay, sound-on video ads) that they had become nearly non-functional for readers, who were flooding editors' inboxes with complaints. When the top editors at each site posted a message acknowledging how bad the sites' user experience had become, and directing readers to share their feedback with management, Spanfeller had those posts removed almost immediately. Editorial staffers across the company were horrified by this decision. Deleting posts was a cardinal sin in our eyes.
A question that was often asked around the newsroom was, "Why did this guy and his backers buy a bunch of websites that they seem to hate?" Attempts to answer that question led to some strange places, including a theory, formed only half-jokingly, that Spanfeller was another agent of Thiel’s, sent to finish the job of destroying the remaining Gawker Media sites.
Capitalists’ misdeeds are often dumb rather than sinister, though, and Spanfeller’s were no exception. In the weeks after Petchesky’s firing and the Deadspin staff's resignation, I was invited back to the office to speak with Spanfeller about the possibility of us returning. He had reached out to me through several intermediaries who were still at the company shortly after Maidment, who spent the weekend after our exodus feebly posting unbylined and rather uncanny articles (Derrick Rose, In Dubious Taste, and Lamar Jackson Shellacs Pats, Handing New England First Loss), resigned from his position. After speaking with the rest of my former colleagues, I agreed to go into the office to hear Spanfeller out.
I went into the meeting, which took place in Spanfeller's office a few weeks before Christmas, expecting some acknowledgement that his vision for the site had been lacking, but what I got instead was a pitch.
Spanfeller spread himself wide on the couch next to my chair, and produced some spreadsheets which were meant to show me that over the last year Deadspin hadn't brought in very many direct ad sales, and that this was a problem that needed fixing. I asked him, for the sake of clarity, if his plan to fix this problem was to refocus the site solely on sports and to scale up its traffic as much as possible. Perhaps not catching on to the question I was actually asking—So your plan to scratch out a few more direct ad deals is to undermine and antagonize the staff of a beloved and highly trafficked website while simultaneously asking them to produce millions of additional page views?—Spanfeller told me that, yes, that was his plan. I told him, calmly and clearly, that the former staff of Deadspin had no interest in executing that plan.
Lately I've been thinking of Deadspin as a strange machine. For more than a decade, the people charged with the maintenance of that machine were allowed to tinker with it according to their whims and idiosyncratic tastes. The result of all that tinkering was a machine which, for all its apparent wonkiness, worked brilliantly.
The problem with a machine like that is that it's difficult for anyone who didn't build it, or doesn’t respect those who did, to understand exactly how or why it works. When Deadspin's staffers and readers looked at the machine, they saw a wonderful and whirring contraption, but all Spanfeller and Great Hill saw was an odd collection of valves and pistons. They saw parts, but not the whole.
Spanfeller's disdain for his own newsroom, the "stick to sports" memo, Petchesky being fired, and the cascade of oppressive ads—they were all signaling the same thing: Spanfeller and Great Hill weren't really interested in preserving what we had spent the last decade building. Maybe a few components would remain to keep up appearances, but Deadspin’s demolition was coming, and we couldn't stop it. What we could do was refuse to participate in its destruction.
What happened at Deadspin, what's still happening at G/O Media, isn't unique. It's just a particular version of the same slow-motion, industry-wide disaster that's been unfolding for years.
Everything's fucked now. Newspapers have been destroyed by raiding private equity firms, alt-weeklies and blogs are financially unsustainable relics, and Google and Facebook have spent the last decade or so hollowing out the digital ad market. What survives among all this wreckage are websites and publications that are mostly bad. There's plenty to read, the trouble is that so much of it is undergirded by a growing disregard (and in some cases even disdain) for the people doing the actual reading.
What readers are being served when a sports blog leverages its technological innovations in order to create a legion of untrained and unpaid writers? Who benefits when a media company cripples its own user experience and launches a campaign to drive away some of its best writers and editors? Whose interests are being served when a magazine masthead is gutted and replaced by a loose collection of amateurish contractors? Who ultimately wins when publications start acting less like purpose-driven institutions and more like profit drivers, primarily tasked with achieving exponential scale at any cost? What material good is produced when private equity goons go on cashing their checks while simultaneously slashing payroll throughout their newsrooms? Things have gotten so bad that even publications that get away with defining themselves as anti-establishment are in fact servile to authority in all forms, and exist for the sole purpose of turning their readers into a captive source of profit extraction.
The truth is that nobody who matters—the readers—ever asked for any of this shit. Every bad decision that has diminished media—every pivot to video, every injection of venture capital funds, every round of layoffs, every outright destruction of a publication—was only deemed necessary by the constraints of capitalism and dull minds. This is an industry being run by people who, having been betrayed by the promise of exponential scale and IPOs, now see cheapening and eventually destroying their own products as the only way to escape with whatever money there is left to grab.
The ability of Defector to escape these constraints will depend not only on the quality of our work, but on our ability to avoid feebly chasing dollars through a collapsing digital ad economy. We want the freedom to provide you with a site, custom-built by our partners at Alley Interactive, that isn't clogged with pop-up ads, banner ads, video ads, and chum boxes full of spammy headlines explaining how That One Girl From Full House Looks Like A Damn Snack Now.
That sort of freedom requires money, and that is why this site's ability to sustain itself will depend on the money we get from our subscribers. Our goal is to create a financially stable and independent publication that exists for reasons beyond squeezing out profits for some people in a boardroom, or fattening itself up for an acquisition.
This is the best way we can go about creating a site that works for you and not some replacement-level executive whose sole ambitions are to make money and look down on people. It's how we prevent the downward pressure that comes from the frantic and endless search for new revenue streams from worsening the product we ultimately deliver to you.
When we all stood in that abandoned office 10 months ago and detonated our own careers together, it was because we were tired of watching the most insipid, parasitic members of the media industry go on charting its course. Are you?