MEDIA

Deadspin’s Public Execution Reveals A Media Industry Dying From The Inside

Executives told their employees to stop doing what they've been doing for years. They walked out, and now Deadspin is effectively no more.
Deadspin was still live Thursday morning, and some staffers remain, but the soul of the site has left its body. 
Deadspin was still live Thursday morning, and some staffers remain, but the soul of the site has left its body. 

In May, Deadspin columnist Drew Magary published a heartfelt and hilarious recollection of the night he suffered a brain hemorrhage at a company holiday party and, due to the heroic efforts of his colleagues, regained full consciousness two weeks later.

The Night The Lights Went Out” contains few references to sports, even though Deadspin is the “sports blog” of the Gawker family into which it was born, Magary its goofy and brilliant commentator. But the piece represents exactly why Deadspin had such a loyal following, with readers hanging out in its comments sections as if they were round-the-clock chatrooms. By design, Deadspin’s community was intimately familiar with its workers, who bantered and joked and talked shit to one another right there in the copy.

Magary’s column was, in part, a love letter to everyone involved, from the readers who had stuck by him over the years to his family and colleagues who rushed to his aid when he collapsed in December:

For as long as I live on, I owe it to my family and friends and colleagues to fully appreciate the fact that I somehow didn’t die, and that they saved me. I feel shitty that they had to go through that. I feel bad that I let my brain explode. When I recounted my injury to a nurse practitioner at the MinuteClinic the other week, her jaw dropped. “You’re so lucky you’re alive, you have no idea.”

On Thursday morning, Magary announced his resignation, part of a mass exodus of staffers told by their parent company, G/O Media, to stick to sports coverage or face consequences. They revolted this week, posting some of their finest and funniest nonsports coverage over the years ― among them a yearly roundup that answers the question, “What Did We Get Stuck In Our Rectums Last Year?” In response, G/O Media’s CEO, Jim Spanfeller, fired one of Deadspin’s oldest employees, deputy editor Barry Petchesky.

Seven of Deadspin’s longtime workers publicly announced their resignations on Wednesday, with Magary quitting in solidarity hours later. There was no new coverage of the Washington Nationals’ Game 7 World Series win on the site Thursday morning.

“I resigned from Deadspin this morning,” Magary tweeted. “That was a fun time you and me had there all those years, wasn’t it? Let’s do it again sometime.” 

G/O Media, likely facing backlash from Deadspin readers, removed comments sections from some stories altogether, and made other stories ― like this one calling Spanfeller “a herb” ― harder to find on the site.

And thus, the effective execution of Deadspin was complete. The site was still live Thursday morning, and some staffers remained as of this writing, but the soul of Deadspin had left its body. 

Deadspin’s undoing offers a raw, behind-the-scenes look at how private equity firms and billionaires are buying up the industry and, in some cases, dismantling it from the inside. Tensions between newsrooms and their corporate overlords don’t often boil over into the public space, but when they do, it can get ugly.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, was rescued from the ownership of Tribune Publishing Company (formerly Tronc) by billionaire Patrick Shoon-Shiong after Tronc, amid other problems, was caught stiffing its employees on raises while paying millions to executives for private flights. Last year, Tronc gutted the New York Daily News, cutting 50% of its staff.

Spanfeller and G/O Media ― the company that formed when a private equity firm bought Gizmodo Media Group and The Onion in April ― have worked to tear their company apart since their takeover. They oversaw sweeping layoffs immediately, even after Spanfeller said he didn’t foresee cuts; they ungraciously axed their news and opinion site, Splinter, in October, and told other G/O Media employees not to write about it; they watched Deadspin’s top editor, Megan Greenwell, walk out after demanding that she foist a “stick to sports” edict on her writers (she published a very good, very nonsports column about the state of the industry as she departed). You can read a good distillation of G/O Media’s hostile takeover by one of Deadspin’s departing employees, Laura Wagner, right here.

Now, they have a shell of a sports commentary site, a furious fan base, fleeing advertisers, and an indignant response to it all:

“While amusing, our readers haven’t actually come to Deadspin for stories like ‘Classic Rock, Ranked,’ or ‘You’re Goddamn Right It’s Layering Season,’ or ‘It’s OK to Logoff,’” wrote G/O Media in a statement bashing Deadspin’s traffic for nonsports stories on Thursday.

Petchesky said the company’s traffic argument was “demonstrably false” and that nonsports posts averaged double the traffic that sports posts did.

In public and private, current and former employees of G/O Media’s various sites ― which include Gizmodo, Jezebel, Lifehacker, The Root and others ― have aired their displeasure with Spanfeller and worry about their future. A current G/O Media employee, who asked not to be named, told HuffPost that Spanfeller must go if there’s any chance of salvaging morale.

“Jim Spanfeller was lauded in the press as a ‘builder’ when he took over the company. But his actions tell a different story,” the employee said. “In [a] short time, he’s managed to destroy one of its most valuable properties and alienate god knows how many of our most dedicated readers. No one believes he can effectively steer the ship anymore and most think it’s time for Great Hill Partners to step in and protect their investment by removing him as CEO.”

A public eulogy for Deadspin is ongoing. Readers and G/O Media staffers alike have been sharing some of their favorite stories on Twitter at a moment that feels soberingly similar to the public execution of Gawker in 2016. (Gawker was also killed off by rich people who didn’t care about the site or the press, though in that case, the executioner didn’t own the place.) 

On Twitter, G/O Media’s union issued a statement that “this will not stand” and shared some of Deadspin’s best nonsports moments, including the time the site famously told Donald Trump to “go fuck yourself,” its commentary on the mainstream media’s treatment of right-wing extremism, Magary’s chili recipe, David Roth’s ongoing analysis of the Trump administration’s war on the press and the people, and so on.

It’s unclear what will happen to Deadspin and how other G/O Media properties and employees might be affected, though some of the fallout is already clear. Employees at Kotaku, the company’s video game-centric site, appeared worried about their own jobs as Deadspin’s dismantling played out, though there wasn’t an immediate indication that staffing at other brands had changed. G/O Media staffers vented on Twitter about the implications of their parent company wresting editorial control from them and removing their comments sections.

Deadspin employees, meanwhile, were still trickling out by Thursday afternoon.

G/O Media didn’t respond to calls for comment for this story.

 

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