Deadspin was founded 14 years ago by Will Leitch, who cranked out 300-word blog posts in the first person plural, and it ended for all intents and purposes on Friday with a video of NCAA stooges lying about paying college athletes. In his first post, Leitch wrote, “there’s a whole side of sports that because of either corporate obligations or just plain laziness, never makes it into the public consciousness.” He was right about that. As much as any publication, Deadspin defined what sports journalism for smart people in the digital age should look like. For many readers, including me, it replaced legacy sports media as the first place to go for what happened, what mattered, what to think about, and what to talk about.
On the occasion of its demise, Josh Levin and I talked to three former Deadspinners for this week’s episode of Hang Up and Listen. They are Megan Greenwell, who edited the site for 18 months before resigning this summer and is now editor of Wired.com; Barry Petchesky, who joined Deadspin in 2009 and was the longest-serving staffer when he was fired last Wednesday; and Tom Ley, who wrote and edited for the site for seven years, and was among the 20 or so staffers who resigned last week. —Stefan Fatsis
Stefan Fatsis: Megan, why don’t you explain how the conflict between staff and management developed after Deadspin was acquired in April, along with other sites that were once part of the bankrupted Gawker Media empire, by a private equity firm called Great Hill Partners?
Megan Greenwell: So, after we were bought in April, the first thing that happened was my two bosses, Alex Dickinson and Susie Banikarim were forced out—they were fired—in addition to Tim Marchman, who was running the investigative desk and was my predecessor at Deadspin. And then the new editorial director, Paul Maidment, just started making very clear that he had no interest in what the site was, in protecting our editorial integrity.
And so I spent about four months fighting with him on everything from the “stick to sports” mandate that he was already trying to enact, to the idea that Deadspin shouldn’t do media reporting, even though we had a full-time media reporter on our staff, to questioning the data that the analytics team compiled about what people were reading. It was just really, really awful.
Things came to a head after Laura Wagner, our media reporter, reported a piece that Tom [Ley] and I edited about the hiring practices of these managers that had come in and about the ways in which they were clearly trying to ruin the company. Jim Spanfeller, the CEO, sent an all-staff email questioning my credibility, and the credibility of Laura Wagner.
I tried to use that to enact some protections from the editorial director, Paul Maidment, but I just couldn’t do it. I made the calculation that I couldn’t stay for my own integrity, but also because I was putting the site at risk. My thought was maybe they would have a chance of survival if they got rid of me, and then everything else went down this past week.
Josh Levin: So Barry, the thing that caused everything to go downhill was this “stick to sports” memo that Maidment sent a week ago. Can you describe the content of the memo and then what happened after you guys got it?
Barry Petchesky: Sure. Paul Maidment, after multiple conversations where he intimated that we should stick to sports but would never outright say it, because I think he knew there would be a fight, finally sent out a big memo saying what had been said publicly all along: They had no interest in Deadspin doing the things that had made it Deadspin for the last 14 years.
There are 18 billion sites you can go to to find out who won. You can go to ESPN, you can go to new zombie Deadspin to find out about the Pats-Ravens game. It was not the content of the memo itself that so rankled, it was what it represented. It showed very clearly that they did not have any respect and did not hold any value for what Deadspin was and what niche it had carved out, and it showed they were willing to fight about it.
It was a test to see if we would fight it or if we would roll over, and I do think in the end, it’s mostly about power. That they wanted staff to just roll over for them and do bland work that advertisers wouldn’t complain about and just shut up and blog. I’ve been at Deadspin for my entire adult professional life, and that was not the site I’d worked at and that was not a site I wanted to work at.
Fatsis: What efforts did you make to try to persuade them otherwise?
Greenwell: I was in dozens of meetings with Paul Maidment and with Jim Spanfeller between the time they took over and the time I left. I could just never get them to care. I would sit in rooms with them and present them vision memos I had written and spreadsheets showing the data and testaments from people who worked there and people who read the site and other media people. It was the most frustrating experience in my professional life because it was truly like talking to a brick wall. They just clearly had made up their minds and nothing I could say would make them care. And that was really what kind of killed me.
Tom Ley: It was definitely one of the more crazy-making experiences of my life. Right after Megan resigned, we thought that that would be sort of a signal to them that they needed to get their shit together and start listening to us. The entire staff of Deadspin had a very long meeting with Paul Maidment in which, again, we all in unison explained all the things that Megan had been explaining to them individually. It just didn’t go anywhere.
I think I described it to the rest of the staff like, we’re trying to explain how a microwave worked to a baby. No matter what we said, he just sat there. He seemed agreeable. He would nod. He would say: “Yes, I get that. That all makes sense. I understand that.” And it was just, there was no movement. Megan resigned in August. That was the last big convo we had about it.
I don’t think any of us thought that we made any progress in that meeting, but I think maybe we thought like, OK, maybe he’ll just sort of leave us alone. They’ll look the other way while we continue to do what we want. But then that memo came to start last week and that’s when we knew it was basically over.
Levin: Why would Great Hill Partners, a private equity firm, acquire a set of sites that they clearly didn’t understand, didn’t respect, didn’t like, didn’t want to do what they did? Did you guys come to any conclusions around that? Was it just purely around, This set of sites has X traffic and I feel like we can turn it into 2X and turn around and sell it again?
Petchesky: This is the big question, isn’t it? Why buy Deadspin, if you don’t want Deadspin to be Deadspin? We certainly tossed around all kinds of theories about this, and nothing quite went all the way toward explaining it. Not even the theory that this was a Peter Thiel plan to finally bring down the former Gawker networks.
Fatsis: Peter Thiel, of course, is the Silicon Valley investor who backed the lawsuit that ultimately led to $140 million judgment against Gawker.
Petchesky: Indeed. Thanks for reminding me. So, perhaps this is the private equity model. You buy a brand that has some value, whether or not you understand why it has value, you strip it for parts, you turn around and sell it to someone dumber before they realize that all the value is lost. I would not be shocked if that was what was going on here.
Greenwell: They were clearly focused on scale above all else. In my very early conversations, I said at one point, you know, the goal of Deadspin is not to be bigger than ESPN, and they were horrified by that. In some ways, I don’t think I ever redeemed myself in their eyes from that comment. They wanted to put AP recaps of every sporting event on the site because they wanted it to be a one stop destination.
Levin: This is the problem with private equity firms buying and destroying media properties: In order to run a journalistic outfit, you need to care about journalism, because journalists are annoying as hell. And you guys were, as a group, probably the most annoying group of journalists, to an owner, that one could possibly construct. You’re always trying to find shit out, and you’re trying to find it out about your bosses. That is deeply annoying, and you’re pesky, and you’re bothering them. And if you don’t fundamentally believe in or understand the principle that journalists are there to find out stuff that people don’t want them to know, then you’re not going to abide that. And these guys clearly didn’t.
Fatsis: And that’s been the case at multiple media properties over the last five years. And not just digital ones. Thousands of jobs have been hemorrhaged from daily newspapers in cities across America through their aggregate ownership by private equity firms, and they’re scaling down and they’re homogenizing news coverage and layout and distribution.
Levin: Barry, you were at Deadspin longer than Tom or Megan. I’m curious for your thoughts on how Deadspin evolved while you were there. I personally think that it was Tommy Craggs who turned Deadspin into the publication that showed people that sticking to sports was completely amoral, long before a lot of other people recognized that. But I’m curious for your take on what Deadspin is and what it was.
Petchesky: I started reading and commenting on Deadspin in if not 2005, then definitely 2006. And then I finally came onto the site when A.J. Daulerio was the editor in chief and Tommy Craggs was his No. 2. And it seems pretty clear that that era was the birth of what we today consider Deadspin. Will Leitch’s Deadspin was a simpler thing. It was clever, it was certainly something unique on the very small sports blog landscape at the time, but it wasn’t ambitious. It didn’t get political.
But Tommy Craggs brought a pretty clear pro-labor, pro-athlete point of view to things that has continued to the site today. And even today, that’s the thing that still gets certain people upset about the site. You look at how sports was covered: Everyone thinks they’re a GM or a fantasy team owner. They don’t actually care about players. They care about players performing and not making too much money. They care about players not protesting because after all, aren’t they being paid millions of dollars to play a kids’ game?
This stuff has always been the same, but in the last decade or so, Deadspin has been the first one to speak out about this. And I think over the last few years, you’ve seen the other sports outlets out there kind of meet us in the middle and start to lean towards what Deadspin was saying a decade ago. And if Deadspin has a legacy, it’s that it’s no longer the only site taking this very firm point of view.
Fatsis: What has distinguished Deadspin in the last few years has been its evolution into a genuine journalistic product: real reporting, real writing, bigger names, a welcoming place for new writers but also people like Charlie Pierce and Ray Ratto, familiar bylines for decades. How did that vision evolve? Like, hey, we can keep doing what we’ve done and be the irreverent voice of sports and the conscience of sports, but at the same time, let’s be a place where we can produce real journalism.
Ley: That goes back to A.J. Daulerio, I think. We were talking about how Craggs shaped the voice and point of view of the site, but the person who turned it into a real brawny journalistic institute was A.J. A.J. was a reporter, a journalist. He loved to be in the shit and doing the work. And he’s the one who brought Craggs on. He’s the one who brought on Tom Scocca. He’s the one who carved out a place in Deadspin to have investigations and features. He cut all those people loose. He let them have this site and do the things that they wanted to do with it. And I think the ways that we’ve sort of improved upon that since, it was laid out pretty easily for us.
You’re talking about getting people like Charlie Pierce on the site. That happens because people read the site every day and they see what it’s become and they want to be involved in it. We never really had trouble hiring or getting freelancers to want to work for us, or people to want to pitch features to us. It was all pretty easy, because if you read the site every day you knew what it was and you knew what was possible there.
Levin: Was Deadspin really Deadspin before there was consistent coverage of bears on the site, though?
Ley: The weirdest thing is I haven’t done a bear post in like two years and I still get emails all the time like, “Hey man, are you putting the bear post up this Friday?” And I never respond to them because I feel bad, but the bit just got stale. It was an extremely stale bit. I didn’t even like it anymore. People are still upset about that and now in hindsight I feel bad. I should have just kept going because people really seem to like it.
Fatsis: Without overstating it, I think one of Deadspin’s lasting legacies is that it made sports a healthier proposition. It made people realize that you could integrate sports with the rest of life, but it also put sports in its place at the same time. It’s inflating the importance of sports as a social force and letting the air out of it simultaneously.
When you look at the history of sports, sports writing in the 1930s and ’40s was hagiography, and then in the ’50s and ’60s reporters started quoting athletes, and then there’s a social component with the civil rights movement. And then it’s a business in the ’70s and ’80s, and free agency and stadiums, TV contracts, and then money becomes central to everything having to do with sports in the ’90s and beyond.
Petchesky: From the very beginning, and to give Will Leitch all the credit in the world, Deadspin was supposed to be the antidote to the kind of sports writing that was … you know the type, they want to post a photo of their bourbon on their way to their first Springsteen show, and long articles that did not need to be long but were clearly written for the purpose of winning awards. And Deadspin was there to point out these articles and say: “This is stupid. People don’t talk about sports this way. This athlete is human and you are portraying him as some character in your wannabe screenplay.”
Greenwell: Yeah, there was so much serious stuff on Deadspin, whether it was exposing racism or corruption or whatever and writing our share of long investigative features and things like that. But it was just joy at the heart of it. Even when people were pissed about things, it was like, don’t take yourselves too seriously. Don’t take any of this too seriously.
Fatsis: Wait, wait, wait. You’re saying that Manti Te’o having a fictitious girlfriend wasn’t super serious?
Petchesky: That was the perfect Deadspin story. That was a story puncturing the lazy mythmaking that was common in sports writing, and still is to a lesser extent. The Manti Te’o story was perfect for some Sports Illustrated writer who thought he was going to win an award for this perfectly maudlin story about a college football player’s girlfriend dying the week before a big game. Oh, but he played for her memory.
Deadspin showed it didn’t exist. It was made up. That athletes themselves were buying into these narratives that the legacy publications were more than willing to help blow up. And all it took for Deadspin to start poking into that, after a tip, was just one call to the university where Lennay Kekua had allegedly gone, and they said there was no record of such a student existing. One phone call that apparently never came up in all the fact checking of all the original articles on Manti Te’o.
Levin: And Lennay Kekua’s now the only editorial staffer at Deadspin. What an evolution for her, too.
I’m not interested in getting you guys to quote-unquote answer for your crimes, but there was a lot of stuff in Deadspin, particularly back in the day, that was gross. Drew Magary wrote a piece that was reckoning with some of the stuff that he had written. Barry and Tom, you guys wrote comments that—I know, Barry, you apologized for jokes that you made that you were not proud of. What are your thoughts on the stuff on Deadspin that maybe you aren’t proud of, and how the site evolved?
Petchesky: I think it’s the evolution of the site that I’m proudest of. It was certainly a sophomoric website where the kind of comments I wrote that were totally unacceptable by standards of today, or that day, were totally fine at the time because it was anything for a laugh. But as [former Deadspin staffer] David Roth has said, Deadspin is not actually a site about sports. It’s a site about aging, and about how we’ve all grown up, either from the inside or watching the site grow and come to its own awareness of other people out there in the world.
Ley: Yeah. My opinion about this site and how it’s evolved is, it’s all perfectly natural. That’s how things work. That’s how it’s supposed to happen.
Greenwell: And that goes to the importance of continuity. It changed gradually. It changed as a natural evolution. It didn’t change because one person came in and said, no, we have to blow up what Deadspin has been. It was people growing up, people who worked for the website growing up, and thus the website they worked for growing up with them. I had a somewhat public spat with Deadspin in 2013, because I pointed out that there weren’t any women on staff on my, like, Tumblr. I was being a little high-handed about it and Deadspin people were being a little annoying about it too, but that never stopped me from wanting to work there, because you could see it changing over time. You could see it expanding in new and interesting ways while keeping the things that made it the most special. And I think that’s just not a thing you see in a lot of digital media places.
Fatsis: I’m just sad. And I think this is where the emotion part comes in: Deadspin, as you just described, really did mature in its lifetime into something that was accessible and had a point of view and was often brilliant, and often just good, and sometimes cringeworthy, and that’s OK. But it was this panoply of journalism. I don’t know what my point is here, other than just: Should we be more than sad, or is there a way to be optimistic that this will be replicated, and maybe Deadspin was just a part of a cycle?
Petchesky: No, be sad. This sucks. This fucking sucks. I’m heartbroken. I spent the last 10 years of my life working at this site and I never wanted to leave. I could never picture myself anywhere else. I still can’t. Take a week or take some time to be sad for what’s gone. But all the good parts of Deadspin were the writers, and the writers are still around, and they’re going to get jobs, and they’re going to tweet all their terrible thoughts now that we don’t have a work chatroom to shoot off our half-baked takes into.
Deadspin was just a collection of really talented people who believed certain things, and they’re still really talented people. They still believe what they believe. And maybe this will be for the best. Maybe they’ll infiltrate every other outlet in media now. I can’t think of one newsroom that couldn’t use a little more Deadspin in it.
Levin: I’ve heard from so many people in the last week, just wondering: Is somebody going to hire all these guys? Is there going to be some new site where everybody goes? What do you guys want? You want to still be working together, obviously.
Ley: Yeah, I never wanted to work anywhere else besides Deadspin. So, I will obviously now, because I need money, attempt to find a job like a normal guy does. But, I think that we would all love to have an opportunity to start something new together. I don’t know what form that would take, or the mechanics of how that would actually happen. But, if you’re listening to this and you liked Deadspin, and you’ve got $10 to $15 million, get in touch, because we all in an instant, I think down the masthead, we would all do whatever it took to make that happen.
Petchesky: Yeah. Get in touch with me, not Tom. He can’t be trusted. And give me one more week to not be online before you get in touch.
Fatsis: I think we could end with the current state of Deadspin, because it makes me … it brings a smile to my face to open Deadspin this morning, and I don’t want to give them clicks anymore. But to see “Dolphins Dent Pursuit of Being NFL’s Worst Team, Perhaps Ever”—
Petchesky: Yeah. I think the actual Deadspin headline would have been something along the lines of, “Dolphins Shit the Bed, Win First Game.”
Ley: Yeah. That’s the frustrating thing. If we were still working there, we probably would have a post about the Dolphins that would just be three paragraphs under a headline. And it would just be, the core of the post would be news that the Dolphins won a game. But, our ability to put it under a funny headline, and put a joke in the lead, and make the kicker funny. That was the thing that people came to the site to read, not just to find out that the Dolphins won. They wanted to see what Barry’s joke about it would be. Or if he could somehow spin it into 700 words, where he’s just sort of riffing, and having a good time with it.
And, I think that if management’s idea was that you can just put whatever sports content you want under the Deadspin name, and that will get you all the traffic and readers and ad revenue that you could possibly want, they’re free to figure that out. If that’s the site they want, they can make it. We decided we didn’t want to help them do that. So, they can go nuts and they can see if it works or not. Maybe it will, I don’t know, but it’s not my fucking problem anymore.
Petchesky: The core of Deadspin, even beyond the investigative stuff, was blogging. The art of blogging. Of writing short, punchy, funny things to entertain bored people at their desks throughout the day. There were a lot of good blogs in the year 2010 and 2011, and they’ve slowly been dropping out over the past few years. And now that Deadspin’s gone, there’s one less good blog in the world.
Levin: The thing that I’ll miss is the stuff that I wasn’t expecting, just going to the site and seeing whatever weird shit was on there. But, as an editor, somebody who has been editing a sports section for a long time, the thing that I found so impressive and enjoyable and at times infuriating was the way that you in particular Barry could set the agenda of the sports day. Picking out what the thing was that happened the previous day that was the most important and interesting, writing about it in a way that was itself, smart and interesting and funny. It was like my Daily. I don’t listen to The Daily, no offense, but that was the thing that started off my day. And so, thank you for that. And I will miss that.
Petchesky: I appreciate that.
Fatsis: Except when it was hockey, Barry. Come on.
Petchesky: Just throwing hockey blogging into the void, to never be seen again.
Greenwell: Nobody cares.
Levin: Megan, what are you going to miss, as a Deadspin reader?
Greenwell: I’ve already lightly wept once on this podcast, so I would prefer not to do it again, but I mean—all of it. Yeah, the sense of fun, the sense of joy. The commitment to just calling out bullshit when it happens. The people who I felt like I got to know just through reading their bylines long before I ever worked there, and then got to work with them and call them my friends. It just all feels so stupid.
Ley: I’ll miss just the daily stuff. Not even the big features or investigations. Those were all clearly hugely important parts of Deadspin, and what allowed us to grow, and what made us successful. But to me, the experience of Deadspin and what it was trying to be every day was just a place that people would actually type the URL into the bar and go there on purpose, not just because you saw a headline on Facebook or Twitter that you liked. You actually wanted to just scroll down the front page of Deadspin and see what was on there. The one thing that’s actually made me feel really good the last few days is that the people who have been doing their fonder remembrances of Deadspin have been pointing that out as the thing that they really, truly enjoyed about it.
Nobody’s sort of gotten out over their skis, and been like, “Democracy will die in darkness now because Deadspin is gone.” Or you know, “Sports journalism will not survive.” People have just been like, “Yeah, that was a cool site that I liked visiting every day, and I’m bummed that the 20 posts a day that were on there that I enjoyed are now not going to be there.”