The brand-new “stick to sports” version of the once-beloved website Deadspin has launched, at last—at the tail end of a week in which there are now no sports to stick to. What timing! In a brief note to readers, new editor-in-chief Jim Rich, late of the New York Daily News, implied that the new site would be worth the long wait. “I’ve always believed in the maxim, ‘show, don’t tell,’ so you won’t hear any grand pronouncements from me—our journalism will speak for itself,” Rich wrote. So what does the new Deadspin have to say?
Here’s some background for those of you who haven’t been keeping score (sports reference). It has been several months now since every single Deadspin editorial staffer resigned or was fired in the wake of parent company G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller’s edict that the wide-ranging website refrain from publishing any nonsports stories. It was a weird edict, given that the expert mixing of sports and nonsports content was exactly what made Deadspin such a beloved and popular website, but Spanfeller was resolute in his efforts to turn Deadspin into a website that was neither popular nor beloved. Mission accomplished! Everyone quit, and after a brief and anemic attempt to keep the website going in the hands of G/O Media’s then–editorial director Paul Maidment and a freelancer named Alan, the website lay fallow until Thursday night, when Rich’s version of Deadspin launched with no warning or fanfare.
Classic Deadspin was a great website, and I will be honest: I very much resent Spanfeller for killing it before its time. As such, I am inclined to dislike this new Vichy Deadspin and mistrust any sportswriter who would willingly participate in it. But that’s not fair to Rich and his staff, many of whom also worked at or wrote for the Daily News, which is a very decent newspaper. They’re not the enemy; they’re just journalists trying to do jobs and get paid. While I firmly believe that there shouldn’t be a Deadspin if it’s not actually going to be Deadspin, it is too soon to say that Rich’s version of Deadspin can’t and won’t ever be good.
Or is it? As of Friday afternoon, New Deadspin resembles an uncanny valley version of classic Deadspin: broadly resembling the site we all remember, but flubbing the details in an off-putting manner. Comments are off, for example, which is a real rejection of the entire spirit of the old Deadspin, where the comments below a given article were often as entertaining and engrossing as the article itself. And while the site’s layout and typography remain much the same as before, its motto has changed from “Sports News Without Access, Favor, or Discretion” to “Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise.” Though only two words have changed, this motto is very different from the old one. It’s more generic, for one thing; it also indicates that Rich’s Deadspin may have very different priorities than those of the Deadspin of yore. Does this new motto mean the new regime expects to be discreet enough to maintain access to the people whom they plan to cover?
The site’s headlines are all wrong: self-consciously edgy without actually being sharp. Headlines like “Shocking but True: Aubrey Huff Is Still the Worst” and “The World Series of Poker Is a Petri Dish for Disease. Why The Hell Hasn’t It Been Cancelled Yet?” manifest attitude without voice. They read like they were written by people who are glad to be freed from the constraining propriety of print journalism but have not yet learned how to most effectively write for the web. There are a couple of good headlines on the site, the best of which is “Is There Any Big Ten Program That Doesn’t Have a Hideous Sex Scandal Lurking In Its Past?” That’s the sort of thing you might have seen on old Deadspin: sharp, specific, and clicky. The site will need more headlines like this if it hopes to have a shot at truly capturing the old Deadspin spirit.
But good headlines are ultimately nothing without good articles beneath them, and the new site’s stories, too, feel underdeveloped. The topics are pretty similar to what you might have seen on old Deadspin, but the execution doesn’t match up. The ledes are newsier and more compressed than they were on the old Deadspin, just like what you’d find in a newspaper sports column—which feels particularly out of place here, given that Deadspin was initially founded in part as an antidote to the hackiest tropes and habits found in newspaper sports columns. At first look there appears to be more reporting than before, but the writing, on the whole, is less compelling. The articles lack the sharp instinct and consistently novel perspectives that made the old site such a delight to read.
Consider Friday morning’s lead story, by ex–Daily News guy Chuck Modiano, which was an interview with Carolina Panthers safety and noted anthem-kneeler Eric Reid, who has some thoughts about the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement, which had not yet been ratified at the time of publication. Modiano wrote well and frequently about sports and social justice for the Daily News, and this interview reads like something that would have been a great fit for his old newspaper. But old Deadspin almost surely would not have run this piece as a straightforward Q&A, in part because—absent a stronger sense of the broader story, stakes, and characters in the CBA debate—Reid’s thoughts alone just aren’t all that interesting.
The lead story on Friday afternoon was the aforementioned piece about the coronavirus and the World Series of Poker—“the ultimate breeding ground for a deadly virus,” according to writer Chris Baud. The concept is a good one, and Baud talked to a lot of people for the story—also a good thing!—but the analysis could have been sharper, and the narrative could have been better. Baud is a poker player himself who spent two years playing professionally in Las Vegas, details that were dropped too casually into the middle of his story. At the old Deadspin, his personal experiences would have driven the story, and it would have been all the richer for it.
This impersonality seems to be the key to what’s missing. The articles read like the work products of newspaper guys trying and failing to mimic the tone of the beloved website on which they are squatting. The old Deadspin was full of writers whose voices were their own, despite being sharpened by the site, by their colleagues, and by what was once Gawker Media. Until the new site is credible as a collection of individuals with a frank and authentic collective sensibility, and perspectives that you won’t find anywhere else, it’s going to read like an imitation, rather than simply like Deadspin.
There is some decent stuff on the site right now—I did sort of like the piece about how to root against Duke men’s basketball even now that the NCAA tournament has been canceled—but, when judged against the high standards of old Deadspin, there is nothing on new Deadspin to make me excited about coming back over and over to see what the gang there does next. Rich is right: He and his team absolutely deserve to have their work judged on its merits. They also deserve time to make the site their own. But the staff also must know that, as long as it’s publishing at a website that looks almost exactly like the beloved website that used to live there, Deadspin will be judged against the standards set by the site that came before. As of now, it ain’t what it used to be.