The sports site Deadspin still exists in name, but loyal readers know the publication they loved was effectively killed last year, when staff quit en masse after management ordered them to “stick to sports.” Those readers woke up to some good news on Tuesday, when the New York Times reported that 18 out of the former 20-odd staffers have reunited to launch a new mostly-sports media company called Defector Media.
According to the Times, the company—which will launch its website in September and a podcast in August—will not pull in revenue through advertisements, at least initially. Instead, it will rely on subscriptions ($8 a month, or a discounted annual price).
The new site also has no outside investment. It will be owned and operated by writers, who will each receive a 5 percent stake in the company. According to Maitreyi Anantharaman, a staff writer and one of the co-founders of Defector, the company has already netted around 7,000 subscribers.
Slate spoke with Anantharaman to find out why they decided to launch a new company, how this site will differ from Deadspin, and what fans can expect from sports coverage during a pandemic. (Disclaimer: Anantharaman has written for Slate.) This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: Can you tell me how this new company came about?
Anantharaman: I was at Deadspin for just a couple of months. It was my first job out of college, so the whole ordeal was instructive as an awful introduction to digital media. But for all of us, it was a radicalizing experience, and one that convinced everybody that there was a real need for a publication with a real and structurally enshrined editorial independence. And one without the probably doomed ad-based revenue model. We’ve been working on putting this together since the end of everything back in November.
In times when employees of media companies clash openly with management, people often ask, “If you hate your owner so much, why not start your own outlet?” That’s easy to say, but you all are actually doing it. How replicable do you think this model is for people at other publications?
One thing that really helped is so many of these writers had really loyal followings. If you already have that readership cultivated, that’s a good first step. There are certainly lots of startup costs at the beginning, putting together a website, outsourcing subscription management things. But I do think so much of the media’s woes are in ownership. Management thinks they’re a lot smarter than they actually are. These writers at Defector, they did excellent work while sending off these various crises and intrusions of management. So it’s really exciting to imagine what talented and committed writers can actually do when those burdens are lifted off of them.
What did it take to get everyone on board?
The staff knew from very kind emails and tweets everyone received in the month after leaving Deadspin that it was something there was a real demand for. So there was buy-in from everyone from the very beginning. And then it was just a matter of thinking about what sort of company we wanted.
A lot of us were antsy to blog and thought pretty carefully about what it would mean to go at this on our own. We crunched some numbers. There were lots of spreadsheets circulated. Everyone had the same priorities, which were editorial independence and worker stake, and we did come to a consensus that this model was the best way to do this thing.
I’m sure we all had our own doubts and moments of insecurity. I certainly did, and I still did as of this morning. It’s difficult to launch a subscription-based publication in the middle of a pandemic, when people don’t have a lot of disposable income. It was certainly a risk. But we were all committed.
Is it all subscription-based?
Subscriptions will be the primary revenue stream. I think we’re considering ads, and hopefully sometime in the future we’ll be able to do events. The great part about not having outside investors is you don’t have to bend the structure of your company to someone else’s whims.
Do you know how many subscriptions you need, and what would be a marker of success?
I don’t know off the top of my head, but I will say that our goals aren’t VC-crazy, astronomical numbers. We’re interested in sustainable growth. We don’t need a million subscribers or anything to be successful.
Have there been any notable responses to the news?
Bob Odenkirk tweeted about us. That was nice.
In terms of the stories you’re publishing, what are some of the differences we should expect?
The subscription model, not being ad-based—click-based—offers us some new freedoms, but it also comes with different obligations and considerations. That’s something we’re going to be thinking about a lot this month, leading up to the launch in September. We’ve been thinking about more interactive things that we could do with readers. We’ve talked about building out podcasts and investing more in those. There are lots of things I’m personally interested in. Robust women’s sports coverage is something I’d like personally. Maybe an around-the-clock Detroit Pistons blog.
What are the popular things you’ll bring with you?
As you’ve mentioned, it’s a weird time for sports. Have you been talking with one another about how you would have covered the past few months of the pandemic at the old Deadspin, and have you been talking about ways you want to cover it with Defector?
There have been a lot of events where people have lamented that they have no place to blog. Lots of former readers or fans have said they think this group of writers in particular is well suited to run a sports publication in a time of no sports. Some of the best things Deadspin published were not related to sports at all. There’s so much disarray in leagues about how to proceed with sports and whether to proceed. There’s a lot of greed in college sports right now, in which unpaid players are being pushed to play in potentially—likely—unsafe situations. The country has spent so much of its production capacity on getting its sports back and neglecting other social priorities, like how we might reopen schools. There’s not much common sense. Defector could be of value there.