Whenever a publication shuts down, as has happened more and more over the last few years, it undergoes a public eulogizing by its employees, the friends of its employees, the people who wanted to work there, and most importantly the readers, whose tributes are probably the purest, because they come with no baked-in professional obligations. Journalists and writers are prone to gauzy mythologizing, and a great publication — Gawker, The Awl, Splinter, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, Topic, Mad, Racked, various VICE media properties, not to mention all the glossy magazines that have abandoned print editions, publications who laid off their editorial staff as part of some desperate pivot, and the local papers that have shuttered completely — never seems more righteous or essential than in the immediate wake of its death. Sentimental hyperbole easily goes viral, and feels truest when everyone is still drunk on the memories, and indignant about what’s being lost.
So I’m going to attempt avoiding gauzy mythologizing and sentimental hyperbole when I say that the sports blog Deadspin, which is not yet dead but hearing its own death rattle under its newest owners’ moronic leadership, has been the world’s best daily website at least since I started reading it about a decade ago. No other publication has turned such a consistently critical, interrogative, moral, and necessarily cynical eye toward an industry rotted through with bullshit, while also maintaining the levity and humor sometimes required to think seriously about what many people see as children’s games, and more importantly, provide an enjoyable reading experience.
You have to think and care about sports to read Deadspin, but if you do, it teaches you how to think and care about them (and more) more deeply than most websites get you to think and care about any of its subjects. It is, for now, the only sports publication I read every day: Its competitors repeat the official narratives a little too gladly (ESPN), diminished quietly under draconian owners (Sports Illustrated), or were killed ignobly (Grantland).
That some combination of the three may happen to Deadspin before the month ends, or perhaps even by the time this blog is published, is a particularly depressing development in what was already a spiraling journalism industry. Earlier this year, Deadspin, along with its sister sites at the former Gizmodo Media Group, were acquired by the private equity firm Great Hill Partners. The company was rebranded to G/O Media, while two old white men from outside the company, Jim Spanfeller and Paul Maidment, were respectively hired as CEO and editorial director. Almost immediately, the two began warping what had been a successful media company into its own image: They fired top editors, asked sites to be friendlier to advertisers, closed its only politics site on the eve of an election year, gave jobs to their cronies, installed intrusive new advertisements, and more, while showing no curiosity in enabling its employees to do good work.
This has happened all across media, but to watch it take place at the former standard bearer for independent media — an already niche industry that no longer really exists — was, again, particularly depressing. “A metastasizing swath of media is controlled by private-equity vultures and capricious billionaires and other people who genuinely believe that they are rich because they are smart and that they are smart because they are rich, and that anyone less rich is by definition less smart,” former Deadspin editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell wrote in a farewell post (she quit in August after 18 months on the job, after they wouldn’t guarantee the site’s editorial independence) that laid out some of Spanfeller and Maidment’s bullshit. “They know what they know, and they don’t need to know anything else.” Elsewhere: “The only idealistic belief at Gawker Media was that a journalistic enterprise could make money without scamming people; the guiding principle at Forbes [Maidment’s previous employer] and sites of its ilk was that scams are good as long as they make money.”
For the past several months, the new owners have paid seemingly unique attention to diminishing Deadspin. Most egregiously was the request — long rumored, and made official on Monday — that the site “stick to sports,” in line with the completely facile line of logic that sports fans only want to know about the score and the game and not anything else. Besides the fact that sports themselves are frequently political, Deadspin also specifically flourished as an umbrella for topics often beyond the purview of straight sports. Its readers overwhelmingly responded positively to this, as verified anecdotally — is there a better writer on Donald Trump in this country than writer/editor David Roth? — and officially by traffic numbers published by former editor Timothy Burke.
Nonetheless, so the new diktat went, issued by men refusing to understand the websites they spent millions of dollars acquiring. On Tuesday, the staffers responded by only posting non-sports stories. They trafficked normally, of course, but corporate retribution followed a few hours later when deputy editor Barry Petchesky was fired for, in his words, “not sticking to sports.” Petchesky, who’d worked there for a decade, and kept the site running as the search for a new editor-in-chief continued — because who would want to work for people like Spanfeller and Maidment, or for a staff already trained to sniff out a patsy? — produced thousands upon thousands of blogs (and more) for Deadspin. Firing a highly productive, widely beloved, well-tenured employee as petty revenge sounds stupid, but I guess I’m not smart enough to be the CEO of G/O Media.
Now we wait with fat black clouds over our heads to see what happens next. Deadspin hasn’t published anything since Petchesky’s firing, and the editorial union is consulting privately. The eulogies have already begun across Twitter, because even if the most pessimistic outcome doesn’t come to pass, it seems unclear how the site can continue to exist as it has under Spanfeller and Maidment’s increasingly disastrous leadership. If it beggars your belief that a group of highly paid idiots can detonate an original, profitable, well-read publication out of ego and callousness, well: It’s happening here, and could happen again, even if there isn’t another site like Deadspin to ruin.