Deadspin’s collapse is a warning sign for anyone in digital media
This week’s sudden collapse of Deadspin (nudged along by a management team dictating strategy and ignoring editorial complaints) was shocking to many, though the friction between the site’s staff and G/O Media’s management was palpable since the site was sold back in April. Deadspin’s fall was brought about by G/O Media’s insistence that the site “stick to sports,” and while it seems like that’s a reasonable request for what is essentially a sports site, it also shows that Deadspin’s owners really don’t understand what Deadspin is.
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In case you haven’t been keeping up to date on the Deadspin saga, here’s a quick recap. In July of 2018, Unvision began to explore a sale of the Gizmodo Media Group, of which Deadspin is a part of. This past April, GMG was sold to a private equity firm called Great Hill Partners, reportedly for a huge loss on the $135 million Univision paid in August of 2016. Great Hill created a new company to run Deadspin and the rest of the GMG sites (G/O Media), run by Jim Spanfeller (who ran a number of other outlets over the years).
Deadspin editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell resigned in August after clashing with G/O Media management over their mandate for the site to be “laser focused” on sports and some questionable (to say the least) restrictions in G/O Media’s new employee handbook (which included management’s ability to review the staff’s electronic communications).
Then, this week came along, and everything fell apart. G/O Media sent a memo instructing Deadspin to stick to sports (there’s that phrase again), and also deleted a post on the site about an autoplaying video ad that aggravated users. We later found out that G/O Media made the decision to add the autoplay advertisements to videos because they couldn’t meet the promised goals in the campaign, which was pulled by the advertiser after the rampant criticism by Deadspin’s staff and readers. Deputy editor Barry Petchesky was fired by G/O Media on Tuesday, and many other Deadspin staffers followed him out the door on Wednesday and Thursday.
What happened at Deadspin this week was similar to what happened at Sports Illustrated in early October. If you missed that column, here are the Cliff’s notes: SI’s publishing rights were sold to a company called TheMaven, who proceeded to lay off a huge chunk of the company’s staff with the aim of replacing them with cheaper writers who would create more content with less oversight. Like with Deadspin, SI’s new owners are attempting to take an established brand and mold it into its own image, whether or not that’s what readers or advertisers want. A similar situation took place in March with The Big Lead, another sports blog that has its own unique history online. TBL was bought by Minute Media in March and its staff was slashed down to just four writers, further eroding a once-strong brand (though at least not killing it…yet, at least).
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that we’ve seen ownership get involved with news outlets and eventually cripple them. The Gothamist and DNAInfo networks were abruptly shut down in 2017 after staffers voted to unionize. A number of local newspapers have been bled dry by venture capital owners (The Denver Post is one). Gannett and GateHouse Media are exploring a merger, years after venture capitalists bought Liberty Group Publishing, turned it into GateHouse, and bled it dry before declaring bankruptcy and starting all over again.
Deadspin’s editors and staff saw what had happened with a number of these other outlets, and they fought back before quitting en masse and depriving G/O Media of both the sports content they crave and the non-sports content they want nothing to do with (despite the acclaim and traffic that many of those posts receive). They may no longer have jobs, but they’re also no longer part of what will likely end up as what Slate called a “zombie” brand – an outlet that still has a well-known name, but none of the other qualities that made it well-known.
Which venerable brand will be next? We don’t know – but a site you read multiple times a day could be venture capital’s next target for “Mavening,” as The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis dubbed the process. If this trend isn’t curbed, we’re all going to be fed to the content mill and put to pasture at the clickbait farm upstate.
Joe Lucia has been covering sports media since 2011, and is a fan of the Ravens, Braves, and Manchester City. He was born and raised in Harrisburg, PA, but now makes his home in southern California with his wife.