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The Senseless Death of Deadspin

The Senseless Death of Deadspin

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Photo: John Taggart/The Washington Post via Getty Im

Offside Tavern in Chelsea was crowded for game seven of the World Series, but bartender Nick Costa noticed a group of patrons who seemed strangely “low energy” during the game. “There were a lot of pissed-off faces in that crowd,” said Costa, who also owns Offside. When someone from the group approached the bar wearing a Deadspin sweatshirt, Costa learned why: “I was like, ‘Oh, shit, you work at Deadspin?’”

“‘I used to work at Deadspin,’” responded Laura Wagner, who had resigned from the website earlier that day. Costa, a Deadspin reader, covered Wagner’s tab.

The staff of a sports blog watching but not covering a historic game seven was only the beginning of an exceedingly strange few days for Deadspin. Over the course of the last week, all 19 of Deadspin’s editorial employees, and the editorial director of its parent company, G/O Media, resigned, the culmination of months of tension between Deadspin’s editorial staff and Great Hill Partners, a Boston-based private-equity firm that bought the media company six months ago.

By now, journalists at publications owned by private equity expect major changes, cost cuts, and layoffs. Private equity is supposed to squeeze better margins out of debt-ridden or incompetently run operations. But under Great Hill’s ownership, Deadspin appears headed in the other direction, with traffic down by 75 percent in a week since the layoffs, according to Chartbeat data provided to Intelligencer. According to multiple sources, Jim Spanfeller, the CEO installed by Great Hill to run G/O, has reached out to at least one departed Deadspin staffer in an effort to convince them to return to work. (A representative for G/O Media said the company would welcome back most of its writers.)

Deadspin was, by all accounts, beloved, sustainable, and efficiently operated for years prior to Great Hill’s acquisition. Insiders at the company describe a turnkey operation that could have operated successfully for years to come. Now it appears to be on the edge of collapse — with no permanent editorial staff to speak of, few if any freelancers willing to contribute to it, a paltry and anonymous output since the mass resignations, and a previously loyal readership alienated by the new management. How did things go so epically wrong?

“I really think that they didn’t know what they bought,” said Diana Moskovitz, an editor at the site for five years. “They thought they bought publications with staffs that just roll over, or they were just okay with making us completely miserable and they didn’t care about who was on staff or about the quality of the content.”

Great Hill acquired G/O — then called Gizmodo Media Group — in April for between $25 and $50 million, purchasing it from Univision, which had bought it for $135 million in 2016. That followed the bankruptcy of its predecessor company, Gawker Media, at the hands of Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel. The purchase by Univision served as proof that freewheeling, irreverent blogs had both journalistic import and market value. Deadspin, along with shuttered politics site Splinter, particularly epitomized the Gawker ethos.

Spanfeller quickly laid off G/O’s editorial director, instituted strict office hours and a dress code, and repeatedly made decisions that disrupted Deadspin’s editorial independence — at least in the view of the writers and editors putting out the site every day. More recently, management issued the now-famous mandate that Deadspin cease being a de facto general-interest publication and stick to its focus of sports.

“From the very beginning it seemed like [Spanfeller] thought we needed to be whipped into shape by someone older and richer than us,” said David Roth, Deadspin’s former editor-at-large. “It was like all we needed was a dose of Spanfeller, which was an approach from three internets ago.” (Both Great Hill and Spanfeller declined to comment on this story.)

What former staffers are still puzzled by is why Great Hill was so aggressive about changing an operation that, by all indications they could see, was doing well as a business. “There was no crisis to solve. The site was healthy and doing interesting journalism,” said Megan Greenwell, who spent 18 months as the site’s editor-in-chief before resigning in August. “It’s not clear to me why that was not good enough.” (A G/O representative said that, at best, Deadspin broke even, while a former employee with access to the site’s revenue numbers said that Deadspin was firmly in the black at the time of the company’s sale to Great Hill.)

Greenwell and others recall trying to make the case to Spanfeller and G/O Editorial director Paul Maidment — sometimes using hard data — that the site’s success was tied to its broad editorial scope. “Deadspin was always one of the easiest sites to pitch and sell,” Jillian Schulz, a former director of sales development at Gawker, tweeted last week. “We rarely sold campaigns because the advertiser wanted to align with ‘sports.’ They wanted the audience and the lifestyle sections (Foodspin, Adequate Man, the Concourse). The fact that this wasn’t abundantly clear to Jimbo escapes me. If he can’t effectively monetize Deadspin, well, good luck out there, bud.”

Spanfeller’s decisions felt so reckless to the staff — multiple people described his actions as being carried out “with malice” — that a conspiracy theory began circulating among writers and editors after an outgoing non-editorial employee jumped into a companywide Slack channel to bid his co-workers adieu: “Bye bye yall,” he wrote. “The ceo here is a Peter Thiel pawn.” To many G/O employees, the private-equity “bloodsuckers” best made sense if they’d been sent by the billionaire who brought down Deadspin’s original parent company, as the culmination of a years-long vendetta.

But even the Deadspin alums who circulate that theory concede that it is almost certainly not true, and that while Thiel might be enjoying the organizational chaos, he is unlikely to be involved. A standard private-equity business model offers a simpler explanation. “I think Spanfeller’s a pawn,” said Eileen Appelbaum, author of Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “Great Hill told him that this is what we want and he had to deliver the message.” Great Hill’s larger strategic goal, under this line of presumption, was to lard up Deadspin with ads, and juice revenue in preparation for a sale. “Perhaps this is the private-equity model,” Deadspin’s former acting editor-in-chief, Barry Petchesky, speculated on Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen. “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.”

But it seems just as likely that Great Hill expected to own G/O and Deadspin for a long time, increasing margins on one side while maintaining low operating costs on the other, and depositing checks the whole way. Sure, it might degrade the quality of the site to add a bunch of autoplaying video ads (as G/O had begun doing) and alienating all the editorial talent — but as long as the site was drawing in readers and selling ads, it could still work. A long, slow decline might also be a profitable one.

One prominent aspect of Deadspin’s culture that Great Hill seemed eager to do away with was its long tradition of covering itself and its owners. In early August, three months after Great Hill took the reins, Wagner, who was Deadspin’s media reporter, wrote a deeply reported, 7,000-word piece that characterized G/O and Spanfeller as unequipped for — and strangely uninterested in — operating a website that had built a loyal readership over more than a decade. Spanfeller, who has a significant financial stake in G/O, did not appreciate the exercise. Last Tuesday, the company’s top editors and G/O’s board of directors, which includes at least one Great Hill managing partner, were scheduled for a meet-and-greet lunch in a conference room in G/O’s Times Square offices. But when the editors arrived, the board members had already left the building. Spanfeller, however, was there — and he was angry. The day before, the editors had simultaneously posted articles apologizing to readers for video ads on their sites that played automatically. Spanfeller threatened to fire all of the editors in the conference room, telling them something to the effect of, “the old way is dead, you can get onboard or move on.”

The problem for Spanfeller was that, according to anyone who’s ever worked at Deadspin, the “old way” of self-referentiality and combativeness were key features of the site’s character and point of view. “If you don’t grasp the reasons for their success, but focus on page views as just the means to more programmatic ad revenue, you can easily destroy the essence of these brands and the magic of longevity and relevance giving you sticky growth,” said Raju Narisetti, who served as Gizmodo Media’s CEO under Univision.

Appelbaum described G/O’s changes as a breach of trust between ownership and employees. When private-equity owners come in and disturb that trust, deliberately or not, it can have disastrous effects on the bottom line. Appelbaum compared Great Hill to Guy Hands’s Terra Firma Capital Partners who, in 2007, acquired the record label EMI. Within a few years, EMI lost the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Coldplay, and Radiohead. “It’s been taken over by somebody who’s never owned a record company before,” Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien said at the time. “Terra Firma doesn’t understand the music industry.” (Great Hill does own a number of media companies, but none with as many journalists as G/O Media.)

Internally, the conflict between staff and Spanfeller boiled over last week when editors began posting articles that were flagrantly not about sports — for instance, about a pumpkin thief — and used the tag “stick to sports,” mocking the order to do that. That day, Spanfeller summoned Petchesky into his office and fired him, telling him to “get the fuck out.” For employees, Petchesky’s firing wasn’t simply an example of treating an esteemed colleague poorly, it also represented a total disregard for the property Great Hill had bought. Petchesky, more than anyone on staff, had embodied the voice, ethic, and style of the site. “Barry is Deadspin. There’s no Deadspin without him,” said Albert Burneko, who wrote for the site for seven years. “Firing Barry was the last straw.”

So the entire staff resigned, to the general fanfare of its readership. “These finance people coming in have never actually managed a company. They do not understand the relationship between managers and employees,” Appelbaum said. “They think that you just give people money and they’ll come around. But that is not the case when employees have talent and principle.” Last Wednesday, Greenwell tweeted a call for Venmo donations to pay for drinks for the Deadspin staff. Though she wouldn’t share how much money readers sent in, she would say that it is a five-digit number now being used to offset more important expenses, like rent.

Private-equity firms and their hedge-fund brethren have become what Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, calls “the new media barons” of the journalism industry. Over the past few years private equity has gutted the Denver Post, Sports Illustrated, and LA Weekly, in addition to dozens of local newspapers across the country. Many of these publications have become zombie versions of themselves — in no small part because new private-equity ownership tends to have different goals than previous owners. “Their sole responsibility is to their shareholders,” said Abernathy. “As where most journalism organizations feel a dual responsibility to the civic mission as well as their responsibility to make a return to their shareholders.”

The lesson of the Deadspin blowup might be that some organizations will resist becoming zombified, and that if they do, that could interfere with the private-equity prime directive of generating financial return. In the midst of the mass-resignation hubbub, Farmers Insurance reportedly pulled a $1 million ad campaign from G/O. For the past few days, the website had been posting new stories under an anonymous “Deadspin Staff” byline, with some speculating that Maidment had taken to writing the posts. But on Tuesday, Maidment submitted his own resignation, claiming it was the right moment for him to leave “to pursue an entrepreneurial opportunity.”

The Senseless Death of Deadspin

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Tonight in Berlin

Photo: Fireworks erupt over the Brandenburg Gate during celebrations on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 2019 in Berlin. From 1961 until 1989 the Berlin Wall, built by the communist authorities of East Germany to prevent people from East Berlin fleeing into West Berlin, divided the city. Its opening in 1989 quickly led to the collapse of the East German communist government and the eventual reunification of Germany in 1991.

The darkness in the heartland

In farm country, mental health experts say they’re seeing more suicides as families endure the worst period for U.S. agriculture in decades. Farm bankruptcies and loan delinquencies are rising, calamitous weather events are ruining crops, and profits are vanishing during Trump’s global trade disputes.

A 2017 study found that farm owners and workers were three to five times as likely to kill themselves on the job compared with other occupations. Researchers studying more recent data have not yet determined if farmer suicides are increasing, but leaders and social workers in rural America say that, anecdotally, they’re seeing more of these deaths. Calls to suicide hotlines around farm country have risen, prompting new federal and state programs targeting farmers’ mental health, including support groups, public awareness campaigns and funding for counseling.

The Agriculture Department is setting up the first $1.9 million phase of a farm and ranch stress support network to expand emergency hotlines, training and support groups for farmers and ranchers. In addition, the department started a $450,000 pilot program to train some of its workers in how to help farmers in extreme distress and make mental health referrals for them.

30 years later.

The values on which Europe is based — freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, safeguarding human rights — these are anything but self-evident. They must be experienced and defended anew again and again. In times of far-reaching technological and global change, this is more relevant than ever. …

The Berlin Wall is gone and that teaches us that no wall that excludes people and restricts freedom is so high or so wide that it cannot be broken through.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

in a speech at the Berlin Wall memorial on Saturday

vision 2020

Bloomberg to Follow the Not-So-Successful Giuliani Strategy in the Primaries

By Ed Kilgore

Like Rudy, Bloomberg is a poor fit for his party, pursuing a doomed strategy, unless he just wants to damage Sanders and Warren.

Another flip-off for asylum seekers, Dreamers, and permanent residents

The Trump administration on Friday proposed an unprecedented series of new fees for asylum-seekers and immigrants hoping to stay in the US, aiming to become one of just four countries in the world to charge for an asylum application. …

The US has never before charged for asylum and, if enacted, the proposal issued Friday would make the country one of only four in the world to do so, joining Iran, Fiji, and Australia. It appears to be the latest move by the Trump administration to overhaul the asylum process and the immigration system itself, a focus of the president’s since taking office. …

Specifically, the rule would add a $50 fee for those looking to apply for affirmative asylum applications filed from within the US. There is currently no fee to enter an “affirmative asylum” application. The new fee would not apply to those who claim a fear of persecution at ports of entry or those who apply for the protections while in deportation proceedings. There would be no waiver for those who cannot afford to pay the $50 fee.

One USCIS official told Buzzfeed that it would cost more to collect the fees than they would earn. More from the Times:

The rule, which will be published on Thursday and will have a monthlong comment period, would increase citizenship fees more than 60 percent, to $1,170 from $725, for most applicants. For some, the increase would reach 83 percent. The government would also begin charging asylum seekers $50 for applications and $490 for work permits[.]

It would also increase renewal fees for hundreds of thousands of participants of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. That group, known as “Dreamers,” would need to pay $765, rather than $495, for a renewal request. The fee hike comes days before the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on the validity of President Trump’s justification to terminate DACA.

The mayor from the minors

As Mr. Buttigieg, the millennial mayor of a town smaller than a New York City Council district, rises in the polls, he has struck a nerve with his Democratic rivals.

Many of their campaigns have griped privately about the attention and cash directed toward Mr. Buttigieg. They say he is too inexperienced to be electable and that his accomplishments don’t merit the outsize appeal he has with elite donors and voters. His public punditry about the race has prompted eye rolls from older rivals who view him as a know-it-all.

And in a field where most candidates find themselves strapped for cash, they snipe at his ability to raise more than anyone else in the primary field except for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

More than a dozen participants in the Democratic campaign — including rival candidates and campaign aides — spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss their views about Mr. Buttigieg candidly. They conveyed an annoyance at the McKinsey consultant certitude with which Mr. Buttigieg analyzes and makes pronouncements about the primary.

Before long, they’ll probably add Hillary Clinton to the list as well

House Republicans plan to call Hunter Biden, the Ukraine whistleblower and a range of other witnesses to testify in the upcoming public Trump impeachment hearings, according to a witness list obtained exclusively by Fox News.

It is unclear, at this point, how many of the Republicans’ proposed witnesses will be approved by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and the Democrats, because the newly-approved resolution governing the impeachment inquiry give the approval power to the chairman and the members of the majority.

There was also this bit of theatrics from Nunes on Friday:

The top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee has formally requested that the panel’s chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., testify in a closed-door setting as part of the impeachment inquiry against President Trump. …

A GOP source told Fox News this week that it’s unlikely Democrats would go along with the efforts to call Schiff – who is essentially leading the impeachment probe.

media

The Senseless Death of Deadspin

By James D. Walsh

Dramatically shifting the website’s priorities didn’t make sense from a business perspective. Was something else going on?


vision 2020

Could Biden Lose Iowa and New Hampshire — and Still Win the Primary?

By Benjamin Hart, Ed Kilgore, and Eric Levitz

Intelligencer staffers discuss how rocky the path to the nomination might be for the former veep.

This does not exactly sound like a foolproof strategy

Bloomberg will not contest first four states in Democratic nominating process. “If we run, we are confident we can win in states voting on Super Tuesday and beyond, where we will start on an even footing,” says Bloomberg adviser Howard Wolfson.

@michaelscherer

Nate Silver unconvinced that Bloomberg will have much of an impact

A *partial* list of candidates who, if they entered the race at the last minute, would probably have more impact than Bloomberg:

Michelle Obama

Sherrod Brown

Stacey Abrams

Andrew Cuomo

Also all of the past nominees (Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Kerry, etc.)

@NateSilver538

abortion

Can Anti-Abortion ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers’ Snag Federal Family-Planning Funds?

By Ed Kilgore

One branch of the anti-abortion movement is trying to rebrand itself as pro-contraceptive, just like Republican politicians.


🔪

How Bon Appétit YouTube Videos Brought Back This One Weird Knife

By Brian Feldman

Fans inundated the manufacturer with so many requests that they put it back into production.

Ya don’t say

On Fox, former President George W. Bush calls this an “unsettled period” for the country.

@oliverdarcy

vision 2020

Michael Bloomberg’s Ego Is an Agent of Socialist Change

By Eric Levitz

The longer the Democratic Establishment refuses to accept that Joe Biden is their only hope, the better Sanders and Warren’s chances will be.


vision 2020

Three Years Later, Trump Has Lost the Element of Surprise

By Ed Kilgore

Memories of the shock of Election Night 2016 could become a strategic asset for Democrats, who sure won’t get over-confident in 2020.

Ahead of impeachment, Republicans get their best (?) man on the case

BREAKING: “Leader McCarthy Appoints Jim Jordan to Intelligence Committee”

@AaronBlake

interesting times

interesting times

Andrew Sullivan: This Is No Ordinary Impeachment

By Andrew Sullivan

It’s a deeper reckoning. It’s about whether the legitimacy of our entire system can last much longer without Trump being removed from office.

Gordon Sond-who now?

Trump on Gordon Sondland: “I hardly knew the gentleman.”

!!!

@abbydphillip

“Little”? Again?

And we’re off: “There’s nobody I’d rather run against than little Michael,” Trump says of Bloomberg.

@anniekarni

Republican president won’t campaign against Republican candidate

Trump says he won’t campaign against Sessions, per pool report from South Lawn. “I’ll see how it all goes. We’ll see what happens. He’s got tough competition.”

@jdawsey1

the national interest

the national interest

New GOP Ukraine Defense: Trump Was Just a Patsy for Sondland

By Jonathan Chait

“There is no direct linkage to the president of the United States.”


politics

Matt Bevin Was Unpopular Because of His Policies

By Sarah Jones

Matt Bevin was a uniquely unpopular governor. It’s important to understand why.


veterans

The Next Fight for Cory Remsburg, the Wounded Veteran Obama Made Famous

By Terence Szuplat

In 2014, a White House speechwriter made a brain-injured soldier a symbol of resilience. Now he finds the story didn’t end so neatly.

A second person has accused Representative Jim Jordan of ignoring their report of sexual abuse

A professional referee says in a lawsuit filed Thursday that disgraced doctor Richard Strauss masturbated in front of him in a shower after a wrestling match at Ohio State University, and he reported the encounter directly to Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who was then the assistant coach.

“Yeah, that’s Strauss,” Jordan and then-head coach Russ Hellickson replied, according to the lawsuit, when the referee, identified in court papers as John Doe 42, told them about the incident. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Ohio, implies that Jordan’s response to the incident, which the referee said happened in 1994, was essentially a shrug.

John Doe 42 is the second person to say he told Jordan directly about either being approached or molested by Strauss, who was found by independent investigators to have sexually abused 177 male students over two decades.

Buttigieg has put out a new economic plan

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg unveiled a plan Friday to make tuition at four-year public colleges free for families earning up to $100,000. The move is part of a package of new economic policies aimed at boosting the fortunes of middle- and working-class Americans and positioning Buttigieg as a clear alternative to more liberal candidates.

While Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have proposed making college free for everyone, Buttigieg is taking a more targeted approach of giving free tuition only to families he considers middle-class and lower. His new policy calls for reduced tuition at public universities for families earning $100,000 to $150,000 and no tuition for those below that threshold. Like several in the Democratic field, Buttigieg also proposes expanding Pell Grants to help low-income students pay for housing and fees and investing $50 billion in historically black colleges.

Buttigieg’s new economic plan includes proposals for universal prekindergarten, greater college access, major expansions of affordable housing and job training, and a bigger tax credit for the working poor. He plans to fund the $2.1 trillion worth of new expenditures over the next decade by hiking taxes on the top 1 percent of earners.

Another classic from Donald Trump Jr., least self-aware man in America

President-elect Trump and the new first family were at Arlington National Cemetery, where Trump was to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns.

“I rarely get emotional, if ever,” Trump Jr. wrote in his new book, “Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us.” “Yet, as we drove past the rows of white grave markers, in the gravity of the moment, I had a deep sense of the importance of the presidency and a love of our country.”

He also had another revelation as he watched his father standing in front of the tomb, surrounded by more than 400,000 graves, listening to the Army Band bugler playing taps: The Trump family had already suffered, he recalled thinking, and this was only the beginning.

“In that moment, I also thought of all the attacks we’d already suffered as a family, and about all the sacrifices we’d have to make to help my father succeed — voluntarily giving up a huge chunk of our business and all international deals to avoid the appearance that we were ‘profiting off the office,’” Trump Jr. wrote.

A new clue about the identity of the anonymous Trump op-ed writer: he really admires John McCain

Besides, everything in the text of “A Warning” suggests a dyed-in-the-wool establishment Republican. There’s the typical talk about American exceptionalism and national security. There’s the eternal complaint that President Barack Obama was “out of touch with mainstream America.” There’s a wistful elegy for “our budget-balancing daydreams.” Yes, Anonymous is happy about the conservative judicial appointments, the deregulation, the tax cuts; what rankles is the “unbecoming” behavior, the “unseemly antics.”

A big tell comes early on, when Anonymous reveals what “the last straw” was. It wasn’t Mr. Trump’s response to the right-wing rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, when a white supremacist killed a woman and the president talked about “the violence on many sides.” It wasn’t even the administration’s separation of migrant families at the border. These examples might have left Anonymous appalled, but the truly unforgivable act was when Senator John McCain died last year and Mr. Trump tried to hoist the flag on the White House above half-staff: “President Trump, in unprecedented fashion, was determined to use his office to limit the nation’s recognition of John McCain’s legacy.”

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