What happens to a beloved old website when it dies but pretends it hasn’t? I don’t mean when it’s taken offline entirely: I will revere the late, great Television Without Pity for the rest of my internet life, but that URL and all its archives vanished years ago, so it exists solely on Archive.org and in my memory. (And with all the wonderful contributors like bestselling authors Linda Holmes and the Fug girls, along with Extra Hot Great, the podcast TWP’s founders host.) Television Without Pity is beautiful and perfect to me, because it’s gone. And I don’t mean an archives-only play for a discontinued site: If I want to remember Grantland or The Black Table (which I co-founded) or Gawker, I can just go read all their old stories and instantly be transported to back when they were alive and thriving.
I mean when the site dies, but has its dissected corpse inflated with hot gas to give the impression of life in order to squeeze out every last dollar left? What happens to the sites that are Weekend at Bernie’s-ized? What happens when it’s supposed to die, has to die, for all intents and purposes has died … but somehow keeps posting anyway?
I come to you today as the man who founded Deadspin, so know that this question is not one of mere academic concern.
I have already written extensively on my personal view of what has happened at Deadspin over the last week, so I’ll do my best to take off my founder’s hat for you, though you should probably know it still remains difficult not to give in to white-hot rage about the dumb pointlessness of the gutting, the infuriating waste of it all. But I want to do my best to try to puzzle out the question I’ve been asking constantly since all this went down: What is the plan over there? Why are they doing this?
Bryan Curtis at The Ringer has called this The Mavening of Sportswriting, drawing a clear analogy with what happened at Sports Illustrated last month after it was acquired and gutted by a new media firm called Maven. In a typical Mavening, as Curtis puts it, quality is less important than quantity and “the owners take whatever editorial line the publication was pushing and do the opposite.” But Ben Mathis-Lilley of Slate probably got closer when he called what Deadspin is becoming “a zombie publication,” like Newsweek, or the old Chicago Sun-Times website — a media company with lots of brand equity that shifts to a new strategy: hire low-wage labor to fish for traffic with viral bait and SEO hooks. Sports Illustrated has obviously had lots of this, but it’s worth noting that they are at least nodding at the idea of established brand-name writers, bringing in Yahoo’s Pat Forde. That might be a symbolic hire — at least they aren’t giving up entirely though.
Since the staff at Deadspin resigned last week, Deadspin continues to post a series of amateurish, un-bylined, clearly rushed blog posts that seem to exist to give the illusion of a staffed site without actually being one. As depressing as it has been to watch this happen (and know that it has been very depressing), it does not seem like an actual sustainable plan. It looks like a series of private-equity guys who got their bluffs called by the former staff and have discovered, as poor Alan Goldsher (the unwitting freelancer who got caught in the crossfire when he wrote the first post-staff-exodus post) did, that no one with any skin in the industry game wants their names even remotely attached to the site right now. But eventually, they will find somebody to post something.
So: What is going to happen with Deadspin? I don’t mean in a business sense; more strategy-oriented souls than myself have already weighed in on what you can possibly do after you’ve gutted a site that consistently made a profit. I mean as a reader: What are the possibilities? What am I going to have to look at for the next two years when I absentmindedly type “Deadspin.com” into Firefox because I’ve been doing that for the last 14 years of my life and my fingers haven’t learned how to stop yet? Where does this end up? Some possibilities:
It shambles to a stop.
Ask Alan Goldsher about the wisdom of signing up to write for Deadspin while this heat is still on. It’s possible that this week Deadspin runs its first non-anonymously bylined piece, and maybe there’s a struggling writer willing to take that heat, but it’s also not outside the bounds of reason that G/O Media, having been caught with its pants down, just tries to make it through the holidays coasting on the archive and hate clicks, with beleaguered editorial director Paul Maidment throwing up two or three empty posts a day just so there aren’t crickets. At that point, it becomes clearer than ever that there was never a plan for Deadspin; it’s not like they’re going to staff up or anything. Either they shut it down forever or spin it off the way they’re discussing spinning off Clickhole, another G/O property. Maybe they find a wealthy benefactor who misses the site and wants to bring it back, or maybe they just stop entirely. You should know that I personally consider this the best-case scenario.
They bring back the politics … but from the right.
Anyone who has ever written about sports and politics online knows that when someone tells you to “stick to sports,” what they’re really saying is “You have written about sports and politics in a way that clashes with my personal beliefs.” And that almost always comes from the right, not the left. Put it this way: I didn’t see those people screaming all the time to keep politics out of sports coverage yelling at Kurt Suzuki for putting on that “Make America Great Again” hat; if anything, they loved him for owning the libs. So maybe the way forward is do what Fox Sports 1 did. In response to ESPN’s (mostly imaginary) supposed leftward tilt, Fox Sports 1 put a series of reactionary and right-leaning pundits like Jason Whitlock and Clay Travis on their airwaves. If you’re going to zig when other sites are zagging (or at least when you have convinced yourself they are zagging even if they are not actually doing that), you make Deadspin a right-wing sports site. It wouldn’t just be a way to differentiate yourself; it would probably be the thing that would most antagonize the staff that left, which, considering the way all this was handled, appeared to be a large part of the point in the first place. Deadspin: The Breitbart of Sports. The mind reels.
The Mavening sticks.
The trick to making a content farm work — the trick to making it work at Forbes, though most of that contributors’ network happened after the current G/O management had left — is having an existing brand name to attach it to. The Bleacher Report trick only works once: You must do something to get people in first now. This is what Curtis was writing about with Sports Illustrated, and that would thus be the plan for Deadspin now — a hollowing out of the staff but an increase in the number of posts from cheap or even unpaid contributors. This model frankly does not make much sense in the year 2019, but it is at least a plan. Considering the tale of how Goldsher’s post made it onto Deadspin — there was no editing, and no talk of payment, merely an “I can use this, thanks” and then, whoosh, it was on the site. This might be the path of least resistance for this editorial team. It’s possible there’s a Pat Forde equivalent who would be willing to take a job at Deadspin, but in lieu of that, this might be what they’re trying to build.
Everyone forgets about it for awhile, then a new generation takes a swing.
The whole point of Deadspin, in many ways, was that sports was a stranger, goofier place than the media had traditionally depicted. Maybe it’s time to lower the stakes a bit? Think of this new Deadspin like The Daily Show after Jon Stewart left: A place that many hardcore loyal fans abandoned — one that was launched under much controversy — and thus was able to figure out what it wanted to be outside of the initial limelight. When people have asked me in the past how a Deadspin could launch and succeed today, I’ve always said it couldn’t. The site was given time and space to find itself in the relative calm of 2005, and we were able to find our voice without VCs or short-term investors breathing down our necks; the staffers after me then both built off of that and reconstructed the foundation itself, blowing up the village to save it. But now, by definition, when someone launches a big product like that with the appropriate funding, it’s under pressure immediately to make a big splash, or everyone just moves onto the next thing. Maybe the only path forward for Deadspin is for everyone to forget about it for a long time, until some young kid in a hurry decides to play around with the format and make it his or her own, something new and entirely different from anything we’re thinking about. Allowing this to happen would seem outside the imagination of the current management, but during these dire times, one hopes you’ll forgive one for grasping at straws.
Someday I will eventually train myself to stop typing “Deadspin.com” into my browser. Until then: It’s going to be a gruesome watch over there. Maybe there’s hope down the line. Or maybe I’m just in the bargaining stage. That’s probably it.
UPDATE: It appears G/O editorial director Paul Maidment resigned today after a weekend of blogging. Putting aside the madness of all of this, it’s worth noting: I’ve done my fair share of weekend sports blogging. I get it.