The Senseless Death of Deadspin

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