‘Pissing Match’ Destroys Once Proud Digital Media Brand in Six Months


On Monday (10.28) the new ownership group at G/O Media issued a direct edict to the Deadspin staff - which frequently dabbled in politics and culture - to ‘stick to sports’. By Friday (11.1), the entirety of the site’s writing and editorial teams - +/- 20 individuals - had resigned. The Gizmodo Group Union issued a statement accusing CEO Jim Spanfeller of “working to undermine a successful site by curtailing its most well-read coverage” and using ‘stick to sports’ as a “thinly veiled euphemism for ‘don’t speak truth to power’.” G/O Media editorial director Paul Maidment countered saying it was unfortunate the former Deadspin staff was unable “to work within [an] incredibly broad mandate.” The future of the site remains unclear. The first freelance ‘contributor’ to have posted since last week’s mass exodus was forced to subsequently resign after receiving a barrage of criticism from site loyalists.

Howie Long-Short: Deadspin founder Will Leitch believes that it took a combination of “malicious intent and a specific level of incompetence” to destroy the once proud brand in six months. He says G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller and Co. made two critical mistakes. “The first was not understanding - at all - what Deadspin was before they started fussing with it.” The second was “running off the staff to the point where no self-respecting journalist will work there again.

Claims that 24 of the 25 most trafficked stories on Deadspin last month were sports-centric - with less than 1% of page views coming from non-sports content - are a bit misleading; just 3.5% of the stories published to the site in September were without a sports tie. Given how sports-centric the coverage has been, it’s clear the ‘stick to sports’ edict was Spanfeller “drawing a line in the sand” in a "pissing match” that’s been ongoing since Great Hill Partners acquired the Gizmodo Media Group back in March.

According to Leitch, the Deadspin team was willing to work within the constraints - despite having issues with management across the board (there was a significant culture clash with Spanfeller coming from Forbes) - until deputy editor Barry Petchesky (the longest tenured employee) was canned. The staff saw the move as an act of aggression and followed Petchesky, considered to be the “institutional backbone of the company”, out the door. The Deadspin founder said that “if [G/O Media] was surprised that everyone quit within a day [of Petchesky being fired], it just speaks to how little they understood about the organization they bought.

Deadspin is a profitable digital media entity, so it’s not clear why Great Hill Partners felt the need to revamp its strategy. Leadership likely believes to scale the business the site’s content needs to appeal to a wider audience, but as Leitch said, “anyone who has looked at Deadspin for longer than a week would know that the staff was never going to go along with the [mandated changes].” Considering the site isn’t posting new content and leadership is going to struggle to replace the team, it certainly seems as if the plan was ill conceived.

Leitch does not foresee a scenario where the two sides could mend their differences at this point. “[Great Hill Partners’] actions have made it clear that they don’t have any interest in Deadspin ever being like it was again (see: liberal, outspoken) and I think the staff was rather definitive in their exit.

Fan Marino: Barstool founder Dave Portnoy - a frequent Deadspin target - has reveled in the site’s downfall. The outspoken blogger offered to put Petchesky back to work as his butler and secretary, proposing a guaranteed three-year contract worth $100,000/year (with full benefits). Portnoy says the role is “not even hard. [Petchesky would] just have to call my Amex black card guy and book my private planes and shit.” Dancing on someone’s grave is typically considered to be in poor form, but Deadspin has regularly served as the self-appointed moral authority always ready to cast the first stone. I can't blame Portnoy for taking his shots when the opportunity arose. 

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