At my last job in journalism (before I left for a more stable vocation), the company’s owner had an anecdote she loved to tell anyone who would listen. She was never actually trained in the business, so at one point, she decided it behooved her to enroll at Columbia School of Journalism. As she tells it, on her first day of class an instructor asks the gaggle of freshmen what they thought was the most important thing in journalism. “Speaking truth to power” said one. “The facts,” said another.
“Advertising,” said the publisher, who would quickly decide that Columbia School of Journalism was not for her.
She was a very nice boss and I have fond memories of working with her, but I used to find that story much more profound than I do now.
It was a few years into that job that I discovered Deadspin. Around 2008sh, I think. (I tried to find my first comment but they changed some things on the back end making it harder to jump back in time.) I’m almost certain it was through a Red Sox fan I know who posted a link online to something or other.
Immediately I was drawn to the writing of Will Leitch, a man who knew exactly how seriously to take sports, and more importantly how unseriously to take sports, and to a comment section that seemed to feel the same way I did — people who had the cognitive dissonance to understand that sports are amazing even when many of the things surrounding sports were not. Leitch, and the writers and editors who came after him, built on his foundation and created something truly special, something so easy to fall in love with: a place that seemed to love to say Yes.
One of the tenets of the style of improv comedy pioneered by Del Close and taught at most improv schools is the idea of the “yes-and.” You create a scene by accepting what your partner on stage says (the “yes”) and building onto that framework by adding something new and interesting (the “and”). Your partner accepts the new information and adds something new in turn, and so on and so forth.
Now, granted, this is from the outside looking in; I have no idea about the arguments that almost certainly took place over emails and text messages and over drinks at Lower East Side bars. I’m sure they turned down their fair share of pitches. And I’m sure most editors want to be accommodating to their own writers and freelancers - everyone hopefully wants everyone else to succeed. But from said outsider’s perspective, Deadspin, even more so than Gawker, was a website where the main thrust of posting something looked like it was simply whether or not it might be interesting, and if it was, the answer was Yes.
Look at the list of non-sports articles the GMG Union account Tweeted out. All of these are articles that any sports website could easily turn down and no one would ever think anything of it. Everyone would totally understand — Deadspin writes about sports, these aren’t sports articles, what the hell are you doing here, take this somewhere else. Except Deadspin said Yes. Over and over and over again.
And in turn, they trusted the audience to say Yes too, and we did. How to be a Clean Person? Yes. A hilarious rant on the Williams-Sonoma catalog? Yes. A weekly cooking column? Yes. A podcast about the fall of the Roman Empire? Yes. A highly-debated ranking of cereals? Yes. A photo gallery of a weird strawberry a staffer bought? Yes. Coverage of presidential debates? Yes. And by saying Yes, Deadspin built on its initial framework — a somewhat lowbrow, gossipy, muckraking sports website — and became a website about so much more. It became a website about food and music and movies and pop culture and whether space was scarier than the ocean. And yes, it became a website about politics — how could it not, in a time when politics continues to ooze into sports like something from Ghostbusters II? — and wrote about them with the same fearlessness that permeates through any company, media or otherwise, when their employees are empowered by a structure that says Yes.
Were there times where they should have probably said No? Most certainly! Where there times where they should have gone against their instincts and cut the scene short? Sure! And they certainly paid for the times they got it wrong, as any fan of the site knows. But, as the Tweets of support this week from people and places who were occasionally the targets of Deadspin’s ire demonstrated, more often than not, they got it right.
When Deadspin was sold to Univision, I, like many readers, was cautious but hopeful. Even when the company was having financial difficulties, as described in the classic Gawker Media treatment its reporters gave to its own company, you always felt like on the editorial side, things were relatively copacetic. Then came Great Hill Partners, and Jim Spanfeller and Paul Maidment.
All of a sudden — almost immediately, actually — you heard whispers that all of a sudden writers who have spent their time on the job being told Yes found that their new bosses really, really wanted to say No to things that didn’t fit their definition of what the site should be. Even subjects that were ostensibly sports-related, like takedowns of scummy sports media outfits, seemed to be accepted through gritted teeth, as Megan Greenwell noted in her exit piece.
What has made their sudden interest in saying No so confounding is that, even now, no one really has a good explanation for it. The most common guess ties it to the metastization of programmatic ads and Farmers Insurance’s now-infamous million dollar video ad buy; but as everyone in the world has pointed out by now — and despite the repeated claims of G/O brass — the non-sports stuff did better reader numbers. Maybe they believe the site will be more palatable to a wider swath of advertisers, and especially more amenable to brand-humping. (You don’t reportedly suggest sending sales reps to your writers’ interviews for no reason.) Some have suggested that narrowing the site’s focus makes Deadspin more attractive to potential buyers, especially to large media concerns. Still others think Spanfeller and Maidment just don’t like the site’s political leanings. It’s probably a combination of several of these things, but honestly, I’m not sure the reasons are all that relevant, other than to say that everyone screamed that the reasons were bad and that the outcome would be bad, and we were all ignored, and you can see the rubble before you.
What the adults in the room have consistently failed to realize is that Deadspin has cultivated a readership that wants to say Yes too. We’re begging to say Yes; dying to say Yes. We want to say Yes to lousy foreign beer reviews and HitchBOTs and water bills from ex-ballplayers and columns about the big wet president. We want to say Yes to topics we’ve never even seen covered on Deadspin before, because we trust the site and its staff to deliver something that excites us, stimulates us or just makes us laugh at our desks at work. By telling the staff No, Jim Spanfeller and Paul Maidment have told us No too, and the ensuing uproar (cheering the site’s loss of ad revenue! calling the company’s CEO a herb!) is a demonstration of just how badly they underestimated not just our willingness but our desire to play with a group of writers we have all come to trust so instinctively.
One of the prevailing sentiments I saw on Twitter during this whole episode was that the freewheeling spirit and snarkiness of the blogosphere is giving way to a blander, more homogenized product, as more blogs are run by larger companies or private equity ghouls who measure success or failure on short-term advertising numbers rather than the quality of their product. More and more often, a hideous binary is being presented, one that must be fought at all costs: your website can either do good, important, fun, interesting journalism, or it can make money.
To claim that the dead-eyed goons in charge of those homogenized content mills are telling their writers No is to miss the point; I would bet good money that many of those writers probably wouldn’t even think it was worth their time to ask. They know they don’t work at a place like Deadspin.