A friendly piece of advice for whomever ends up buying the former Gawker Media sites: Don’t try to tell them what to write. And be prepared to answer for yourself.
Those are the lessons of an ongoing clash at what’s now known as G/O Media, a “[c]ollection of digital-first brands” such as Deadspin, Kotaku, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Splinter and others. Great Hill Partners and current CEO Jim Spanfeller, formerly of Forbes, bought these sites and the Onion from Univision Communications Inc. in April. The key journalistic properties descended from Gawker Media, the company that delighted in upending traditional media norms by publishing everything they knew to be true.
That sensibility is getting them in trouble. According to company sources, Deadspin in recent weeks has been working on a story about how Spanfeller has operated since taking charge. In the words of one staffer, the thrust is to show that the CEO has put a “bunch of white dudes” in charge and has a poor grasp of the media business. Along those lines, the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reported earlier this month that Spanfeller had stepped over key boundaries separating editorial from business operations.
The company’s top officials, say the sources, responded to the Deadspin internal story by killing it, or at least seeking to do so. “That’s not entirely inaccurate but it’s nuanced,” Spanfeller told the Erik Wemple Blog on Tuesday. As he tells it, Paul Maidment, the sites’ editor in chief, comes from an editorial tradition in which reporters do not investigate their own bosses. Maidment formerly worked as editor of Forbes Media and reported for Financial Times and the Economist.
Journalists at G/O Media said no. Which was predictable: One of the traditions at Gawker Media was unsparing and even excessive exposes on their own management. The detailed excavations of internal decision-making, in fact, frequently left very little for outside media reporters to chew on. In 2018, for instance, three reporters from the Gizmodo Media Group hammered their then-owners in a story titled, “Univision Is A F[---]ing Mess.”
The differing sensibilities came to a head at a July 19 meeting in which Maidment presented the company’s position on self-reporting. It was a contentious affair. According to attendees at the meeting, Maidment attempted to steer a compromise between a group of sites that report without hindrance on their own bosses and a prohibition on all such activity. One idea was to have some sort of “external review” of stories about the company.
In an email to staffers on Tuesday, Spanfeller addressed the dispute head-on:
Spanfeller’s message in this email to G/O Media staffers appears to have been: “You want transparency? I’ll give you transparency!” He rolled in not only the questions to top officials but also the answers. Most of the back-and-forth is suitably adversarial, with a touch of anger here and there:
The inquiries from Deadspin to its own management relate in part to a survey that popped up on the sports-and-other-stuff website on July 25. The questions were baffling:
Company staffers weren’t pleased, and two sources told this blog that the survey questions mirrored disdain that executives had already expressed for the site’s hard-edge media and politics coverage. The union representing the company’s editorial employees — under the Writers Guild of America, East — spoke up about the survey:
Deadspin’s top editor went on record to state that she wouldn’t stand for survey-pretexted interference in the sites’ editorial independence.
There are lots of media organizations up for grabs out there. Barriers to launching a brand-new media company are ankle-high. Which raises the question: Why buy a set of news sites staffed by radical transparentists only to turn around and try to muzzle them?
Watch Erik Wemple: