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Opinion Deadspin is ceasing to be Deadspin

Employees from the website Deadspin inside their office in Manhattan in November 2018. (John Taggart/For The Washington Post)

In 2004, Microsoft let it be known that it was willing to sell pioneering online magazine Slate. Upon hearing that news, then-Washington Post Co. CEO and Chairman Donald Graham checked with a colleague, who said, “I love Slate.” Another colleague said, “I really love Slate.”

“That’s a good example of deft acquisition work, in case any of you are interested in buying stock,” joked Graham at a March 2005 party to celebrate the company’s purchase of Slate.

From the looks of things, the fellows who own and operate Deadspin didn’t mimic the Graham acquisition process. Private equity firm Great Hill Partners and Jim Spanfeller in April bought Deadspin, Kotaku, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Splinter plus the Onion from Univision Communications Inc. The core sites descended from the norm-blowing Gawker Media. Ever since the acquisition, management of the new company — now named G/O Media — has been clashing with staffers. There have been staff cuts as well as unpleasantness over Spanfeller’s apparent lack of regard for the editorial-business divide. And as this blog reported in July, Spanfeller and editorial director Paul Maidment came face to face with Deadspin’s affection for writing about its own managers. The executives didn’t like what they saw. This month, the company shut down its politics site, Splinter, just as election season was approaching.

Meanwhile, management sparked a reader rebellion earlier this week. After weeks of failing to meet ad impressions goals for an agreement with Farmers Insurance — goals staffers had “believed it was unlikely” the company could meet, according to the Wall Street Journal — management decided to make ads autoplay with the sound on. Reader complaints poured in, staff at several G/O Media sites published a statement distancing themselves from the decision, and Farmers canceled the agreement.

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Now there’s something of a staff rebellion afoot. Writers and editors at Deadspin are expressing their opinions over an edict from management to “stick to sports.” For most sites that cover sports, this would be uncontroversial. Deadspin, though, is different: It publishes a lot of sports content, but since its inception, it has also published plenty of other content its writers feel like whipping up. There are lists/rankings, there are political commentaries, there are media commentaries, there are first-person essays, first-person rants, first-person everything.

“To create as much great sports journalism as we can requires a 100% focus of our resources on sports. And it will be the sole focus,” wrote editorial director Maidment in a memo acquired by the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani. “Deadspin will write only about sports and that which is relevant to sports in some way.” Deadspin’s staffers responded by posting pointedly non-sports pieces and tagging content to rankle the bosses:

In a delicious commentary related to the booing of President Trump at a World Series game over the weekend, Ray Ratto riffed, “Nationals Fans Didn’t Stick To Sports.”

Resistance to the edict resulted in adverse personnel action:

Barry Petchesky had been serving as Deadspin’s interim top editor after Megan Greenwell, who formerly held that position, left in August following disagreements with her bosses. Among the management tricks protested by Greenwell was a push-poll/survey that appeared on the site in late July:

Deadspinners knew then what Maidment has confirmed via memo: that an editorial contraction at Deadspin was in the works.

Upon her departure, Greenwell penned a blast at ownership, not to mention the scourge of private equity in the journalism business. “My colleagues and I know that most Deadspin readers do not want the site to stick to sports. I know this because I have 18 months of experience running the site and 12-ish years of experience reading it, and because I work with people who have seven or eight or nine years’ experience writing and editing for it,” she wrote.

In a statement about the imbroglio, Maidment insisted that the new boundaries still allow room to roam: “Yesterday I sent a memo to Deadspin staff stating that our sports site should be focused on sports coverage,” reads the statement. “As I made clear in that note, sports touches on nearly every aspect of life — from politics to business to pop culture and more. We believe that Deadspin reporters and editors should go after every conceivable story, as long as it has something to do with sports. We are sorry that some on the Deadspin staff don’t agree with that editorial direction and refuse to work within that incredibly broad mandate.”

To repeat, Maidment is the editorial director of Deadspin and its sibling sites. As such, doesn’t he have the authority to shape editorial policy? Isn’t that the historical prerogative of a news outlet’s management? Don’t all editorial directors do this? Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East, says this authority is the subject of ongoing discussions with management. “There are conversations happening today, yesterday and tomorrow between our reps and management about precisely what the contours of this dispute are,” he tells the Erik Wemple Blog. “We are fighting to ensure that our contract is honored.”

That contract features an “editorial independence” clause stipulating that decision about content “may only be made by editorial, including the Executive Editor. Once a story has been posted it can only be removed by a majority vote of the Executive Editor, the CEO, and the General Counsel, unless required by law.” Also: “The Company presented its editorial policy to the union during negotiations. The union will be consulted before this editorial policy is changed.” A separate paragraph enumerating management rights allows Spanfeller and Maidment “to establish or continue policies, practices, and procedures for the conduct of its business, including but not limited to the production and exploitation of Company content, and, from time to time, to change or abolish such policies, practices, and procedures.”

When we asked Peterson whether the directive issued by Maidment contravenes the agreement, he declined to issue a yes-or-no answer, citing the union’s ongoing efforts to get clarity on just how the new directive will play out. Attempting to abridge the new standard, Peterson tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “As long as it has something to do with sports, it’s okay … [noise indicating confusion] … I don’t know exactly what management wants to do in terms of editorial direction.” The dismissal of Petchesky is another preoccupation. “We’re definitely deeply troubled by that. That’s an ongoing conversation as well,” says Peterson.

On one level, the Spanfeller-Maidment stick-to-sports rule makes a lot of sense. There are many forgettable, garbage posts on Deadspin that have nothing to do with sports. Yet the extraordinary latitude opens the Deadspin content management system to bursts of brilliance not to be found on other news sites, no matter what they’re sticking to. A fine example is Drew Magary’s reconstruction of his near-death experience suffering from a subdural hematoma.

What did that have to do with sports, Spanfeller-Maidment?

Another is media-criticism history. Alert Deadspin staffers, with no adhesive relationship to sports, knitted together a legion of Sinclair broadcasters from around the country reading from the same Trumpian script decrying “biased and false news.” Many individuals had previously described how Sinclair was affecting local news audiences, but Deadspin explained it.

That video has more than 500,000 non-sporting views on YouTube. How about those numbers, Spanfeller-Maidment?

Again: Charting broad editorial boundaries traditionally falls to suits. In the case of Deadspin, those suits want staffers to enjoy the freedom of writing creatively on topics connected to sports. Not a bad deal, perhaps. But that’s not Deadspin, that’s something else.

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