The announcements, which started Wednesday and continued into Friday, arrived days after a new directive to publish only sports and sports-adjacent content was issued by chief executive Jim Spanfeller and editorial director Paul Maidment of G/O Media, Deadspin’s parent company. Interim editor in chief Barry Petchesky was fired Tuesday, and subsequently the entire staff quit, a stunning development that gutted one of the landmark online sports publications.
On Friday, the accomplished Washington-based writer Dave McKenna confirmed he had quit, leaving the site without any of its editorial staff, according to its former editor. A spokesman for G/O Media said Deadspin intends to hire a new team of writers.
On Thursday morning, the site’s highest-profile writer, Drew Magary, had announced he was departing.
“I resigned from Deadspin this morning,” he tweeted. “That was a fun time you and me had there all those years, wasn’t it? Let’s do it again sometime.”
The mass resignations are the culmination of a bitter struggle over the site’s direction and editorial independence.
“From the outset, CEO Jim Spanfeller has worked to undermine a successful site by curtailing its most well-read coverage because it makes him personally uncomfortable,” the Gizmodo Media Group Media Union wrote in a statement. “This is not what journalism looks like and it is not what editorial independence looks like. ‘Stick to sports’ is and always has been a thinly veiled euphemism for, ‘Don’t speak truth to power.’ In addition to being bad business, Spanfeller’s actions are morally reprehensible.”
In a statement Wednesday, a G/O spokesman wrote: “They resigned and we’re sorry that they couldn’t work within this incredibly broad coverage mandate. We’re excited about Deadspin’s future and we’ll have some important updates in the coming days.”
Much of the staff began to quit Wednesday evening following a tense meeting with Maidment and Deadspin staff.
“We had a tremendous amount of editorial freedom at Deadspin,” said former editor Dan McQuade, who quit Thursday. “That was one of the best things at Deadspin. If they shifted to a different mandate and there’s a plan, then I could think about going along with it. But they couldn’t answer specific questions about the mandate. You can ask ‘Is this a sports story or is it not?’ about so many things and say, ‘It’s eight percent sports!’ and wonder if that’s enough. If you don’t have clear guidelines with a mandate like that, then it’s going to be a mess. That’s what it felt it was going to be.”
Among other writers leaving the site was Laura Wagner, who wrote a lengthy investigative piece that was critical of Spanfeller’s management and hiring practices at G/O. Others who quit included Chris Thompson, Lauren Theisen, Patrick Redford, Kelsey McKinney, Albert Burneko, Luis Paez-Pumar, Samer Kalaf, Dom Cosentino and editor-at-large David Roth. Longtime editor Tom Ley also announced he was leaving the site.
Diana Moskovitz, a senior editor, announced on Tuesday that she had previously given notice that she would leave. Magary, one of Deadspin’s longest-tenured writers and a successful novelist, had become well known for features ranging from a reader mailbag to biting NFL previews to his annual “Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog.”
For months, the Deadspin staff has clashed with management with the conflicts often played out in public. In April, Deadspin and its sister sites — Kotaku, the Onion, Lifehacker and others — that now make up G/O Media were sold by Univision, the mainly Spanish-language media giant, to private equity firm Great Hill Partners, which created G/O Media.
In August, then editor in chief Megan Greenwell quit over a disagreement with Spanfeller’s push for content more strictly related to sports. Monday’s memo to staff from Maidment codified the policy.
“We have plenty of other sites that write about politics, pop culture, the arts and the rest, and they are the appropriate places for such work,” the memo read.
The directive was a shot across the bow for a site that fiercely values its editorial independence and has often published popular content having little to do with sports, both of the whimsical and political variety, from ranking the best cereals to a video that stitched together clips of news anchors on Sinclair Broadcast Group TV stations from around the country reading from the same script and attacking “biased and false news.”
On Tuesday, the day after the memo was sent, Deadspin staffers began posting or promoting articles with very little connection to sports, tagging them with the label “Stick to Sports.” By the afternoon, the site was featuring stories new and old about dogs, an irate coffee shop customer, wedding dress codes, a pumpkin thief and President Trump.
On Thursday, a G/O spokesman issued another statement proclaiming that 24 of the site’s 25 most-read stories in September were sports stories. “While amusing, our readers haven’t actually come to Deadspin for stories like, ‘Classic Rock, Ranked’ or ‘You’re Goddamned Right It’s Layering Season’ …,” it read.
Multiple people with knowledge of Deadspin’s traffic numbers, however, said non-sports content, on average, performs better than straight sports stories.
In another sign of unrest, Deadspin and its G/O sister sites posted articles on Monday that invited readers to email the sites’ management directly to voice displeasure about autoplay videos that had been introduced recently. Those posts were removed soon after they were published, which staffers viewed as an encroachment on their collectively bargained editorial independence. (A G/O Media spokesman said the collectively bargained process for the removal of the posts was followed.)
Founded in 2005 by Will Leitch, Deadspin first made its name as part of the Gawker network with biting criticism of mainstream media outlets and personalities, as well as crude jokes and more traditional sports updates. But it expanded its ambitions and its staff, and by 2013 the site broke the story of how Notre Dame star Manti Te’o’s deceased girlfriend was a hoax. Univision bought the site out of bankruptcy in 2016 after former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, sued Gawker for invasion of privacy.
The site also became something of a proving ground for mainstream outlets, with Deadspin alumni today working at the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post and other publications.
Several prominent journalists mourned the site’s mass exodus and saluted the departing writers on Wednesday, with Jon Bois of SB Nation writing that “it’ll be weeks and months before a lot of us as readers fully understand what we’re losing in that place.”
“The way my colleagues (are) walking out with their heads held high in the face of total cowardice on the part of their bosses is (an) … inspiration,” Greenwell tweeted. “I am so proud to be a Deadspinner.”