Despite a staff exodus, months of subsequent inactivity and a long, accusation-filled dispute with a union representing staffers at several of its brands, G/O Media remains committed to resurrecting Deadspin.
The 15-year-old sports site, whose irreverent and wide-ranging commentary once attracted a massive audience—reaching 19 million unique visitors as recently as last October—ground to a halt in November, when all of its remaining editors chose to leave rather than comply with a directive to stick to covering sports, one of multiple actions that staffers saw as undue meddling by management under private equity owner Great Hill Partners, which acquired Deadspin and other former Gawker Media properties earlier in 2019.
While the author of the controversial “stick to sports” memo, editorial director Paul Maidment, resigned himself last November after a brief attempt to keep the site running, G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller has vowed that Deadspin will live again.
His latest shot at restoring the site began to take shape in January, when the company hired former New York Daily News editor-in-chief Jim Rich as Deadspin‘s top editor, tasked with building a new team that could help the site emerge from the ashes and win back its readers.
In the four months since, Rich has been elevated to editorial director across G/O Media’s portfolio, a role left vacant since Maidment’s resignation, and a Daily News colleague, former sports editor Eric Barrow, has been brought in as Deadspin‘s new EIC. Moreover, the site is once again publishing new content, adding a handful of veteran sportswriters to its ranks in recent weeks, including former Daily News and Sporting News writer Jesse Spector and sports radio hosts and columnists Julie DiCaro and Rob Parker.
Folio: asked both Rich and Barrow about their vision for the “new” Deadspin as well as their take on what unfolded at G/O Media late last year. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Folio: What attracted you to Deadspin and G/O Media?
Jim Rich: Aside from all of the well-documented turmoil that went on there last fall, from a journalist’s standpoint, it’s still a title that holds significant sway. If you had the opportunity to do good journalism, it’s something you’d be foolish not to want to take on.
Eric Barrow: Deadspin gives writers the opportunity to take on stories beyond the actual games and stats, focusing on where politics, social justice, gender issues, the environment, pop culture and sports intersect. We’re able to do investigative sports journalism in a time when few outlets are.
Folio: What type of mandate have you been given with regards to coverage? Should readers expect Deadspin to stick to sports?
Barrow: I haven’t been given, nor shared with my writers, any sort of mandate. I can’t comment on decisions made in the past, but under my leadership, I tell my writers just to continue to do the sports stories we feel need to be told, wherever that might lead us.
Folio: What makes a good Deadspin story, from your perspective?
Rich: We’ve really had to get creative in how we’ve gone about covering topics that have been adjacent to sports and at that crucial intersection between sports, politics and society as a whole. I think a good example is the Lori Loughlin story that was posted today [Thursday, May 21].
We’re putting a spotlight on malfeasance and injustice, the powerful taking advantage or stepping in line of the less powerful in society. I think this story, and many others, highlights that.
Folio: What makes a good Deadspin writer?
Rich: For the most part, we’re looking for people who look at the world in ways that are not necessarily going to be in lock step with the rest of the industry, and when I say industry I mean mostly sports, but also across other genres as well. People who are able to synthesize information surrounding an issue, do some reporting, and then present it in a compelling manner that’s going to be provocative. I don’t mean that with the negative connotation that provocative has, I mean we’re going to provoke thought and either create a conversation around a given news cycle or issue, or when needed, sort of recalibrate the conversation.
Folio: You’re not shying away from covering politics, but thus far it’s exclusively been done through the lens of sports, which certainly isn’t something Deadspin was doing before. Is that a conscious decision?
Rich: It’s what I was most comfortable doing as the editor-in-chief. We felt like there’s enough in the sports genre to explore there and that we didn’t need to necessarily go to a larger general interest format. But again, I don’t say that in any sort of judgment of what the previous Deadspin was or aspired to be.
I took over the Daily News in 2015 as EIC and there were certainly a lot of people, after a year of my being at the helm, who said, “Oh, he’s not holding true to what the Daily News has traditionally been.” I didn’t think of that as a bad thing. I try not to get too caught up in comparing this version of Deadspin to to previous versions of Deadspin. Our goal and what we’re tying to accomplish every day, and with Eric now leading the way, is to be the best version of what we can be on any given day and in any given moment.
Folio: Has bringing on new writers been a challenge?
Rich: No, to be honest with you. There have been challenges as far as writers coming on and facing some negative feedback, mostly from the social media universe, which while not irrelevant, I think sometimes we forget that it’s not always completely representative of the larger world. I haven’t had anyone say no.
Folio: So much of the old Deadspin’s identity was tied to the personalities and voices of its writers. Is the new Deadspin trying to emulate that same style?
Rich: I’ve kind of addressed this before and I do so carefully. When people say you’re trying to emulate the voice of what Deadspin has been, that’s not possible. I couldn’t bring in a new staff at the Daily News and emulate the Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill voice of the 1970s Daily News. That would’ve been a fool’s errand, and it’s the same thing here.
We’re not making an active effort to ignore what that voice was and what it represented, but we’re also not actively going to be trying to repeat it or copy it. We’re trying to foster the individual voices of the talent that we’ve put together. Over time, that evolves into a more cohesive, larger Deadspin voice, for better or worse. And there will be some who like it and some who don’t.
Folio: What’s your response to the criticism that writers joining Deadspin, or even its relaunch in general, is a betrayal to all of the writers and editors who resigned last year?
Rich: Having had no part in any of that, but certainly having watched it unfold, I’ll say this: I understand that most of the uneasiness or anger there is focused on the company as a whole and management’s role in what went down in the fall. I don’t like getting into this because it’s a no-win situation for me, but nobody’s come in here with the intent of disrespecting anyone who worked here before.
I respect what they did in as far as they felt this was not a tenable situation for them and they collectively walked out. I walked out of the Daily News in 2016 because I was told my Trump coverage needed to be toned down. That was driven a lot by our core readership expressing displeasure with it. I told ownership then, I can’t stand for that, it’s an encroachment on editorial integrity, and I left.
I know it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but this does happen in the industry. I’m no martyr here. My point is, I really wish that the Deadspin situation had ended differently or not happened at all, but there’s nothing I can do now, even by not taking a job, that would change that. All we can do is move forward and try to be the best Deadspin that we can be now, knowing that that’s never going to heal the wounds from the previous situation, nor is it frankly going to change a lot of people’s view of us going forward, but there’s nothing else I can do there.
Barrow: I understand that sentiment is out there. I just tell our staff to focus on the work they’re doing and their story ideas. All we can do is look to tell needed stories, give insightful commentary and continue to create great content. Our focus is the reader, and telling the stories that inspire us.
Folio: What opportunities do you see to grow the brand going forward, once organized sports resume? Do you hope to expand back into things like video and podcasting?
Rich: The pause button has been hit here as we get through the lockdown. Once we start moving forward, we’ll be exploring all and any of the platforms and formats that you mentioned, but I am very wary of saying that we’re going to become very video-centric or podcast-centric just for the sake of being video-centric or podcast-centric. Every decision that we make should and will be based around how it’s best going to serve our readers, which then of course has the trickle-down effect of being what’s best for the business.
Barrow: We certainly want to see what we can do in terms of podcasts and video commentary, but it’s too soon to make any decisions just yet. When sports returns, we’ll have a better understanding of what we can do there.
Folio: Who is the typical reader you’re catering to?
Rich: There’s a large swath of sports fans out who really just care about what’s on the field and what the score is. But then there’s a larger swath of sports fans, who I don’t want to say is smarter, because that’s demeaning to folks who aren’t interested in stuff off the field, but whose interest level and engagement is a little more diverse and intricate. I think that that’s where the sweet spot is and will be to Deadspin, catering to those folks.
It’s tough to say right now. There are a lot of people who are really worried about sports in general, but also we’re all just sitting around worrying day by day about whether we’re going to have jobs the next day. So I always look at this conversation about the importance of Deadspin and what it does and can do, in servicing that audience, as sort of not quite as important right now. But hopefully when we get back to normal, we become a go-to for those people who feel like they’re not getting as wide of a coverage offering from others.
Folio: Deadspin isn’t the only G/O brand that’s seen turnover on the editorial side in recent weeks and months. What’s been your message to editors upon stepping into the role of editorial director?
Rich: I understand what the history has been here. This goes back to the Gawker days with Nick Denton, and certainly under Univision there were other issues, so a lot of folks who have been here at some of these sites through different parts of those periods have been through a lot.
What I say is, if you look at what I’ve done in my career, it’s pretty obvious that unless I’m having a complete personality change, I’m not going to be heading up something where I sit back and allow for the editorial integrity of any of these sites or the company as a whole to be tinkered with or encroached upon. It’s not what I’ve done and it’s not what I believe.
There’s strength in the legacy of specific brands, but we have to be careful not to be tethered to that to the point that we stop evolving. Once you get to that point, it really gets dangerous and you run the risk of dying. Thankfully none of our titles are in that situation, but we should always keep an open mind about evolving towards the future. That’s going to be our biggest goal and challenge going forward.