Editorial Independence and Money

October 30, 2019

Like any normal reader, I have mixed and varied reactions to the things posted on Deadspin, a venerable and popular blog presumably about sports but more about… things. However, I do not have mixed feelings about whether Deadspin should exist, or whether it has written, reported, and uncovered some truly incredible things in addition to creating the Hater’s Guide to the Williams Sonoma Catalog. My feelings to both of those things are extremely affirmative.

So it’s too bad that in the weird, continuing jihad against everything ever associated with the defunct-for-a-while Gawker Media, a bunch of private equity — look, let’s just say “people” instead of “morons” — are effectively driving the site into the ground and out of existence with not just a bad plan for running a website/business, but a boring one. Does it get any more predictable than —

  1. stuffing the site with the loudest, most annoying (autoplay!) advertisements possible, and tons of third party tracking javascript
  2. driving out beloved staff members and clearly skilled, well-credentialed, leadership (not over money, but editorial practices)
  3. hiring a bunch of bros from Forbes and other worthless, despised internet organs
  4. … and finally putting the kibosh on what makes Deadspin, well, Deadspin but issuing an ESPN-style “stick to sports” mandate that couldn’t possibly, in a million years, work?

No, it does not. These goobers are wrong, they are murdering something that should probably exist, and they will walk away with nothing. This isn’t an investment in anything other than eliminating Deadspin, which was probably the idea.

Don’t get mad, get even.

But anyone can say that, and a lot of people will do exactly that, and do it better than I ever could. So instead, I’m going to ask this — how do people like the writers and minds behind Deadspin, Splinter, and other publications that disappear at the whims of a billionaire protect themselves from something like this?

I’ve seen lots of editorial unions pop up recently, and I think unions are cool and a good idea. But ultimately, I don’t think they’ll do anything to stop this kind of publication murder. The private equity guys are going to ruin Deadspin in ways that can’t be countered with collective bargaining, and in the end they’ll simply make it so no one wants to work there, so no one will, end of story. Unions work when there’s a threat of mutually assured destruction, but the problem is that the union can only destroy Deadspin; it can’t destroy Grey Hill Partners or whatever the hell they’re called, so if those guys are fine with Deadspin being destroyed (and they clearly are), that’s what will happen. Checkmate.

Ultimately, Deadspin can’t be saved because Deadspin — like the editorial staffs at most publications — doesn’t control how they make money, and therefore are at the mercy of business people. Now again, if those business people need the publication to work, they have some skin in the game, and you can reason/bargain with them. I have worked at organizations with this shared fate; where business people want to make money off of great journalism (or at least good, useful journalism), and that dance is danced. It’s fine.

But a lot of situations are not like that at all, which too often leads to hastily formed, realtively weak unions making “HOW DARE YOU, SIR” statements on Twitter and not a lot else, other than a slow bleed of talent and the eventual defenestration and Sports Illustrated-fication of a publication. This is no way to grow a media ecosystem.

Great journalism needs business allies, with aligned interests. It just does. And I really do think that means some journalists need to go into business (and some do, but I want MORE), just as more technology companies need to form without raising huge amounts of venture capital that then necessitate huge returns that themselves necessitate deception and monopolies and anti-civic behavior. Can you imagine how great Facebook could be (as a product) if they only ever wanted/needed to make $100 million a year in revenue? Does being able to have 50,000 employees and buy Oculus Rift and all that make up for the cost of needing to ruin democracy to meet revenue targets? I would venture that it does not.

Similarly, journalism HAS to get into advertising, or whatever form of revenue it expects to generate in order to pay its bills. Outsourcing to third party ad networks, Facebook, Google, etc., is cutting a deal with the devil. Saying “you handle the money, and we’ll handle the journalism” is a fine way for two journalists to start a publication. It is not a fine way to work with a bunch of people who don’t actually care about journalism.

So that’s what I want. I don’t want Deadspin writers to go find a bunch of business people and try again with a bigger promise of editorial independence. I want someone who is mad, right now, about what’s happening to Deadspin to build a business — even a small one — that is focused on owning it’s own financial future, so it can determine its own management and policies, and make sure this kind of thing never, ever happens to it again.

Not sure I can help, but if I think of any ideas I’ll let you know.