Making sense of Zombie Deadspin

Fundamental Hype was among those saddened to learn of the effective dismantling of OG sports blog Deadspin, the masthead, ops and sales teams of its latest incarnation having all left or been let go by new management form private equity firm Great Hill Partners, who bought it as one of a series of left-over parts following Peter Theil’s court-assisted dismantling of the company previously known as Gawker Media. Friend of Fundamental Hype David Roth was one of the very talented contributing editors relieved of their duties. He was on the Chapo Trap House podcast Monday (link to full episode) expressing a puzzlement shared by colleagues Tom Ley, Parry Patchesky, and Megan Greenwell in an interview with Slate yesterday.

To hear them tell it, Great Hill seemed determined to strip Deadspin of any and everything that made it unique and brought it traffic. A private equity firm sending in spreadsheet-equipped suits to trim costs and juice margins, or legal assassins to grind the staff down on benefits wouldn’t have surprised anyone. But actively fucking with the site’s ability to earn was a real curve ball. Roth’s characterization on Chapo put his brief overlords somewhere between dopey gamblers and the breed of inept fail-sons who have thoroughly infected the finance and banking class after having been churned out by the bushel by modern business schools. They struck new advertising agreements that all but actively chased readers on a deal that paid out big on performance targets that the site couldn’t hit organically in a long shot, and implemented a content strategy that sandbagged traffic. Preroll ads ahead of videos autoplayed on every page, as the writers got shackled into writing a wall of effective AP sports copy that could be had anywhere. Roth, Ley, Patchesky and Greenwell collectively shrug their shoulders at the impossibility of a PE-instilled management team’s apparent allergy to business, all landing on the same very reasonable conclusion that they were just plain inept. As plausible as that seems, there’s another possibility. To understand it, we must first understand a bit more about the Deadspin that they dismantled.

I miss the old sports blog, straight from the go sports blog…

Deadspin was one of the first instances of the no-access journalism that grew out of the primordial ooze of broadband, interest and audience that made up the 200X internet. In the oughts, the enormous audience for pro and college sports that had been cultivated by leagues and the media infrastructure that broadcasts them had a great appetite for sports news and opinions that didn’t come from the same media companies who held the broadcast contracts. ESPN and CBS Sports’ well-connected, well-financed newsrooms who concerned themselves with decorum and professionalism couldn’t resonate with fans on any kind of authentic level no matter how hard they tried. An array of 20-something nerds were more interested in a site that made fun of those institutions. Deadspin gave it to them, and it wasn’t even very clever, but it was different, and people liked it. They read it. Steadily, Deadspin got better. They hired and grew until they were actively embarrassing the sports broadcasting establishment by doing the basic reporting required to poke holes in the story about college football standout Manti Te’o’s girlfriend having died before the season. The girlfriend hadn’t even existed. It was an overblown lie meant to put the Notre Dame linebacker in the mix for a Heisman trophy, and it made NBC and ESPN look like blank canvases for sports publicists, because they were, and it felt great to be part of laughing at that.

Classic Mantai Teo costume from Halloween 2013 lifted from Pintrest user Courtney P.

Deadspin and its audience grew up together. They came to recognize what was important and relevant, while never maturing out of a cynicism and sometimes crass sense of humor. The latest (pre purge) incarnation retained the eclectic feel of a counterculture rag while leaving the juvenile-for-the-sake-of-it stuff from Will Leich’s Deadspin to Barstool Sports and other clones. It was the home of Felix Biederman’s highly entertaining analysis of youtube celeb Rich Piana. Biederman’s obituary of the bodybuilder is one of the best obits I’ve ever read. Deadspin hiring David Roth really got my attention. He’s as talented and genuine a voice as there is, even though it’s hard to explain why. Sports is an expression of the human condition, and Roth has a way of examining his own attention and obsession in a way that gets somewhere. He’s universally acclaimed and I’ve looked up to him for years. These are the kind of writers who draw along smart, core audiences consistently. Keeping voices like those at work on a site that never got dry or lagged built Deadspin into an established counterculture brand embedded in the mainstream. It’s possible that Great Hill sees more value in such a property than anyone realizes and, in a tragic paradox, the real value lift on this property is to be realized after the talent that made it is well driven away.

These reporter geeks just don’t understand #branding

Canada’s national print and digital news landscape is dominated by the outsized influence of Postmedia Group, a legacy chain of newspapers that has been a giant financial sinkhole since Facebook and Google hung our collective attention up by its ankles and gave it a non-lethal wound that allows for their perpetual feast on its blood. The company is financed by loans whose principal exceeds is annual revenue, and has no reasonable path to conventional, consistent profit. They benefit from federal government rebates that cover about 1/4 of the salaries of “eligible newsroom employees,” an annual sum less than the interest on the debt. The business reason to back Postmedia amounts to 8- 10% interest on corporate bonds that could be had elsewhere for less risk. But private financial entities are happy to care and feed for it, because daily papers still mean something. In 2019, a National Post or Vancouver Sun article may have had most of its earning power stripped by the social media sites it needs for distribution, but a byline in a daily paper still gives the content gravity far beyond that of a social media post. When Alberta premier Jason Kenney recently uncorked a firebrand response to Amnesty International’s criticism of his threatening of environmental protesters, he didn’t put it up on his party’s website or the Alberta government’s website, or Facebook. The widely shared propaganda letter was carried in the National Post, giving it a different kind of gravity.

Canadian Prime Minister and long-time friend and advisor Gerald Butts, discuss the notion that they could ever lose control of the narrative. Photo from spencerfernando.com

Last year, the Prime Minister’s Office was pushing then Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould around to secure a deferred prosecution for Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin’s transgressions in Libya. The campaign the PMO had envisioned to enable this proposed end run around the judicial process included measures to “give us cover in the business and legal community.”  They reassured Wilson-Raybould’s Chief of Staff that: “if Jody is nervous, we would of course line up all kinds of people to write OpEds saying that what she is doing is proper.” (Transcript of JWR’s testimony before parliament courtesy the Globe and Mail. Anyone interested in the background should read Paul Wells’ excellent “Canada the Show” in Maclean’s.)

Here we’ve got a money-losing news company that is slowly being sold off for parts, performing an intricate and necessary function in a sitting majority government’s plan to achieve their desired outcome on behalf of corporate backers. That kind of power is clearly valuable, it’s just not the kind of value that ends up on income statements or balance sheets, partly because its existence is a hard thing to acknowledge.

Deadspin’s new incarnation as a Bleacher Report clone is obviously far less valuable than its previous version, the one created by the unique, independent staff they just tore apart. But so, too is a boat that has been pulled out of the water and had its hardware stripped. The Deadspin name still rings out. A few talented writers and a less obnoxious UX could easily bump traffic, and whether or not that makes it run in the black might not even matter to its owners. Sports leagues, their franchises, the athletes, their agents and unions, regulatory organizations, and the sponsors all have reasons to want and need to control narrative, and the money and influence to be able to do so. The zombie Deadspin rapidly fading into a sports news monoculture that nobody wants kept the tagline “Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion.” Its brand and domain are an excellent frame and chassis for a machine that sells control of popular sports narrative, but it’ll never work with a bunch of salaried journalists hanging around, itching to ruin everything just to show everyone how smart they are. It would be like staffing Fox News with the Intercept’s masthead.

 

 

 

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About Braden Maccke 69 Articles
Founder and Editor in Chief at Fundamental Hype, a blog about venture stage finance and the media that supports it.

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