My favorite website, Deadspin, effectively died this week. The website is still up. But the soul is gone, dead and buried, at the hands of corporate stupidity.
It would not be going out on much of a limb for me to guess that we have featured more stories from Deadspin than any other publication, and I doubt it’s particularly close. And that doesn’t count the stories we first read about on Deadspin but then featured the underlying story Deadspin sent us to. Rare has been the week we didn’t write about a story we read on Deadspin – when I searched “Deadspin” in our WordPress history, there was a hit in 208 of our 294 published posts – over 70%. But that’s all over now.
The end has been a long time coming. The website launched back in 2005. I found it somewhere soon after, and became a regular reader in or around 2009. Back in 2016, Deadspin was sold to Univision after its parent company, Gawker Media, went bankrupt after losing a lawsuit brought by Hulk Hogan (yes, seriously) and funded by billionaire dickhead Peter Thiel. The Univision purchase seemed strange, but for the most part things stayed the same. But then earlier this year Univision sold Deadspin to a private equity firm called Great Hill Partners. Immediately, longtime readers began to notice changes.
Ads became intrusive – shoehorned into the middle of stories. Pop-ups and demands to whitelist the website from ad blockers were constant. I could live with all that, though it was a bit of a canary in a coalmine, in hindsight. The real end, though, began in August with this post by Megan Greenwell, entitled “The Adults in the Room.” Greenwell had been editor in chief for about a year and a half, but this post served as a resignation letter. As Greenwell points out, the employees of Deadspin are not and have not been “idealistic journalists, unconcerned with profit” – on the contrary, they are journalists who are “eager to do work that makes money; [who] are even willing to compromise for it, knowing that [their] jobs and futures rest on it.”
And, as Greenwell points out, they were good at it. They were profitable. And they did it while doing good work and reporting the hell out of stories. But that wasn’t good enough for their new corporate overlords. Greenwell explains life at Deadspin under Great Hill Partners and its CEO Jim Spanfeller:
Jim Spanfeller, the CEO of this company, meanwhile, is best known for growing Forbes.com in the mid-2000s, around the time this website was born. While he was not responsible for the “contributor network” that made Forbes a journalistic laughingstock, he set the stage by demanding increased output at all costs (up to 5,000 stories a day by the end of his tenure). The clickbait and SEO plays and sleazy monetization schemes rejected by Gawker Media were the entire point. Content mills The Active Times and The Daily Meal, which Spanfeller launched and later sold to the Tribune Company at a trivial price, ran the same playbook, and many of his ideas for growing revenue at this company (implementing slideshows to juice pageviews, clogging story pages with ever-more programmatic ads at the expense of user experience) were taken straight from that era—more than a decade ago, or approximately an eon in internet time. The only idealistic belief at Gawker Media was that a journalistic enterprise could make money without scamming people; the guiding principle at Forbes and sites of its ilk was that scams are good as long as they make money.
The question I hear the most about the owners of this company is “Why did they buy a bunch of publications they seem to hate?” I and my colleagues have asked Spanfeller only slightly more diplomatic variants of that question on several occasions. The answer he has given is that the publications didn’t cost him much and that he liked their high traffic numbers. The unstated, fuller version seems to be that he believed he could simply turn up the traffic (and thus turn a profit), as if adjusting a faucet, not by investing in quality journalism but by tricking people into clicking on more pages. While pageviews are no longer seen as a key performance indicator at most digital publications—time spent on the site is increasingly thought to be a more valuable metric—Spanfeller has focused on pageviews above all else. In his first meeting with editorial leaders, he said he expected us to double pageviews. Several weeks later, without acknowledging a change, he mentioned that the expectation is in fact to quadruple them. Four months in, the vision for getting there seems less clear than ever.
What has in any event been made exceedingly clear is that the owners’ vision involves narrowing the scope of Deadspin’s coverage. During my first real conversation with Spanfeller, he told me he didn’t understand why the site covered other media companies. During my first real conversation with Spanfeller’s hand-picked editorial director, Paul Maidment (another Forbes veteran), he said he didn’t understand why we covered politics. My responses—that we cover those things because our readers like them, a thesis that is supported by traffic figures—have failed to make an impact.
It really saddens me to know that someone saw a place and a community as great as Deadspin and bought it just to blow it up. Deadspin made the world a better place by shining a light on both the good and the bad in the sports world. And, yes, in the sports-adjacent world. Ok, and sometimes way outside the sports world.
But that’s what made Deadspin great. There are lots of publications that Stick to Sports. And I’m sure they have readers who like that. But there’s also, obviously, a market for a place like Deadspin, where readers can go and read about sports, but also about other things that affect us all.
This week, the end that began with Greenwell’s resignation finally, well, ended. The corporate higher ups laid down the edict, officially: Stick to Sports. The staff did not do so. Management killed a story, in violation of their collective bargaining agreement with Deadspin employees that gives near-complete editorial control to the staff. Editor Barry Petchesky, a longtime Deadspin writer and one of our favorites here, announced he’d been fired on Tuesday.
In response, a long list of some of my very favorite writers announced their resignations on Wednesday. The site’s most popular writer, Drew Magary, followed suit on Thursday. The site, which usually has a dozen or more posts per day, had three on Wednesday (and each seemed to be not-so-subtle F-Us to management).
And just like that, Deadspin, the funny, intelligent, critical, and creative website that inspired me to produce 1-2-3 Sports each week, was gone. Deadspin focused a critical eye on its subject – forcing readers to challenge popular narratives, to think not about what occurred but why, and to consider how an event has been perceived, and why. I will miss it. -TOB
PAL: I found myself instinctively opening Deadspin the last few days, only to realize again and again that it was essentially done. Deadspin achieved the ultimate goal with me – it was a part of my daily routine. Not just once a day. I would check it quick while waiting for BART, as a minute break at work, it has been part of my coffee scroll for years. Let’s be real – part of the bathroom routine, too.
I appreciated the diversity of tone and ideas, and that it had an edge and reinforced the idea that sports is an intersection of culture, not a lane of it. It didn’t shy away from politics, and it didn’t shy away from funny highlights. It wasn’t afraid of random stories or pulling stuff from the archive. It seemed like a pretty simple formula: is this an interesting story? More times than not, I agreed that the stuff they posted was in fact interesting. Building a news/sports site based on that edict alone seems to be something fewer and fewer brands can do. Deadspin surely wasn’t the first, but it does signify we’re entering a new era.
This week, as one staffer after another quit, I couldn’t help but think of one of the first Deadspin-induced moments of journalistic anxiety. In 2008, author Buzz Bissinger faced off with Will Leitch, the site’s founder, on HBO. Bissinger freaked out that real, honest-to-god reporters like him were being undercut and replaced by snotty bloggers.
The critique isn’t worth revisiting. But think about this: Now we’ve lost the snotty bloggers. The kind of churn Bissinger feared has decimated two separate categories of sportswriters. And it ain’t over. We are fated to live in a world where certain owners will make sure this process continues apace, until only mavens remain.
Curtis writes about the fate of these brands we associate with sportswriting, or – more broadly speaking – professional writing. Their carcasses are bought out and used as a short-term clickbait strategy. There is no long-term plan or mission other than diverting the masses to click on something, anything. Deadspin joins the likes of Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, Playboy, LA Weekly, and more. Curtis calls it Mavening (named after the company that bought the shell of SI).
Deadspin was my favorite scroll. Yes, some days it sucked, but most days it fell in a hard to find sweet spot. The Ringer skews too heavily on entertainment for my liking. The Athletic relies too much on what I’ve liked (as opposed to what I should read). ESPN is a network and not a news shop and the locals like The Chronicle or Star Tribune don’t have or don’t spend the money any anything more than gamers and local gossip.
TOB: Ah, yes. I had forgotten. The Buzz Bissinger HBO freak out with Will Leitch is what made Deadspin part of my daily routine. Classic.
The Nats Are All We Can Ever Hope For
Pro tip: When a team wins a title, always read its local paper for the real deal. After the Nationals – major underdogs against the Astros – won four road games en route to the championship, I went to the Washington Post for my recap.
After my Twins were, again, the suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked a suck in the playoffs, I latched onto the Nationals. It’s always easiest to just root for the team playing the Dodgers, but I quickly saw this team had ‘it’ this playoffs. Strasburg was realizing the near impossible potential of his can’t-miss, number one overall draft pick expectations. Max Scherzer was gutting out wins. Juan Soto was becoming a clutch star – at twenty, a better version of former National Bryce Harper. Old guy Howie Kendrick was hitting super-clutch bombs and doing this with Adam Eaton:
This team was on the edge, and playing loose – the most dangerous kind of team. They came back against Josh Hader and the Brewers in the play-in game. They crushed the Dodgers dreams, and they embarrassed the Cardinals. This team was used to it by the playoffs. They rode that right into the World Series and beat a dominant Astros team. That edge – it’s where the Nationals spent the majority of the season.
Per Dave Sheinin:
In other words, after a month of exquisite play and narrow escapes, Game 7 had carried the Nationals to a familiar place. They had spent so much of the past five months playing from behind — from the long slog of digging out of May’s 19-31 hole to the win-or-go-home games of early and mid-October — that it almost brought a perverse sense of comfort. They were at their best, they liked to say, when their backs were to the wall.
And it all took us to a Game 7. A baseball fan – hell, a sports fan – can hope for nothing more than a season ending with a Game 7. In that penultimate game, the numbers in the game most defined by numbers don’t matter. Pitch count doesn’t matter. A batting average doesn’t matter. WHIP doesn’t matter. All those numbers got us to this game, and now we get to throw it all out and see who the hell can get a hit with two outs and runners on base.
In other words:
By Wednesday night, the Nationals were running on a cocktail of fumes, painkillers, Red Bulls and dwindling supplies of adrenaline. Each player was reduced to his component parts and what each had left in it — how many pitches, how many innings, how many competitive at-bats.
Watching the Nationals make this run, I realized that all you can ever fairly hope for as a sports fan is to get into a situation where you’re one game away. Ain’t that the truth. All we can ever hope for in life is to get one opportunity away from the goal. They playoffs are the best, and Juan Soto is awesome. – PAL
Source: Nationals Win First World Series title, Storming Back on Astros in Game 7, 6-2”, Dave Sheinin, The Washington Post (10/30/2019)
Jumping on a Bandwagon Without Shame
2019 has been a bad year for my sports teams. Cal football has lost 4 straight, the last two in ugly fashion, to fall to 4-4. Cal basketball is unmentionably bad. The Giants were bad, outside of one hot stretch, and Bochy is gone with Bumgarner seeming likely to follow (though I am very bullish on the team going forward). The Kings fell short of a playoff berth, had a strange and unproductive summer, and are 0-4 to start a season many hoped would see their return to the postseason. The Warriors, who aren’t my team but who I root for, look terrible and are 1-3 and Steph Curry just broke his hand.
And then there are the 49ers. It would not be fair to call the Niners one of “my teams,” though. I loved them as a kid, led by Montana and then Young. But those teams were awesome and easy to love. When the team fell on hard times, I cared less. Then they passed on Aaron Rodgers, took Alex Smith instead, and predictably sucked. So they were dead to me.
About a decade later the Niners finally recovered from that idiotic mistake, and there I was furiously cheering them on to deep playoff runs with Harbaugh and Kaepernick. They brought me back in. And then they ran Harbaugh out of town, kicked Kaepernick in the teeth, and moved out of San Francisco. So they were dead to me, again.
Now they are 7-0 and look like Super Bowl favorites after blasting the pretty good Carolina Panthers by a score of 51-17. The Niners defense is the story – their defense is so good that if the season ended today it would be the second highest rated defense in the NFL, ever (amazingly, this year’s New England Patriots defense is even better, with the highest rating ever). But the offense is also awesome, with a creative and tricky rushing attack that keeps defenses guessing the entire game.
So, I’m back, baby! Go Niners! Save me a place to stand on that bandwagon. Yes, I’m a fair weather fan. In fact, I am the fairest of fair weather fans, and I’m ok with that. -TOB
This is a Rant About the Umps, But it is NOT a Robo-Ump Rant
The umpires nearly blew Game 6 of the World Series, which saw the Nats win 7-2 to force a Game 7. But late in the 7th inning, with the Nats up 3-2 and a man on first, the following play occurred:
The play ended with runners on 2nd and 3rd with no outs. But home plate umpire called Trea Turner out for runner interference. The Nats went ballistic; Manager Davey Martinez was eventually tossed. I don’t blame him:
Whose fault is that contact? Either Peacock, who made a bad throw, or Gurriel, who turned with his glove.
So what the hell was the call? As Michael Baumann explains:
The white line that runs parallel to the first base line is supposed to create a runner’s lane, and Turner was technically outside that area. Under rule 5.09(a)(11), which MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre read aloud from the rulebook at a postgame press conference, a batter is out when he runs outside that lane and interferes with the first baseman taking a throw.
But what would you like Turner to do? It’s idiotic. If the umpires followed the rule, then the rule is stupid and needs to be changed. What’s worse is that the umpires made that call in that situation – on a play where the runner is clearly not trying to interfere with the throw and the batted ball is far enough up the third base line that he shouldn’t have been even close to the ball if the throw wasn’t awful. As Baumann put it:
But Turner was running a straight line from the right-handed batter’s box to the bag, which is entirely within fair territory, and more important than the way the rules are written is how the rules are enforced by umpires, and how their implementation is understood by players. Precedent of enforcement isn’t as binding in baseball as common law in the real world, but it informs players’ actions just the same.
The interference call was like getting pulled over for driving one mile per hour over the speed limit, a showily petty bit of legal literalism that contravenes a lifetime of lived normative experience.
And then none of it mattered because Anthony Rendon stepped up and hit a bomb to make it 5-2. Go Nats! -TOB
PAL: I think simplifying the rule to a something about running a straight line would be better. Bang-bang play, but I think Turner is safe on a good throw. I think Peacock knows it’s going to be a close play, rushes his sidearm throw, causing it to tail. Turner runs a straight line, but he knows exactly where he is in relation to the baseline. Exactly.
Another thing I heard John Smoltz say yesterday on the Dan Patrick Show: he said pitchers in that situation are instructed to throw it in the runner’s back for this reason.
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