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Update: We have now found an archive for the “A Note To Our Readers” Kotaku article, and we have added it to the article below. Big thanks Mateusz.
Sporting website Deadspin have had their entire editorial staff quit, after the company demanded they focus on sporting content.
Deadspin is owned by G/O Media, formed in April 2019 when private equity firm Great Hill Partners purchased several websites from Univision; including Gizmodo, Kotaku, Jezebel, and The Onion. Univision had bought these when Gawker went bankrupt in 2016. While the incident focuses on Deadspin, many others from G/O Media owned properties also spoke about what occurred.
On August 23rd, Deadspin journalist Megan Greenwell posted an article that condemned the new management. Greenwell’s stem from allegations that Great Hill had placed rich white men in charge of management, that they were out of touch with those who had less money than them, and demanding a more professional business atmosphere.
“They have attempted to institute a dress code and rules about the hours during which employees must be sitting at their desks. They have attempted to intimidate reporters out of reporting true stories about the dysfunction they have created. They have told experienced product managers that quality-assurance testing and other widely accepted best practices are unnecessary because their years of experience are better substitutes. They have driven out several senior managers—most of them women, myself included—by undermining us and condescending to us at every turn.
Of course, the employees who built the company Great Hill bought are not children, and they don’t need parenting. I know this not because they are my friends and some of the smartest people I know (though they are), but because Gawker Media has always been a successful company.”
Greenwell continues, claiming that management were too focused on profit, and demeaning to staff. Laura Wagner had already posted an equally scathing article on August 8th, also taking issue with management’s race and gender, along with “interference” when attempting to complete work, and a lack of communication.
“In conversations with Deadspin, more than 20 employees from across the business, tech, and editorial departments of G/O Media expressed frustration with Spanfeller’s approach to hiring and his new executives’ lack of knowledge about the company combined with their seeming unwillingness or inability to get up to speed. The employees, nearly all of whom requested anonymity because of fears of retaliation from company management, are angered by a lack of communication regarding company goals, seeming disregard for promoting diversity within the top ranks of the company, and by repeated and egregious interference with editorial procedures.”
Though the rest of the article Wagner takes issue with management being predominantly white men lacking the knowledge required for their roles, and claimed that Jim Spanfeller (CEO of G/O Media) had promised positions in Deadspin to his associates before the sale had been completed.
Wagner also claims Spanfeller did not make others within Deadspin aware of new roles before former colleagues gained the role. Spanfeller denies these accusations in the article. Wagner also claims her new editorial director attempted to halt her article.
On October 25th, The Outline (owned by Bustle) posted Jeremy Gordon’s article entitled “I’m Upset: Deadspin’s terrible, horrible, very bad, no good video ads“. Along with citing Greenwell’s article, Gordon takes issue with the website’s new auto-playing video adverts and other G/O Media websites.
“As horrible as the owners have been, I feel mildly sure in declaring that, were the actual experience of using the website unchanged, most people would simply get used to it in the service of supporting the good people who still work there. But this has not been the case. The new overlords have pushed an aggravating change to the site: the automatic inclusion, in every article I’ve clicked on (and I’ve clicked on a lot), of auto-play, sound-on video ads that begin the moment you scroll down a post.
This process has repeated at least two dozen times: I open up a piece, I start reading, I reach a video clip helpfully embedded by an editor to enhance said piece, I hit play, I realize that sound is playing from two sources, I scroll back up to pause an ad for Farmers Insurance before scrolling back down to rewind the intended clip from the start. Or worse: I get halfway through an article with no video clip, settling into a nice rhythm before the advertisement kicks through my speakers like the Kool-Aid Man and I have to dart back up to silence this sonic barrage. Horrible! It’s just horrible. The change has been levied across the sites at G/O Media (the company’s new name), but they’re most personally notable at Deadspin because that’s the one I read the most.”
The article was also retweeted by Kotaku News Editor Jason Schreier.
On October 28th, Schreier tweeted “If the atrocious ads on our website are bothering you, here is how to contact Kotaku’s new private equity owner management team.” It linked to an article called “A Note To Our Readers“, stating that staff did not approve of, or have control over, the adverts. They also provided an email addresses that went to G/O Media’s CEO, editorial director, and the editors-in-chief of several G/O Media websites, if people wished to complain about the adverts directly to management.
The Washington Post would later report that Farmers Insurance Group (one of the companies utilizing the auto-playing adverts) had begun an ad campaign through G/O Media worth $1 million. It “required G/O Media to deliver nearly 43.5 million ad impressions through September 2020, according to internal G/O Media emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.” However it had failed to hit ad impression goals in the first few weeks, resulting in the auto-playing adverts.
“After failing to hit ad impression targets within the first few weeks of the campaign, G/O Media decided to start playing videos with the sound on as soon as pages loaded, according to people familiar with the matter. That included stand-alone video ads for Farmers inside article pages as well as preroll ads before editorial videos.”
There is a tinge of irony to Kotaku asking others to complain about an advertiser. It is rumored at the height of the GamerGate consumer revolt, unknown individuals had organized protests against allegedly biased gaming news outlets. One of these methods allegedly involved writing emails to those who advertised on websites such as Polygon and Kotaku.
They would cite the outlet’s allegedly poor quality of work, and that the advertised brand would be boycotted. However, due to the anonymous nature of the movement and lack of concrete public evidence, we cannot confirm if such efforts or events ever took place. We also cannot rule out individuals not involved with GamerGate may have become more aware of certain outlets, and began numerous methods of protest.
On October 29th, the Gizmodo Media Group Union (GMG), confirmed G/O Media managers had removed the articles, and that they condemned the decision. “The GMG Union has been informed that posts across our websites asking for reader feedback on an autoplay ad campaign were taken down by management. We condemn this action in the strongest possible terms.” The GMG Union then reposted part of the articles and the email address.
Later that day, Deadspin Deputy Editor Barry Petchesky took to Twitter, stating “Hi! I’ve just been fired from Deadspin for not sticking to sports.” The Daily Beast reported on the 28th they had obtained a leaked memo from G/O Media editorial director Paul Maidment to Deadspin staff to focus on sports.
“To create as much great sports journalism as we can requires a 100% focus of our resources on sports. And it will be the sole focus,” Maidment said in the memo. “Deadspin will write only about sports and that which is relevant to sports in some way. […] Where such subjects touch on sports, they are fair game for Deadspin. Where they do not, they are not. We have plenty of other sites that write about politics, pop culture, the arts, and the rest, and they’re the appropriate place for such work.”
The Washington Post reports that Petchesky “was fired after non-sports stories were pinned to the top of Deadspin’s homepage, in apparent response to Maidment’s memo.” Non-sporting content had become infamous to some who had read Deadspin, even inspiring some “Stick to Sports” merchandise on their website.
The Washington Post reports all the non-sports stories “new and old about dogs, an irate coffee shop customer, wedding dress codes, a pumpkin thief and President Trump” were given the Stick to Sports tag. These stories were later removed from the header, as GMG Union later confirmed:
Maidment offered a statement on the matter, apologizing for his staff’s actions.
“Yesterday I sent a memo to Deadspin staff stating that our sports site should be focused on sports coverage. As I made clear in that note, sports touches on nearly every aspect of life – from politics to business to pop culture and more. We believe that Deadspin reporters and editors should go after every conceivable story, as long as it has something to do with sports. We are sorry that some on the Deadspin staff don’t agree with that editorial direction and refuse to work within that incredibly broad mandate.”
The GMG Union gave an ominous statement after news that Petchesky was fired reached them. “Earlier today, @JimSpanfeller, CEO of G/O Media, fired our colleague and longtime Deadspin Deputy Editor Barry Petchesky. This will not stand. We will have updates soon.”
Other journalists of G/O Media websites also showed dismay for their work in general (1, 2, 3, 4). Schreier’s tweet almost sounded like it was the end of Kotaku. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but to everyone who has read and supported our work at Kotaku over the years, thank you.”
Kotaku’s Editor-In-Chief offered an equally wistful tweet. “Another tough day at the office. I’ve steered @Kotaku through some rough waters before thanks to my amazing team. Can I do it again? We’ll see! We all love the site–and the family of sites we’re in–and are extremely motivated to do right by our readers and viewers.”
Even Polgon’s managing editor Chelsea Stark showed solidarity with them. “The stuff happening at G/O makes me sick to my stomach. I love Deadspin because it doesn’t cover sports. Kotaku consistently does the best work in the industry; it pushes the rest of us to be better. These sites should have the editorial freedom they deserve.”
On October 30th, the damage from the articles appealing to readers over the auto-playing video adverts was revealed. The Daily Beast reports that Farmers Insurance Group had pulled out the advertising deal with G/O Media. Multiple sources told The Daily Beast this was due to the editorial team’s public criticism of the adverts.
Instead of people being fired, the GMG Union was (intentionally or otherwise) ahead of the curve. On the same day GMG Union posted the following statement to Twitter, confirming several Deadspin employees had quit in protest of Petchesky’s firing:
“Today, a number of our colleagues at Deadspin resigned from their positions. 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 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 the truth to power.” In addition to being bad business, Spanfeller’s actions are morally reprehensible. The GMG Union stands with our current and former Deadspin colleagues and condemns Jim Spanfeller in the strongest possible terms.”
Those that have seemingly left Deadspin’s employ have changed their avatars on social media to that of the GMG Union logo.
The GMG Union’s claim that non-sporting articles were well-read does hold ground. In an earlier Daily Beast report, “among other articles, writer David Roth’s political commentary often tops the site’s most-read articles, as has writer Drew Magary’s annual hater’s guide to the Williams-Sonoma holiday catalog.” Petchesky also claimed to something similar on Twitter. Neither expanded upon how many of those clicking on the articles were due to outrage (i.e. to complain about the article in the comments) or other factors.
In the following days it is reported (by The Washington Post) that “the entire [Deadspin] staff of around 20 writers and editors at Deadspin have announced their resignations or otherwise left the publication,” with the bulk leaving Wednesday evening after a “tense meeting” between Maidment and Deadspin staff.
The list of former-employees includes Dave McKenna, Drew Magary, Dan McQuade, Laura Wagner, Diana Moskovitz, Chris Thompson, Lauren Theisen, Patrick Redford, Kelsey McKinney, Albert Burneko, Luis Paez-Pumar, Samer Kalaf, Dom Cosentino, David Roth (editor-at-large), and Tom Ley (editor).
A G/O Media spokesperson said to The Washington Post “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.”