Nick Denton, in the last post published by Gawker before it was shuttered in 2016, laid out the structural reasons for his website’s ruin: a new oligarchic, “techlord” class that was more than willing to destroy an independent media outlet over a personal grudge. “They are as sensitive to criticism as any other ruling class,” Denton wrote, “but with the confidence that they can transform and disrupt anything, from government to the press.” Denton titled his post “How Things Work,” in homage to a tag for Gawker stories that revealed the hidden machinations that govern our lives. “And so Gawker’s demise turns out to be the ultimate Gawker story,” he said. “It shows how things work.”
The empire Denton created, which in addition to Gawker included the sites Jezebel and Gizmodo and Deadspin, has been in limbo ever since, passing through an uneasy period at Univision before landing in the arms of the private equity firm Great Hill Partners earlier this year, which rebranded the conglomerate G/O Media. Now Deadspin, too, is effectively dead, after Great Hill demanded that its writers “stick to sports” and fired interim editor-in-chief Barry Petchesky for refusing to abide by that dictum. A group of Deadspin staffers quit en masse in solidarity, all but hollowing out a site that had not only been a beloved destination for literally millions of readers, but was also a cash cow for its owners.
It is tempting to see the demise of Deadspin as another depressing instance of how things work: a private equity firm full of almost comically idiotic media bros blunders into a successful media property and destroys it because the only thing it knows how to do is juice ad impressions. But the collapse of Deadspin is so spectacularly stupid, so clearly self-inflicted, that it has an epochal quality. If there were any justice in the world, the site’s absurd decline, which could not better contrast the integrity and talent of Deadspin’s staffers on one side and the craven shit-eating of their corporate masters on the other, would serve as a wake-up call to the powers that be. Since there isn’t, it’s almost certainly a harbinger of much worse to come.
A lot has been written over the last few years about just how terrible private equity has been for the media. Newsrooms in cities across the country have been decimated by draconian cuts, while fat cats load up newspapers with debt and profit handsomely. G/O Media is the latest and best example of private equity’s catastrophic influence on journalism.
Over more than a decade, Deadspin has built an audience with hilarious and incisive coverage that is focused on sports but drifts into a number of other areas—politics, film, dogs. Its coverage of President Trump has been particularly excellent (and consistently well-read), but the site has also featured a number of other popular non-sports features, from its pop culture coverage in The Concourse to Drew Magary’s annual hate-reading of the Williams-Sonoma catalog.
G/O responded to the success of Deadspin’s non-sports pieces by ... telling it to stick to sports. In a memo sent to staff on Monday, its editorial director Paul Maidment wrote, “To create as much great sports journalism as we can requires a 100 percent focus of our resources on sports. And it will be the sole focus. Deadspin will write only about sports and that which is relevant to sports in some way.” The brilliant thinking behind the memo: Take the stuff that made Deadspin unique and indispensable and profitable and throw it in the trash. The lack of any discernible rationale for management’s decision-making drove Megan Greenwell, the site’s former editor-in-chief, to hair-tearing exasperation: “They know what they know, and they don’t need to know anything else,” she wrote in a bruising fuck-thee-well post.
At the same time as they were micromanaging Deadspin’s editorial content, Maidment and CEO Jim Spanfeller were fighting another needless battle with the site’s readers. Everyone but Spanfeller, it seems, was furious about obnoxious autoplay video ads that disrupted the ability to read the blogs that people came to the site to read. The Wall Street Journal revealed that G/O had made a $1 million deal with Farmers Insurance to deliver nearly 50 million impressions; the only way to get that many impressions, it turned out, was to spam readers and thereby effectively defraud its sponsor. Hilariously, it didn’t even work: Farmers pulled the advertising deal amid the outcry, The Daily Beast’s Max Tani reported on Wednesday.
The whole debacle gets at a larger problem with private equity in media. In theory, private equity is supposed to work like this: A firm buys a struggling business and institutes a series of changes in quick succession; these changes make the business more efficient and profitable; the firm then sells the business for a profit. “That strategy,” The Harvard Business Review’s Felix Barber and Michael Goold wrote a decade ago, “which embodies a combination of business and investment-portfolio management, is at the core of private equity’s success.”
But in practice, particularly in the media, what you get a lot of the time is a version of what you’re getting at G/O: The product suffers, the staff suffers, and business suffers. That is apparently because the default mindset of the corporate class, when it looks across the decrepit media landscape, is that this is an industry that has no rosy long-term outlook—that it is worth nothing but what you can get out of it in the short term.
There’s a justified tendency to treat these corporate raiders as slick and evil and, now, stupid. But when it comes to the health of the media as an industry, well, they’re not totally wrong. This is an industry that used to make scads of money, as Reeves Wiedeman most recently pointed out in his feature on the struggles of Condé Nast; now it is less an industry than an institution, and no one has really figured out how to keep that institution from crumbling to dust.
Except, maddeningly, places like Deadspin. Any financial entity that is in the media business will hopefully look at what’s happened at G/O as a warning. The staff of Deadspin and its sister sites have shown remarkable courage in fighting back and walking out. They have done enormous damage to the reputation of Great Hill and to private equity more broadly. And they have shown that there is a way to rake in profits in this godforsaken business: by being smart, thoughtful, and funny, by making something people actually care about.
The problem is that there aren’t a lot of sites like Deadspin. When combined with Facebook and Google’s near total takeover of the advertising business, you have an environment that’s lethal toward creativity. So when private equity and other members of the oligarchic class survey the world of media, they see the devastation that the internet has wrought: a pile of enervated news organizations and an endless stream of sameness. And they figure, why bother doing anything else? It’s just the way things work now.