It’s hard out here for a publication.
If you don’t believe me, just ask anyone that works in the media. Many of them will tell you that, if they’re not having their profession denigrated by folks in the highest echelons of power, they’re watching helplessly as the places they work for—or read on the regular—are changed for the worse, or shuttered completely by, as writer Megan Greenwell put it, “private-equity vultures and capricious billionaires and other people who genuinely believe that they are rich because they are smart and that they are smart because they are rich, and that anyone less rich is by definition less smart.”
Greenwell had first-hand knowledge of this insanity when she said that on her way out the door at Deadspin, the almost-universally beloved sports and culture site where she spent a mere 18 months in the role of editor-in-chief. As you may or may not know, the site—and a wealth of other fantastic websites like The Onion, The AV Club, Kotaku, and The Root—were purchased in April for an undisclosed sum by Great Hill Partners, a private equity firm based in Boston. They quickly installed Jim Spanfeller, who previously ran Forbes.com, and Spanfeller brought in his Forbes crony Paul Maidment as editorial director.
Behind the scenes, it’s been a shitshow ever since. As Greenwell’s colleague Laura Wagner reported in August, there have been questionable hiring practices (often white dudes were installed in senior positions instead of equally-qualified female employees) and attempts to interfere with the editorial independence of the site. And it should be noted that both Wagner and Greenwell’s pieces critical of Deadspin were published on Deadspin, a testament to the strength of the union that the writers belonged to. Without their contractual insistence that management could not dictate what editorial covers, those stories would have been instantly deleted or spiked.
In recent weeks, things have only gotten more fucked. On Monday, an internal memo from Maidment leaked, in which he insisted that the site only write stories that are connected to sports in some way. That’s something that Deadspin hasn’t worried about since it began. Yes, they stay on top of the big games and big sports stories, but they have gamely and intelligently veered into political and cultural commentary and absolutely hilarious stories like shit-talking the Williams-Sonoma catalog or the fate of a gigantic rubber duck. While the new management would have you believe that the only reason people visit Deadspin is for sports stories, the numbers don’t bear that out. When their writers don’t stick to sports, those pieces get twice the traffic.
Since that memo leaked, Deadspin has been taking on water. Their interim editor-in-chief Barry Petchesky (who took over for Greenfield) was fired for, as he put it on Twitter, “not sticking to sports.” The staff initially revolted by filling their front page with non-sports stories, including my personal favorite, Tom Ley’s groundbreaking expose on dogs that he met while living in Mexico City. But after Petchesky’s firing, at least eight writers for Deadspin, including Lauren Theisen, Patrick Redford, and Kelsey McKinney, quit their jobs.
So… why in the hell should the fate of Deadspin matter to you, our loyal Mercury readers? As I said at the start, it’s hard out here for a publication. Print media is on the ropes with many a newspaper, alt-weekly, and magazine closing its doors, or, like we and the Oregonian had to do, changing how often they’re published. Or they have to face the slings and arrows of our shit-stirrer-in-chief, who just canceled the White House's subscriptions to the Washington Post and New York Times. Online publications aren’t faring much better. Over the past decade, we’ve had to watch beloved sites like Grantland, Splinter, Wondering Sound, and Gawker shut down due to interference and mishandling by billionaires and their sycophants.
Yes, the goal with all of this is to make money. You can’t keep the lights on or pay your writers and designers and editors and IT workers without it. But what does it say when that need to turn a profit comes at the expense of what is being covered on these sites and in these print publications? What does it mean for the biggest paper in our state to not have a writer on staff covering the vital music scene or to not have a full-time movie critic? What does it mean for our sanity when one of the smartest and funniest websites around gets kneecapped by folks who refuse to look beyond their spreadsheets and decide to fix something that wasn’t broken to begin with?
It means that, if the greedy fuckers at the top of these greasy pyramids are going to get away with something this wrongheaded, we are doomed. I’m not just saying that as someone who worries about losing a steady paycheck if the media landscape becomes even more barren. I say that as someone who wants to remain informed and entertained by smart people and not just get force-fed party-line narratives that a bot could produce. What is happening at Deadspin is a microcosm of what is going down in nearly every industry—and government agency—you can think of. Just as the former writers and editors for that site have done, and as their union reps are doing right now, don’t let any of this happen without a fight.