The Adults in the Room

August 23, 2019

There is a version of the story of this company in which idealistic journalists, unconcerned with profit, are posed against ruthless business-doers, concerned about profit above all else. That would be a convenient story, pitching me and my colleagues and friends as people who just care too much about The Truth to yield before the gale-force winds of Capitalism, but it wouldn’t be a true one.

The real and less romantic story is this: The journalists at Deadspin and its sister sites, like most journalists I know, are eager to do work that makes money; we are even willing to compromise for it, knowing that our jobs and futures rest on it. An ever-growing number of media owners, meanwhile, are so exceedingly unwilling to reckon with the particulars of their own business that they refuse to accept our eagerness to help them make money. They’re speaking a language no one else does, proud of their own inability not just to not fail, but to understand the terms on which they’re failing. The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.

“It’s still a killer business,” Kendall Roy tells his father Logan in the latest episode of Succession, in which Logan debates whether to pull the plug on Vaulter, a digital media company run by the family business. “The platform, the brands, ethos and culture are leading edge, and in my view, it’s fixable. All they need is adults in the room.”

It seems likely that a similar conversation played out earlier this year in the Back Bay offices of Great Hill Partners, the private-equity firm that now owns the company where I am on the payroll until the end of today. The managing partners—all of them men, white, and members of the one percent—agreed to buy this company at a steep discount, and to bring in another white male one-percenter as co-owner and CEO. This company had a good platform and strong brands; all they needed to do was hire a few people who could make it profitable. All they needed was adults in the room.

It seems likely that variations on this conversation played out earlier this year in the Thousand Oaks, California, offices of SAGE Publishing, and in the New York offices of First Look Media, and in the Folsom, California, offices of e.Republic. In those three cases, as in the fictional case of Vaulter, the adults in the room decided the magazines they published—Pacific Standard, Topic, and Governing, respectively—could not be saved. It seems likely that similar conversations play out constantly in the New York offices of Alden Global Capital, the purely evil hedge fund that has eliminated two out of every three jobs at the 100 newspapers it runs.

A metastasizing swath of media is controlled by 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. They know what they know, and they don’t need to know anything else.

Since Great Hill Partners bought this company in April, the CEO and his newly hired C-suite have gone to great lengths to show they are the adults here, and that the employees of this company who preceded them are children in desperate need of parenting. 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.

Gawker Media is dead, of course. But it’s not dead because it failed; it’s dead because it was murdered by a vindictive billionaire and there existed no legal infrastructure to protect it. When Gawker was murdered in a terrifying blow to freedom of the press, a shocking number of other journalists said the site deserved it: They should have had more decorum, should have been less rude, should have placated the right people instead of making fun of them. What those journalists didn’t say, and what they still don’t say, was that Gawker made journalism better through inspiring new publications and through pushing the legacy ones to be more interesting. They don’t say that Gawker unionizing made conditions better across the industry. And they don’t say that the company’s websites were consistently profitable and beloved by readers, that the business model—publish stories that people wanted to read, supported by advertising—worked exactly as it was intended to.

Among the people Great Hill Partners has fired and driven out of the company and treated like children are people who have been responsible for creating and sustaining a successful digital media business for over a decade. Even after Univision bought Gawker Media (sans Gawker) and renamed it Gizmodo Media Group, and even after the company was saddled with debt from numerous failed Univision ventures, the core business model kept working. The entire reason I wanted to work here was that the sites kept putting out best-in-class journalism through crisis after crisis. I have no doubt they will do the same now.

Jim Spanfeller, the CEO of this company, meanwhile, is best known for growing 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.

This company’s websites already have larger readerships than most of their competitors, and much more loyal ones. Yet Vox and Vice and BuzzFeed are, on paper anyway, worth billions between them; this company recently sold for a tiny fraction of that. Those companies’ path to those valuations (which are obviously inflated, but that’s not the same as not “real”) was not through scammy advertising on scammy SEO plays, but through investing in sales reps and creative revenue ideas and good stories that people wanted to read. Great Hill Partners is correct that an opportunity for huge profit exists here, too, but they want a quick cash-out rather than the growth that comes from a well-run business. This makes no sense on its own terms—who gets into media to turn a fast buck?—but more than that betrays a curious lack of greed. Who would squeeze publications to save thousands of dollars here and there when hundreds of millions are on the table?

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. In a meeting with the Deadspin staff earlier this week, Maidment said the “stick to sports” edict comes from Great Hill leadership, but that he would “double-check the numbers.” “If the data changes, my views change,” he told my colleagues.The data has in fact stayed quite consistent. Posts on The Concourse, Deadspin’s vertical dedicated to politics and culture and other topics that are not sports, outperform posts on the main site by slightly more than two to one.

My colleagues and I know that most Deadspin readers do not want the site to stick to sports. I know this because I have 18 months of experience running the site and 12-ish years of experience reading it, and because I work with people who have seven or eight or nine years’ experience writing and editing for it. We know this because I read the comments. We know this because readers make obvious every day what they most like to read, and because our traffic numbers are large and growing, and because I have tunneled obsessively into the details of those traffic numbers for the past year and a half. The politics, media, and lifestyle stories will not stop, because my colleagues are committed to giving readers what they want despite any bureaucratic obstacles, and to doing it with enviable levels of intelligence, humor, and integrity.

The numbers apparently do not matter to my ostensibly numbers-obsessed bosses, for reasons I can’t quite understand. When I have told them that the data show that non-sports content brings more traffic and more revenue opportunities, I have been ignored. When I have told them that the data show that readers prefer publications with a distinctive point of view, that Deadspin succeeds precisely because it doesn’t try to be all things to all people, I have been told that being all things to all people is in fact exactly the way to grow pageviews. The reason my colleagues are not going to suddenly start sticking to sports is not about editorial purity, it’s about the opportunity to grow the audience and make more money for Great Hill Partners. But the adults in the room know that we’re wrong, despite all evidence, because they just know.

The richest men in digital media sometimes show they are not the adults in the room in the pettiest ways. The beginning of the end of my time here came when Spanfeller, my boss’s boss, threw a tantrum in an email to the entire company over a story our staff was reporting on his hiring practices, management style, and threats to editorial independence. He accused us of biased journalism based on the fact that we had sent an early draft to our media lawyer, which is standard journalistic practice. He accused me and a 26-year-old reporter who works for me—a wildly talented reporter who has as much integrity as anyone I’ve ever worked with—of trying to “shame and discredit others in our community” by reporting a story. When another colleague suggested in an all-staff meeting that his email was itself an attempt to publicly shame and discredit his employees, he doubled down, saying he is a transparent guy who says what he thinks. The story—which was damning only in that it was a true recitation of facts—was published anyway, not because our bosses “allowed” it to be, but because Gawker Media journalists are not and will never be intimidated by bullying.

After I submitted my resignation, explaining that the ongoing undermining from my bosses made it impossible for me to continue to succeed in my job, and that I believed I was putting my staff at risk by staying, the CEO threw a tinier tantrum. When I passed Spanfeller in the office a week after I put in notice, he let out a cruel barking laugh, as if he was disgusted to be in my presence. I said “you can speak to me, you know,” and he responded in a tone familiar to anyone who was ever bullied in middle school. “I don’t want to,” he sneered.

This man is not the adult in the room at the former Gawker Media, just as Kendall Roy was not the adult in the room at Vaulter and Alden Global Capital executives are not the adult in the room at any of the 100 newspapers they are destroying. Sending a copied-and-pasted company handbook, issuing vague edicts about becoming sites for “enthusiasts,” and making inexplicable changes for the sake of making changes are the professional equivalent of a small boy dressing up in his father’s suit: He is role-playing, deluding himself but no one else.

The editors and writers and video producers and artists and sales reps and product managers and so on—the people who made this a successful company while also making it the best place I can imagine working—are its actual leaders, and the reason that, despite it all, these websites will continue writing things the rest of us want to read. But none of those people are the richest person here, which means they will keep succeeding despite—not because of—the man who is. He doesn’t know what they know; he doesn’t have to know. No one like him does.

This story was originally published at Deadspin in 2019, but removed from the site when G/O Media sold it in March 2024.