NEW YORK, NEW YORK — For Deadspin, the impish sports wing of the Gawker empire, the presence of a pink gorilla at a hotel meeting between Tommy Craggs, a Deadspin senior editor, and John Walsh, ESPN’s executive vice president for content, must have felt like a crowning achievement. The site made its name most recently by publishing pictures of Brett Favre’s genitalia, but has also long been a thorn in the media giant’s side, reproducing drunken pictures of several of its television personalities while also relentlessly mocking Grantland, ESPN’s latest venture. The gorilla, in fact, had been planted by Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio while Craggs was interviewing for a job with Grantland, one he ultimately did not get. “A source close to the situation reports that Craggs is fine with the turn of events,” Daulerio wrote shortly after the incident.
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The rivalry with ESPN has existed since Deadspin’s early days in 2005, but while the Disney/ABC-owned brand has mostly maintained its place atop the sports news world, Deadspin has only gotten bigger, registering 1.8 million unique visitors in July 2011, according to Quantcast. That number is up from less than 100,000 visitors shortly after the site’s launch, and the site’s traffic also represents an increasingly formidable challenge to ESPN’s visitor count, which is around 12 million. ESPN was also among the dozens of other news outlets who were finally forced to give Deadspin credit, in stories and otherwise, after the Brett Favre scoop broke. “Everyone here has a history in newspaper reporting so scoops are kind of what drive us anyway,” Daulerio says. “But it’s not like I’m on dong watch 24/7.”
The story tripled Deadspin’s traffic numbers for a time, but then led to several months of the journalistic equivalent of a hangover, as Daulerio sat for interview after interview and others expressed disapproval that the site posted the photos at all. “It’s not something you can plan for,” Daulerio says. “It was pretty exhausting. The reality is, I went through a very, very tough five months.”
The site began with the skeleton crew of Rick Chandler, a San Francisco-based blogger, and Will Leitch, now a contributing editor at New York magazine. Leitch gave readers a steady diet of wry sports analysis and links, but also struck gold early with persistent, increasingly funny references to “Ron Mexico,” a pseudonym used by Michael Vick to get treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. The site delved into more serious issues as well, becoming the first to report, in 2005, that Matt Lawton, then an outfielder with the Seattle Mariners, had tested positive for steroids.
When Daulerio took over the site in mid-2008, he shifted the focus more exclusively to Favre-like scoops, which had the effect of both broadening the audience considerably while also alienating some of its longtime readers, who felt that it was treading too freely in the gutter. What critics ignored were the more serious posts that Deadspin had been doing all along, like a series in 2010 of leaked financial documents that showed how many Major League baseball teams were profitable even as they said the opposite publicly.
Daulerio insists that he has always strived to achieve a balance, even if that translated into lesser traffic for some posts. “You can put in forty-five hours going through the financials of one team and it’s not going to move the needle as much as something that’s very fluky and viral,” Daulerio says, referring to more standard Deadspin fare, like fight videos or Drew Magary’s Deadspin Funbag series. “Once it’s done the Internet kind of takes it one way or the other.”
The site’s staff has expanded significantly in recent years, adding a managing editor and an editorial assistant this year, bringing the total editorial staff up to nearly a dozen, from just two or three as recently as 2009. Daulerio, meanwhile, has been forced into more administrative duties and fewer posts.
Most of the expansion has been at the behest of Gawker founder Nick Denton, who also initiated a top-to-bottom site redesign. Denton also tightened his focus on increasing the number of unique visitors and decreasing the emphasis on page views or commenters. Overall traffic took an immediate drop but has since mostly rebounded, according to Quantcast. Though the company has remained tight-lipped about its revenues, they were believed to be between $15 million and $20 million across all the Gawker sites before the redesign was implemented. Denton, meanwhile, has said that behind the redesign was a fundamental re-thinking of advertising strategy, which now sells ads based on placement and time and not the rate at which users click through. For Deadspin, that means more of an emphasis on attention-grabbing front page stories, while maintaining the steady drumbeat of smaller blog posts. “For me, naturally, it would make more sense to focus on bigger stories,” Daulerio says, while conceding that success on the Internet remains as unpredictable as ever. “But there are no guarantees on that.”
One real guarantee is that there will always be new challengers, and Grantland represents the latest and best-funded. The site’s old-school look, stream of brand-name writers, and persistent focus on footnoted narratives that stretch for several thousand words has led some, including Daulerio, to call it a McSweeney’s for sports. But Daulerio hastens to add that Deadspin will continue to be free to do things that Grantland could never do. Part of that reason is Grantland’s corporate ownership, and the fact that ESPN probably would have never signed off on the pink gorilla hijinks, while Denton likely didn’t think twice about the stunt, if he thought of it at all. Daulerio concedes that such freedom is rare, and doesn’t plan on giving it up soon.
“There’s not that many places that can do that,” Daulerio says. “Creatively and editorially this is the stop that I’m going to be able to do whatever I want.”
[Update: A.J. Daulerio left Deadspin at the end of 2011 to become the editor of Gawker. Tommy Craggs is now Deadspin’s editor.]
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