Dead and spun: a story in three meetings

The G/O conference room on October 30, 2019. Photo: Victor Jeffreys II, via Twitter.

April 12, 2019:

The new chief executive of G/O Media, the company that used to be Gawker, addressed his new staff in a makeshift auditorium around the central stairs of our Flatiron offices. Jim Spanfeller looked like the main characters from Caddyshack melded together, and had the demeanor of a personal injury lawyer. It was his introductory town hall, and he was there to strike a conciliatory note. He said he wanted to learn. “If I fuck up,” he said, “let me know. My door is open.”

Spanfeller, the hand-picked chief executive of our new owners, the private-equity firm Great Hill Partners, introduced the first members of what would become his “leadership team.” When someone in the audience wondered why Susie Banikarim, our editorial director, wasn’t there, no one on stage could provide a reassuring answer.

Deadspin, the site I helped run as managing editor, had weathered severe storms. There was the bankruptcy following a vicious—and successful—lawsuit, brought by the wrestler Hulk Hogan and secretly funded by the right-wing tech billionaire Peter Thiel, as well as a sale to the Spanish-language media company Univision. But this was a different sort of crisis. We worked directly for private equity now, and private equity is undefeated against journalists.

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The PE industry, if it can be called that, purchases what it sees as flawed companies. It counts on its own brilliance in a wide variety of very specific fields to make those companies more efficient, with the aim of profiting from a sale. In practice, this usually means saddling their acquisitions with debt and/or awarding themselves lavish salaries, management fees and bonuses. When the hollowed-out company collapses, the executives wipe their bloodied snouts and move on. Univision had sold us to Great Hill, in fact, while dealing with its own private-equity investors. 

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Spanfeller gushed about the “content” we produced, but never mentioned anything he liked. The path to profitability and success was direct and obvious to him. We just needed to create more content and let him run the ship. 

Spanfeller had made his name turning Forbes.com into an unreadable content mill a decade earlier. His innovation was to produce a lot of low-quality words as cheaply as possible, under the banner of a brand someone else had established with heartfelt work. It was soon clear he planned to apply that innovation to the former Gawker Media empire.

Originally, Spanfeller told Variety he didn’t “plan to cut our way to growth.” Despite his reassurances, on April 30, G/O Media laid off 25 staffers. That may seem insignificant given a total headcount of 400, but the layoffs focused on the editorial leadership. At the time it seemed hasty and unwise. Eventually I came to feel that it was because those roles presented potential obstacles to what was coming next. 

An email from Spanfeller appeared in my inbox at 4:31 p.m. that day, with the subject line “Moving Forward.” “Today was a tough moment in the very new life of G/O Media,” Spanfeller wrote. “But it was a necessary step.” He described the firings as “process motivated,” not part of a strategy to make the company smaller. And he mentioned his plans, which included removing the firewall between our fiercely independent newsrooms and the ad sales department that supported them. He called it getting “rid of internal obstructions.” It did not seem to strike him that this would remove the trust our readers had in our work. 

The penultimate paragraph of this email contained a series of soon-to-be-broken promises (emphasis Spanfeller’s): 

“As you will soon see, we will be adding headcount across our operations. The focus and requirements of these new positions will often be different than what we had, but we will add. We will hire more content producers. We will build out our go-to-market abilities. We will add depth and scope to our development capabilities. We will find new ways to stimulate consumer trials of our great content. We will invest heavily in our Kinja platform. And we will develop our abilities to support our teams with back-office competence. We will do all this while working hard to promote diversity within our company. And finally, we will welcome our unions as positive agents in achieving all these goals.”

Soon after, the sales department was gutted. The tech department began to complain of impossible timelines to complete tasks, determined without institutional knowledge or feasibility.  Under Spanfeller, the company took on an air of sweaty desperation. It agreed to a million-dollar ad deal and enabled autoplay video ads with sound to reach the impossible terms of the deal. Everything that made the sites appealing to readers was sacrificed in order to feed the beast.

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As spring turned to summer, my colleagues began to leave. Many were demoralized by the transparent contempt from our owners. The company’s head of talent (this means HR) Angela Persaud introduced a handbook which stepped on our collective bargaining agreement, enacted a dress code and attendance policy, and initially banned encrypted messaging in any form, even for reporting. 

A September 24 press release, forwarded by Spanfeller with the subject line “I Wanted To Share Some Good News,” summarized these changes thus: “Cost savings were realized through a more efficient use of vendors, lower facility costs, reduction in freelance budgets, and a temporary reduction in staffing.”

October 28, 2019:

That morning, the rumpled new editorial director, Paul Maidment, who always struck me as vaguely avian in appearance, sent an all-staff memo which essentially told us we could only write about sports. I’m still not sure which recent non-sports article prompted the memo. Perhaps there wasn’t one. “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 wrote in the memo. He was evidently not quite as focused on typos in his message. “Deadspin will write only about spots,” he declared. 

The staff chose to indirectly acknowledge Maidment’s edict by promoting some of our old, popular non-sports articles, and by publishing some new articles that weren’t directly about sports but were well within the bounds of what we would normally publish. This prompted Spanfeller to pull Deadspin interim EIC Barry Petchesky out of an edit meeting the next day, October 29, and tell him to “get the fuck out.”

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The remaining staff filed out of G/O Media’s Times Square offices to take a long lunch. The cheap beer and ear-splitting Halloween music at the Planet Hollywood next door functioned only as a temporary distraction. 

Afterward, everyone but Petchesky went back to the 27th floor of 1540 Broadway and gathered in an office. The conference-call software didn’t work, and for a brief moment I thought we’d all been fired. Our roundabout but relatively painless solution was each staffer calling a coworker on their phone.

Even though I had grown used to these emergency meetings, this one felt different. Deadspin had survived numerous crises over the years by focusing on what we could control: doing good blogs and sticking together. But Spanfeller and his leadership team had methodically broken down the walls that protected the sites, and so he could more directly interfere.

Some Deadspin staffers were prepared to quit; others were still coming to terms with the fact that the job would no longer be the same if they stayed. Through all the various Gawker Media predicaments, I had maintained morbid curiosity about my own job, as motivation but also a coping mechanism. I wanted to see what happened next, and whether everyone would be okay. 

October 30, 2019:

Maidment and Persaud asked to meet with the staff; Spanfeller did not attend. They said they wanted to ease tensions and move us past Petchesky’s firing. I interpreted that as an ultimatum to either get on board or go away. Maidment—who gave the impression someone had been yelling at him for an hour under the best of circumstances—had the task of selling us on the idea that Spanfeller would keep doing as he liked. 

Persaud was there to make sure Maidment delivered Spanfeller’s desired message. She sat against the wall taking notes. At times, she’d briefly antagonize Maidment. During an exhausting back-and-forth about what it meant to stick to sports, Persaud suggested putting one of Drew Magary’s popular non-sports columns on another site. 

When I asked why the head of HR was giving input on editorial decisions, she was caught off guard. “You got me on that,” she said. After a few minutes of silently assessing her prey while the discussion moved along, she told me that she was part of the leadership team and that if I or anyone else did not like that, we could discuss “alternative” options. “Noted,” a fellow staffer said sarcastically. 

The staff reconvened without Maidment or Persaud. We agreed to each make our own choice on whether or not to keep working for these people. There’d be no judgment if anyone needed the money or health insurance. A number of staffers left almost immediately. Some chose to take the night to think it over. 

The GMG Union was meeting that night; I planned to attend and see what immediate actions they were considering. But I came to understand there was no real sense in what was happening. To me, the new management seemed driven by a desire to dominate. (Their decisions didn’t have an obvious business rationale, at least. Deadspin had an exceptionally loyal audience, and according to New York magazine, the site was “firmly in the black” at the time of the sale.) 

It was still up to me and a few others to keep the site active on Halloween morning. Later in the day, Maidment asked if I had any freelancers who could cover shifts on the weekend. That was when it sunk in: Spanfeller’s process would continue as planned. Whatever responsibilities had been held by Deadspin’s 20 staffers would simply be shifted to whomever remained, along with some poorly paid and poorly edited contributors. 

I told Maidment that I was going to quit. He suggested I take a little time to reconsider, but I think we both knew it was done. Once I absorbed the fact that it was finally over for me, I went into a vacant corner office to cry for a couple of minutes about my job of six years, even though it felt silly, then put together a formal letter of resignation. 

PREVIOUSLY: The mess at G/O Media

Eventually, every writer, editor, and producer resigned. Maidment was left on his own to cobble together stories over the weekend. He resigned the following Tuesday. (And did not respond to requests for comment for this story.) After the first day of resignations, a G/O spokesperson released the following statement to the Daily Beast: “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.” Based on Chartbeat screenshots, Deadspin’s traffic is now a fraction of what it was. Nothing has been published to the homepage since November 4. 

No significant updates came until January 10, when Spanfeller announced he was abandoning any possible armistice with the union and would be moving Deadspin–what part of Deadspin, exactly?–to the company’s Chicago offices which serve as home base for The Onion. In a letter, he claimed that our “unnecessary mass resignations” were part of a union action (not true) and that we had harassed a freelance writer who had filled in afterward (also not true, and the aforementioned freelance writer said he learned from the experience). Later that day, The Daily Beast reported that when Spanfeller’s letter was forwarded to staff, Persaud had accidentally pasted part of a different email from her boss, announcing her new annual salary of $250,000. 

(Spanfeller, Persaud, and G/O did not address specific questions for this story. But in a statement[1], G/O said that Spanfeller has “spent his entire career in editorial-driven businesses,” that Great Hill thinks of itself as “growth equity” and that it has funded G/O, which has zero debt. It plans to hire, it says, and its employees “operate with industry-leading assurances around editorial independence.” G/O disputes accounts that say Deadspin was profitable, and described the changes it sought to make at the site as “minor adjustments.”)

There was one moment, as the end unfolded, that still sticks with me. The office floor, as well as the only conference room available for the meeting with Spanfeller’s two heavies, was decorated for Halloween. A makeshift spiderweb was draped over the window; skeletons hung near the couches. The glass door was covered in bloody handprints, along with the words “HELP US.” The person who took that photo, Victor Jeffreys II, was fired via email on New Year’s Eve.

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Endnotes

[1] Statement from G/O Media: “Some reports have miscast Jim Spanfeller as a private equity businessman when, in fact, he has spent his entire career in editorial-driven businesses. Great Hill Partners is a growth equity company committed to building businesses. Unlike private equity investors who financially engineer acquisitions, burdening companies they buy with debt and massive job cuts, G/O Media has zero debt, has been funded with capital by GHP, and is hiring aggressively with plans to greatly increase jobs in 2020. Since April 2019, G/O has hired 48 new employees and will hire more than 70 employees in the coming months. In the 3rd and 4th Quarters of 2019, G/O Media was profitable for the first time since the sites were combined in 2015. Under the current CBA, G/O Media’s union employees already operate with industry-leading assurances around editorial independence, far exceeding anything that exists elsewhere in the digital media industry. It is absolutely critical for a media company to have the ability to make strategic decisions about the overall direction of its sites. The reality is that Deadspin was unprofitable in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Management attempted to make some minor adjustments to the overall editorial direction of the site to improve the marketing partner proposition – a very common occurrence in media companies of all types. With continued investment and support, G/O Media intends to grow all of its platforms sustainably for the long-term, which will result in more jobs and opportunities for our employees.”

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Samer Kalaf was the managing editor of Deadspin. His writing has appeared in Slate, The Outline, and The New Republic.