The Media Today

The mess at G/O Media

August 19, 2019

In early April, Great Hill Partners, a private-equity firm, acquired Gizmodo Media Group—a collection of sites, formed from the assets of the old Gawker, that included Jezebel, Lifehacker, and Deadspin—as well as The Onion, a satirical news site, reportedly at a fire-sale price. The company, renamed G/O Media, installed Jim Spanfeller, formerly of, Playboy, and Ziff Davis, as CEO. The mood in the affected newsrooms seemed to be one of cautious optimism; Great Hill, staffers hoped, would be an improvement on Univision, the sites’ debt-saddled former owner, which Gizmodo Media Group reporters last year termed “a fucking mess.” Great Hill suggested it would honor an existing union contract, and would not make significant layoffs.

Private-equity involvement in journalism, however, always raises concerns. In an early memo to staff, Spanfeller called editorial independence “critically important,” but added, “there needs to be a healthy and productive partnership with the business side.” At the time, eyebrows rose. Four months later, eyebrows have achieved escape velocity. A string of stories—from outlets outside and inside the G/O Media fold—paint a picture of worsening relations between the business side and the editorial side, with the latter’s independence repeatedly called into question. Since the Great Hill takeover, several senior staffers have quit the company. On Friday, Megan Greenwell, Deadspin’s top editor, announced that she will join them, citing “months of being undermined” by bosses.

ICYMI: NPR parts ways with freelancer after Tucker Carlson targets her

The writing was on the wall before April was out. Amid a “restructuring,” 25 staffers lost their jobs; they mostly worked on the business side, but their number included Susie Banikarim, the sites’ “widely respected” editorial director, and senior editors Alex Dickinson and Tim Marchman. Things snowballed from there. Last month, G/O Media staffers told The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani that Spanfeller was taking the company in an “insane” direction. Per Tani, Spanfeller suggested that G/O sites including Jalopnik, which covers cars, and Kotaku, which covers video games, should allow advertiser interests to shape coverage. (The editor of Kotaku said he shut down the idea, and that Spanfeller didn’t push it.) Management has stuffed articles with programmatic ads and encouraged editors to push clickbaity tricks to juice traffic; on the cost side, several G/O sites cut pay rates for freelancers, and bosses discouraged editors from handing out raises, Tani reports. To top things off, staffers found roaches in G/O Media’s new Times Square offices.

Then came the Deadspin episode. G/O Media sites have a proud history of aggressive coverage of themselves—see the “Univision Is A Fucking Mess” story. So it was no surprise when Laura Wagner, one of the reporters on the Univision story, published a piece about her new bosses. Spanfeller, Wagner wrote, hired male former colleagues into executive roles over the heads of senior females who were already at the company and without a public process. Those former colleagues, Wagner reported, included “a sales executive who, sources say, appears unable to give an effective sales pitch, and an editorial director who repeatedly attempted to kill the reporting process for this story.” Prior to publication, Spanfeller emailed G/O staff to say he would allow the piece to run following an “external review,” and to express concerns about “the objectivity and core intentions of the piece.” He circulated Wagner’s questions to executives, along with their answers; that was the first time Wagner saw the responses of Paul Maidment, G/O Media’s editorial director. Wagner asked Maidment to confirm his age; Maidment replied, “I don’t indulge in ageism and hope you don’t either.”

Last week, things escalated further. On Thursday, employees received a draft of a new staff handbook. Per Tani, it said that G/O Media has the right to search staffers’ “vehicles, parcels, purses, handbags, backpacks, briefcases, and lunch boxes,” and review and disclose all electronic communications sent on G/O property, including tweets. It also said employees will be barred from using encrypted email programs, and have to follow dress and attendance codes. On Friday, Greenwell announced her resignation from Deadspin. “I have been repeatedly undermined, lied to, and gaslit in my job,” she told Tani. The Wagner-story imbroglio was part of the reason; a bizarre reader survey stuck on the site over Greenwell’s objections and a management directive that Greenwell “stick to sports” were also at issue. Of the latter instruction, Greenwell told Tani, “That’s not something I feel I can ethically do.”

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Sadly, many of G/O Media’s problems aren’t so unusual. Poor communication and micromanagement are always a toxic combination. The “stick to sports” ethos isn’t unique to G/O; nor is conflict between the editorial and business sides of the operation. G/O’s sites, however, have long been defined by their spiky, rebellious iconoclasm; their pairing with edict-happy corporate overlords was never going to run smoothly.

On Friday, after Greenwell’s resignation, Fidel Martinez of the LA Times tweeted “They’re trynna kill” Deadspin. Tom Ley, a features editor at the site, responded: “The good news is that we’re extremely hard to kill.”

Below, more on G/O Media:

  • The upside: It’s not all bad news at Deadspin. As Tani reports, “despite the internal turmoil and Greenwell’s exit, the company has recently garnered positive attention: Deadspin was nominated for its first national magazine award earlier this year and, according to Comscore data, it reached 17 million unique visitors in June—a record for the site.”
  • “A clash of values”: Last month, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple explored the “differing sensibilities” of G/O staffers and the new management. “One of the traditions at Gawker Media was unsparing and even excessive exposes on their own management. The detailed excavations of internal decision-making, in fact, frequently left very little for outside media reporters to chew on.”
  • “An anarchic streak”: NPR media reporter David Folkenflik said, on WBUR, that the owners of the old Gawker sites need to understand “the kind of outfit that they’ve acquired… Editorial independence counts if these sites are to matter, and at the same time I think the very nature of these sites is in doubt if they can’t find a sustainable financial model. You’ve got to somehow thread that needle.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday’s edition of The New York Times Magazine was dedicated to the paper’s 1619 Project, an expansive initiative that proposes—400 years on—to make the arrival of enslaved Africans a starting point for America’s national conversation. The package charts slavery’s enduring impact on “nearly every aspect of contemporary life” in the US; you can read it here. CJR’s Alexandria Neason wrote from the project’s launch event: “Slavery informed every institution, from politics to healthcare to housing infrastructure. Yet the record does not adequately reflect that, like the founding documents of this country, our misunderstanding of slavery’s awful influence is deceit by design.”
  • In 2017, at the height of the #MeToo moment, a dozen women accused Mark Halperin, a high-profile political journalist, of sexual misconduct: one of the women told CNN’s Oliver Darcy that Halperin threw her against a restaurant window then tried to kiss her; another said that he masturbated in front of her in his office. In recent months, Halperin has attempted a comeback; now he has a book deal. Publisher Regan Arts, whose founder Judith Regan previously tried to publish a book by OJ Simpson, plans to publish Halperin’s How to Beat Trump: America’s Top Political Strategists on What It Will Take. Per Politico, more than 75 senior Democrats already talked to Halperin, including Donna Brazile, David Axelrod, and Anita Dunn. Dunn’s PR firm has worked with Time’s Up, a group fighting workplace sexual abuse.
  • Earlier this month, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, notified Brian Karem, White House reporter for Playboy, of a “preliminary decision” to revoke his hard pass; Karem had confronted Sebastian Gorka, the Trump adviser turned talk-radio host, in the Rose Garden last month. On Friday, Grisham suspended Karem’s pass for 30 days. The White House, it seems, is betting that the delay will protect it from an adverse court ruling; last year, a judge ordered that Jim Acosta’s pass, which had been yanked without warning, be returned on process grounds. Ted Boutrous, who represented Acosta then and represents Karem now, said both moves violate the First Amendment.
  • Two weeks ago, following the massacres in El Paso and Dayton, Trump blamed mental illness for mass shootings. The next day, the National Council on Behavioral Health released a report contradicting that claim: “Many, if not most, perpetrators do not have a major psychiatric disorder; and the large majority of people with diagnosable mental illnesses are not violent toward others.” For CJR, Meg Kissinger has more details.
  • In late June, after The Vindicator, a newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio, announced plans to shutter at the end of August, the Tribune Chronicle, in nearby Warren, said it would expand its coverage of Mahoning County, which includes Youngstown. Now the Tribune Chronicle has purchased The Vindicator’s name, subscriber list, and website; it plans to publish a Mahoning County edition, under The Vindicator masthead, from September 1.
  • Two updates from the world of local TV: Apollo Global Management, a private-equity firm that’s helping finance the Gannett-GateHouse deal, expressed interest in buying Tegna, Gannett’s former TV arm, which owns 49 stations nationwide. And in mid-November, Verizon Fios will shutter Fios1 News, one of two hyperlocal cable-news channels serving New York City’s metro area. Nearly 150 employees are expected to lose their jobs.
  • Research led by Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth College who previously wrote for CJR, assessed the reputational impact of fact-checking initiatives on “misinformation-prone politicians”; it found that rating individual statements has less effect than aggregating those ratings “to paint a more comprehensive picture of a politician’s accuracy.” (ICYMI, Ana Marie Cox, CJR’s public editor for The Washington Post, argued recently that the paper’s fact-checking of Trump’s statements is futile.)
  • And in New Orleans, Nancy Parker, a long-serving local news anchor, died in a plane crash while filming a story about a stunt pilot, who was also killed. Parker was 53. WVUE, the Fox affiliate where she worked for 23 years, has a remembrance.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.