On Deadspin, Gawker, and the War with Major Capital for the Soul of JournalismPhoto by Deadspin Politics Features Journalism
Last week, we lost something special. There was nothing like Deadspin on the internet. Its new financial masters at G/O Media decided that its massive competitive advantage was actually a disadvantage, and what people really wanted was more homogenized “stick to sports” content (and spammy autoplay ads designed to scam Farmers Insurance, who quickly pulled out of their deal with G/O Media after the WSJ reported on G/O’s hackneyed scheme). Instead of continuing the “sports as culture” perspective that Deadspin spent years covering, G/O head honcho Jim Spanfeller fired longtime deputy editor Barry Pechetsky for not “sticking to sports,” and the entire newsroom quit over the direction new management was taking the well-established and immensely popular site. Overnight, Deadspin went from an indispensable part of American culture to a legend only to be referred to in the past tense.
Imagine what a joyless and opportunistic vulture you’d have to be to want to take over a bunch of outlets people love, ruin their editorial missions, and fire the people that make them possible all so you could do things like add auto-playing ad modules that boost profits like 3%
— Brian Merchant (@bcmerchant) October 29, 2019
The despair surrounding Deadspin’s demise, and its political cousin Splinter in the weeks before, embodies the somber mood overhanging media right now. Thousands of journalists lost their jobs this year (including this writer). Between Google and Facebook siphoning off over two-thirds of all industry ad dollars that would typically go to content producers, to the hedge funds zombifying the industry with an outdated business model, it feels as if we are all watching our collective journalistic soul get smothered to death by corporate profits, and there is nothing we can do about it.
My hometown lost the Rocky Mountain News, and recently The Denver Post was bought by Alden Global Capital (owner of one of the largest newspaper chains in the country). The hedge fund is now making bots write sports recaps, and much like Deadspin’s fate, the newspaper went from a pillar of the community to a mostly abandoned punchline overnight, with nearly all the sports talent at the Post fleeing to greener pastures at The Athletic. The situation is so bleak that The Denver Post newsroom published a searing op-ed decrying the “vulture”-like actions of their new owner last year, yet here we stand a year later with no change in these proud journalists’ fortunes, as we all mourn yet another fallen comrade at the hand of Very Serious men in suits who are certain they know best.
America Has Sold its Soul to the False Profit
Everywhere hedge funds go in media, the product deteriorates while the best journalists leave. If these media investors were the savvy capitalists they purport to be, then they would notice that they are the one constant in this pattern, and they would change their behavior.
But alas, if the Trump era has taught us one thing, it is that major capital feels emboldened to pursue its own id to the ends of the world at the expense of our collective society. In every single industry the exact same thing is happening: corporations are consolidating into ever larger corporations, following the exact pattern the laws of supply and demand say capitalism should follow, and they are flattening our culture in their insatiable pursuit of perpetual profits. We can only watch a handful of movie franchises now. All our TV is going to come from one of four streaming services who are purchasing their product from just a few production companies. The public-facing internet is basically run by two mega-conglomerates who know more about us than most of the people who we love do, and the pillars of our online media are owned by just a few corporations. The once-vibrant blogosphere of the early 21st century has been slowly whittled down, and it is difficult to envision that trend reversing in independent media—a point routinely punctuated by the sudden demise of journalistic stalwarts like Pacific Standard.
We have been sold a lie in America, and the lie is that all we need to do is throw more capitalism on a problem and it will solve itself. The widespread fraud and subsequent lack of punishment for the perpetrators of said fraud in the wake of 2008 proved that the wealthy (AKA capitalists) are truly above reproach in America. Laws apply to us puny mortals, but their gilded tracks allow them to elide responsibility for their actions. Capitalism was birthed out of feudalism, and now our financial masters are returning us to a feudal model. Think of all the music, TV, apps etc…that you pay for—you don’t own any of them. If Apple, Netflix or Google evaporated from the Earth, you’d have none of your entertainment, you’re just paying a fee to rent “your” stuff from the corporations providing you access to their network.
Our oligarchs have captured our government, and it is difficult to view this ongoing ham-handed takeover of media by major capital as incongruous with that clear mission to shield themselves from legal and legislative accountability for the collateral damage they create in their chase for perpetual profits. If the oligarchy owns the corporations, the government, and the people who watch the government, then they have removed all of the serious checks on their power. This is the lesson Americans should heed from our Russian frenemies.
Journalism Faces an Existential War against Private Equity
While we can quibble with the logic of Gawker’s decision to publish Hulk Hogan’s sex tape which kicked off this whole spiral, the sinister usage of that lawsuit by billionaire former Facebook board member Peter Thiel to circumvent the law and open up a whole new world of bleak options for the billionaire class is proof of a mission among some of our wealthiest citizens to stifle the loudest critics in the room. Scream it from the rooftops: Deadspin was profitable. From a pure profit-driven perspective, it makes no sense for G/O Media to do what they’re doing, unless they’re either incompetent or capitalist ideologues willing to lose money for the supposed right reasons. If Gawker was as pliant towards the wishes of those in power as the rest of corporate media has been for the last few decades, none of this would have ever happened, and we would all be dumber and less informed because of it.
These are dark days. Independent media is suffocating at the hands of Google, Facebook and venture capital (in that order). Local newspapers and iconic brands are being repurposed to work like early 21st century content mills (that nearly all died unprofitable deaths). We are losing institutions faster than we can replace them. It seems like every other month we are writing an obituary for a capital-J journalistic outlet that was killed by clueless hedge fund dudebros who think that the law of diminishing returns does not apply to journalism, and that the solution to everything in media is like the solution to everything else that falls under their purview: increase debt, decrease costs, and increase volume. This is a plan that gets them rich, but as outlets like The Denver Post prove, leave the rest of us much worse off because of it.
Someone could hire 10% of the journalists fired this year at random, and build a world-renowned news juggernaut overnight. That’s how dire the present state of the media business has become. The fact that someone has not done this proves how thin Facebook and Google have made the margins in this industry, as well as the ideological predilection of media’s current investors. I find it quite interesting that while sites like BuzzFeed, Splinter, Deadspin, The Huffington Post and others that serve a younger audience have had to dramatically restructure their business in this Facebook and Google sponsored dystopia, there has been no similar upheaval in the right-wing media ecosystem (which reminds me, has anybody figured out who funds The Federalist yet?).
This dynamic reveals a depressing truth: it is more easily profitable to peddle lies than journalism. That’s the “at best” conclusion. At worst, it exposes a concerted effort by conservative capital to silence liberal voices. For those doubting the efficacy of a conspiracy like that, would the worst-case scenario look much different from what Peter Theil and G/O Media have done to Gawker, Deadspin and Splinter?
But the Bigger Problem Is Google and Facebook
The catch-22 of our era is that the web has made launching a business easier—and more profitable—than it ever has been. That may not seem like a catch-22 at first, but once it reaches a certain scale, it becomes obvious why the huge profits this new world brings are a problem. For example, Facebook employs about 35,000 people and is worth $550 billion, while General Motors employs around 173,000 people and is valued at $53 billion. The miracle of the web has both lowered the barrier to entry and allowed our oligarchy to run up the monetary score like never before, creating monopolies that re-raise the barriers to entry once again.
Richard Hendricks, the titular character in the brilliant Silicon Valley, described our problem perfectly in his speech to Congress during last week’s season debut:
”These people up here. You want to rein them in. Facebook owns 80% of mobile social traffic, Google owns 92% of search, and Amazon Web Services is bigger than their next four competitors combined…Even Hooli can’t survive these monopolies. No one can. They track our every move. They monitor every moment in our lives, and they exploit our data for profit. And you can ask them all the questions you want but they’re not gonna change. They don’t have to. These companies are kings! And they rule over kingdoms far larger than any nation in human history. They won. We lost.”
This is the world that is truly killing journalism—a world in which four of the largest, most expansive companies the world has ever seen are siphoning off more and more for them, leaving less for the creators driving so much of their traffic. Web 2.0 has destroyed the dream of a truly free internet, and we have become digital serfs in Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon’s domain, but this is still the web—the most truly democratic process that humanity has ever created at scale. The simplest thing we could do tomorrow to fix this problem is to enforce existing anti-trust laws against the very clear monopolies that Facebook and Google have over the online ad market, and there is widespread enthusiasm in the Democratic Party to do so—should they take power. That action alone would make launching an independent media company more financially viable and sustainable, and it would dramatically help in the mission to re-democratize online media.
The longtime newspaper business model of attracting enough eyeballs for serious ad dollars still works, as Deadspin proved for years. In the face of the thin margin problem presented by our ad monopolies, the venture capital that has entered this industry in the last five years has done the only thing that they know how to do: cut costs and increase production (thus diluting the product) in order to increase short-term profits. By the time the Toys ‘R Us’s in the media collapse, the G/O Medias of the world will have already made off with their handsome profit thanks to the arduous fees and debt they load up on the company they take over. It is difficult to feel like anyone can have a career in an industry collapsing all around you, especially as we watch some of the tentpoles of journalism disintegrate overnight.
But Not All Is Lost
This round has been lost, but we’re in the midst of a much larger battle. In fact, one could argue that the demand for truly independent media has never been greater in the wake of Deadspin’s demise. Gawker may have perished from the Earth, but its adversarial spirit has been picked up by a wide swath of media members (while finally properly valuing journalism’s longtime allies who embodied this spirit long before there was a Gawker or even the internet). Many of the folks seen mourning Gawker are the so-called “blue checkmarks” on Twitter who report the news for all our biggest newspapers and media outlets. What Gawker embodied wasn’t anything new, it was just something we lost in the last 40 years of ever-consolidating media, culminating in our present moment where 90% is owned by six conglomerates. The internet unleashed that muffled journalistic spirit, and Gawker was the big-name site leading the charge at the dawning of the blogosphere. Nearly two decades after its birth and three years after its death, it is clear that Gawker was simply one part of a much larger story.
We find ourselves at the changing of the guards, and as our geriatric oligarchy desperately clings to power, they have squeezed ever harder on their grip. Father Time will ensure that it loosens, and our lax tax laws will guarantee that their assets will fall into the hands of their (likely) idiot scions, sure to send many once-proud publications the way of Newsweek, The Denver Post and now Deadspin. Journalism that adopts an adversarial posture toward power is winning in the court of public opinion in America, it just fails to control many institutions in a country defined by the hollowness of larger institutions like government and the banks, and the relative handful of billionaires paying everyone and anyone to look the other way.
We are losing portions of our society’s bedrock, and that is good reason to grieve, but the people who helped create it are still around. Many of them walked out of their jobs at Deadspin last week in an overwhelming show of solidarity—valuing principle over profit (and it should be noted again and again and again, that Deadspin’s principles were profiting just fine before G/O Media came along), and these folks who captured our bookmarks folder will be sure to find a foothold somewhere once the shock of this ordeal wears off. The people they inspired will continue to create and report capital-J journalism because that’s the only kind of journalism worth doing, and the evolution of media will march onward.
We all know how to make this kind of content, and we know that a large audience exists for bold truth-telling in media. The difficulty is in finding a way to make money off it without having to fight for scraps around the Google/Facebook ad monopoly and/or selling your soul to some faceless private capital firm who only views your worth in dollars and little sense. But Deadspin found a way. Hell, our little corner of the web at Paste politics has sustained its own existence for 3+ years and counting. This hopeful dynamic isn’t confined to the so-called blogosphere either, as major reporting outlets like The Texas Tribune and The Los Angeles Times fought off private equity invasions, and have emerged as standard-bearers of what serious journalism looks like (not to mention the LA Times establishing its union as a force in the industry).
Gawker won in that it helped focus the public consciousness on power dynamics that any journalist worth their salt cannot ignore. In our time of burgeoning corporate homogenization and consolidation, the demand for its antithesis is rising. This war we find ourselves in has claimed casualties on the side of the righteous, but major capital like G/O Media is laying the seeds of its own demise. G/O’s Deadspin and Maven’s Sports Illustrated zombie business models will fail in the long-term once people figure out the fraud being perpetrated, and that the brand is not putting out the product that the brand implies. Once these institutions crumble, these capitalists will flee (hopefully from this industry forever), and an opportunity for reincarnation may emerge. In the meantime, the widespread despair over the overwhelming amount of journalistic talent which has been cast aside in the past few years is nearing a boiling point, and Newton’s laws promise a proportional reaction once we reach it. Web 2.0 may have created the infrastructure to strangle Gawker and the like, but this war for the soul of journalism has inspired a collective energy more vibrant and widespread than Gawker ever could have envisioned.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.