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Home » ‘The last good website’ – Columbia Journalism Review

‘The last good website’ – Columbia Journalism Review

Deadspin, the influential sports and culture blog that all but imploded a few years ago, made its name by savaging those it deemed “assholes.” Founded in 2005 under Gawker Media, Deadspin used “asshole” as shorthand for anyone the staff disliked: Floyd Mayweather Jr., the boxer, who defended Donald Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” line; Dan Snyder, formerly the owner of the Washington Commanders—who, according to a whistleblower with the National Park Service, paid to have more than a hundred trees chopped down to improve the view from his mansion; Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, also known to readers as a “hypocritical shitstain.” That is to name just a few. Colorful barbs were a way of punctuating Deadspin’s journalism, the staff maintained. “A lot of people confuse that with being mean,” Megan Greenwell, a former Deadspin editor in chief, told me. “But I actually don’t think that having fun making fun of people and also doing accountability reporting are mean at their heart.”

While Deadspin gleefully called out bad behavior—mostly through commentary, occasionally in reported pieces—it also made note when major outlets seemed to moderate coverage in order to preserve access or protect financial interests, such as billion-dollar broadcasting deals with sports leagues. In its media coverage, Deadspin often highlighted a fundamental hypocrisy: that for everything journalists do to expose institutional misdeeds, their employers are often guilty of the same sins. 

So it seemed inevitable when, in 2019, Deadspin clashed with Great Hill Partners, the private equity firm that acquired the site’s parent company, now called G/O Media. Before long, Deadspin published a story depicting the newly installed executives as ill-equipped micromanagers with sexist hiring practices. That was followed by a piece inviting readers to log their discontent with the site’s new auto-play videos, which made for a miserable reading experience. Managers deleted the post; Barry Petchesky, who was the editor at the time, called the move a “clear violation” of the company union’s collective bargaining agreement. Ordered to stick to sports, Deadspin protest-blogged about random topics (e.g., a guy stealing a Halloween pumpkin decoration). Petchesky was fired; soon, his colleagues quit in solidarity. For taking this principled stand, Deadspin’s flamethrowers became the toast of Twitter. 

They were also jobless. Days after the exodus, Jasper Wang, the head of people analytics at Bain & Company, sent a few former Deadspin editors an email with the subject line: “Non-asshole business person interested in (re)building a website.” He expressed condolences. “Like so many of your readers I feel like I’ve been mourning a loved one,” he wrote. He offered to help the ex-Deadspinners pursue a new venture, funded either by investors or by subscriptions. “Maybe 20,000 people buy $10 monthly memberships in Month 1 and we’re nearly self-sustaining immediately,” Wang wrote. If the site flopped, he said, “there will be far less noble endeavors that I’ll lose money on in my life.” He offered to buy the group a round of drinks. At Brooklyn’s Gold Star Beer Counter, Wang told them about how he’d been performing stand-up comedy. He’d also once been involved with a co-op of immigrant cleaning workers. The ex–Deadspin staff decided that he was, in fact, not an asshole. 

From the start, the group felt it wasn’t worth pursuing anything short of a journalists’ utopia. Every aspect of the business—from paying freelancers half of their rate after receiving a first draft to letting writers and podcasters own their intellectual property—would form a blueprint for a publication both ethical and profitable. The site would be worker-owned, with everyone getting an equitable stake. The hours would be humane. They chose a name, Defector, that was a wink at their origin story.

Defector courted investors. Matthew Silverman and Brian Auld, Deadspin readers and copresidents of the Tampa Bay Rays, inquired. Andre Iguodala, the NBA player, took part in a meeting. But talks went nowhere. At one point, Defector had a term sheet in hand for an investment of about three million dollars “at a low eight-figure valuation,” Wang said. Then the pandemic hit, and the offer evaporated. When Defector Media debuted, in September 2020, it had no backing apart from a zero-interest fifty-thousand-dollar loan from Wang, who quit his job to oversee the business. 

The blogging was familiar to readers of Deadspin—pieces riffed on the news, opined caustically about whatever interested someone that day (sports-related or not); there was plenty of silliness, some reporting. Wang’s best-case forecast proved conservative: by October, Defector had thirty thousand paid subscribers. The lack of investor money meant the staff had a certain degree of control, and they decided to extend that to advertising, by establishing a list of unwelcome patrons: sports leagues and teams, political candidates, tobacco companies, anything military-related. Two major sportsbook operators asked about advertising, dangling the prospect of a revenue stream that much of sports media has embraced; Defector opted out.

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“It sucks mondo ass that, in the media industry, there’s basically no paycheck that’s not ethically compromised in some way,” Petchesky, now Defector’s deputy editor, wrote on the site’s first anniversary. “Except that’s not true! It’s not. We’re living proof.” The site has grown to forty thousand subscribers and in 2023 will generate more than four million dollars in annual revenue, which supports a staff of twenty-six. Defector spends as little as possible on anything outside of journalism; compensation and benefits account for two-thirds of operating costs, and the base salary is now seventy thousand dollars. Defector’s apparent solvency—“a small miracle,” Margaret Sullivan proclaimed in the Washington Post—has been achieved even as the journalism world at large suffers brutal layoffs and existential dread. 

Defector sells three tiers of subscriptions: “Reader,” “Pal,” and “Accomplice.” The first level, at eight dollars a month or seventy-nine dollars a year, offers complete access to the site, which publishes roughly ten posts a day: game recaps; an analysis of how Ron DeSantis purportedly ate pudding with three fingers; an entry in the “This Is So Stupid” file; takedowns of commissioners, team owners, college coaches, Republicans, the delightfully insufferable characters on Succession. Defector’s “Pals” pay a hundred and nineteen dollars annually for additional privileges, such as commenting on posts, access to Q&As with staff, and discounts on merchandise, including T-shirts that read “Quit Your Job.” Fewer than a hundred “Accomplices” pay a thousand dollars a year for the right to attend quarterly meetings on Defector’s business, among other perks—one of which is a happy-birthday video from a staffer. Uncharacteristically earnest though these messages may seem, Tom Ley, the editor in chief of Defector, assured me that they are in keeping with the site’s wry sensibility. “They don’t get the video on their birthday—they get it the day after,” he said. “It’s half-ass.”

Defector headquarters is a small rented room at a coworking building in Downtown Brooklyn. Roughly half the staff live in the New York area; when I visited one afternoon in March, seven of them were hunched over laptops along the perimeter of the space, which recalled the charms of a college newsroom: beanbag chair, red Solo cups, peanut butter pretzels, a Nintendo 64 loaded with NFL Blitz. The office looks out on what staff refer to glumly as the “poop balcony”: a neighbor’s terrace covered in dog feces. 

Ley—lean, long-haired, bearded, and laid-back, a vision of George Harrison circa 1969—typed with his feet up on a cardboard box. He made the two-and-a-half-hour commute by bus and train from his house upstate, in Kingston. Ley, who is thirty-five, was discovered by Deadspin’s editors while working as a law school receptionist, which gave him ample time to post in the site’s comments section, writing as “Tulo’s Mullet”—a reference to Troy Tulowitzki, who was then the shortstop for the Colorado Rockies. Ley joined the staff in 2013. After quitting, he applied unsuccessfully to jobs while burning through his savings. Pandemic unemployment benefits helped him get by as Defector took shape. Last year, he said, he made a hundred and seven thousand dollars, more than he ever did at Deadspin. Big decisions at Defector require a two-thirds vote, and co-owners can call a vote at any time to remove the editor in chief; Ley has maintained his colleagues’ confidence, though nobody calls him “boss.”  

He sat next to Petchesky, who is thirty-nine, bearded, and tattooed; the New York Yankees logo is inked on his right arm. Petchesky’s gaze was fixed on a small TV showing an English Premier League game; he polled the group for advice before placing a bet on his phone. Petchesky was making less money at Defector than he had been at Deadspin, where, as one of the longest-tenured staffers, his salary had been around a hundred and thirty grand. He seemed unbothered by that. “I think we consider careerist a bad word around here,” he told me. “It’s a certain type of person whose personal ambition might outweigh their commitment to their coworkers and to trying to make the industry a little bit better.”

Thinking about different metrics for success, I asked the Defector staff about the notorious screen at Gawker Media’s office that displayed up-to-the-second rankings of the company’s most-read posts and writers. A few joked about the old days of obsessing over page views; Ley said he didn’t read Defector’s Google Analytics. Last year, Defector had as many as 2.5 million unique visitors in a month. Deadspin averaged upwards of twenty million unique visitors before everyone quit, but that seemed an unfair comparison, Petchesky said: “There’s a reason our writers don’t know page view numbers—they don’t matter.” (Deadspin still operates with a skeleton staff.) Defector prefers to track engagement: an average subscriber visits the site every other day and reads more than ten posts per week.

Photo by Arin Sang-urai

Tucked in a corner of the office was a remnant from a recent sales promotion: a life-size cardboard cutout of an editor named David Roth giving a stoic thumbs-up. I got the backstory: Decisions at Defector are made by committee, and every co-owner is expected to sit on one. (The PR and Events Committee conferred about whether Defector should cooperate with this story before granting its consent.) Last year, Sean Kuhn, the head of subscription strategy, proposed raising the site’s prices, but the Growth Committee rejected that idea, saying that boosting revenue wasn’t worth “reducing the reach of our work and squeezing our subscribers and their goodwill,” Kuhn recalled. The committee decided instead to seek twenty-dollar contributions to a “tip jar” that subsidizes subscriptions for students. For the duration of September and October, anyone who paid a tip, plus subscribers who upgraded to a pricier tier, would be entered in a raffle for the chance to have Roth deliver the cutout to their home. The sweepstakes generated roughly fifty thousand dollars, “half of the revenue that I would have expected from the price increase,” Kuhn said. “So it was perfect all the way around.” The lucky winner lived conveniently close to Roth, in uptown Manhattan; the cutout at the office was an extra.

Kuhn, who previously worked at The Athletic, took a significant pay cut to join Defector. “It was an opportunity to live your values,” he said. Wang was in the same boat. He lives in Harlem with his wife, a tech executive, and last year he made a hundred and seven thousand dollars, counting the bonuses that Defector pays after profitable quarters. At Bain, Wang made about a quarter-million dollars. Sometimes he feels pangs of jealousy when friends from business school talk about big bonuses or buying second homes, he told me, but those emotions pass quickly. “There’s a whole class of professional people that’s like, ‘I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do until I can do what I want to do,’” he said. “You’re on this treadmill, and sometimes people forget what that something else is, or never figure it out.” Co-owners said that Wang has been clear-eyed and meticulous, even as he’s had to learn the media business on the fly. “I don’t want to say it’s actually very easy to run a media company,” Ley told me, “but it is easier than you might imagine.”

One might expect that Defector, free from unsavory financial entanglements, would use its independence to report aggressively on the influential sectors it criticizes. That hasn’t often been the case. The site has published some strong investigations—notably a story by Diana Moskovitz on the Ohio State football program and its failure to act on domestic violence allegations directed at an assistant coach—but reported pieces are infrequent compared with takes and game recaps. When a seismic sports story unfolds—say, off-court chaos in the life of Ja Morant, the NBA star—Defector usually piggybacks on other outlets’ coverage without adding new reporting. The predatory nature of sports betting, in particular—and the shameless complicity of some major sports outlets—would seem ideal Defector fodder, but the site hasn’t published anything on sports betting approaching the quality of Ryan Goldberg’s yearlong investigation for Deadspin, back in 2016. Ley told me that the staff just isn’t that interested in betting. At Defector, editors occasionally suggest a story, but they don’t give marching orders. In the absence of a top-down hierarchy, it can be tough to ensure that specific stories get covered.

Laura Wagner—Defector’s pugnacious media reporter (and an old college friend of mine)—said she has still gone after scoops, but there aren’t quotas. She spent a couple of months on a story that didn’t pan out; nobody bothered her about it. Her colleagues are given the same free rein. Sabrina Imbler, a 2022 hire from the New York Times, is focused on covering creatures: a voiceless frog discovered in Tanzania, research on the lifelong fertility of naked mole rats. Defector also produces a few podcasts; the biggest hit has been a show called Normal Gossip, in which host Kelsey McKinney tells anonymized reader-submitted stories of trivial yet compelling drama—an annoying neighbor who lies about running a marathon, a guy caught hiding that he had two long-term girlfriends. Episodes average more than three hundred thousand streams; recently, McKinney and Alex Sujong Laughlin—the producer and a cocreator of the podcast—signed a two-year marketing and distribution deal with Radiotopia. Anyone can listen for free; for five dollars a month, “Friend of a Friend”–level subscribers get bonus episodes, and for twelve dollars, “Friend”-level subscribers receive extra benefits, such as access to the show’s “Close Friends” list on Instagram. As of this spring, the show had more than three thousand paid subscribers. Wang said revenue from Normal Gossip, including a series of upcoming live events, “has lessened our existential stress.”

What binds this coverage has less to do with asshole identification than with voice. “Essays, big features, stupid little blogs—it’s all part of that same mission,” Ley said. Defector’s goal is to be the first site that subscribers visit every day; in terms of fostering loyalty, the logic goes, the draw of a distinctive writer can be more important than breaking news. Louisa Thomas, who covers sports for The New Yorker, called Defector “probably the site I read most regularly,” and she praised the site’s coverage of women’s sports for being “thorough and not showy.” 

It doesn’t work for everyone. By Defector’s own admission, the site’s readership is mostly male; its tagline—“The last good website”—might seem more smug than inviting. Tim Marchman, a former Deadspin editor in chief who is now a top editor at Vice News, suggested that Defector can be too self-referential. “I think the model is really awesome, and I hope more people do it,” he said. (Vice recently filed for bankruptcy, though Marchman said his job seems safe for now.) Even so, he said, the discourse around worker-owned sites reminds him of the time he and his wife sent their kids to a “free school,” a private school with an open-ended educational philosophy. “One of the things we found frustrating about the free-school movement was that people talked a lot about the model of free school instead of how their kids were doing.”

Drew Magary—a sports columnist, and perhaps Defector’s most popular writer—told me that he’s struggled to suppress “the attention-starved little boy in me” who fixates on page views. “I really want Defector to matter,” he said. “It’s almost a more important business story than a content story. But I would love to be able to say to people, ‘Hey, I work at Defector,’ and they know right away what we’ve done, and I don’t have to explain anything.”

Defector Media is not America’s first news cooperative; it hit the scene as the model was gaining momentum. In 2018, when the Denver Post was being gutted by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund, ten journalists quit and launched the Colorado Sun. There are now close to a dozen worker-owned publications across the country. In many cases, the people behind these startups have been “established journalists with mortgages and kids and all those kinds of adult responsibilities,” as Larry Ryckman, the editor of the Sun, put it. At Defector, about half of staffers are in their thirties or older. About a third have kids; as I made the rounds, I was told that two were taking advantage of the company’s six months’ paid parental leave policy. Defector’s salary floor is higher than that of most unionized national publications, though senior journalists at those outlets tend to make much more. When I told Ley that Deadspin had recently posted an opening for the editor in chief position with a salary range starting at about twenty thousand dollars above what he makes, he laughed. He’s doing fine, he said. After he started at Defector, he and his wife bought a house. “We’re not starving artists.”

Nobody is likely to get rich working at Defector, but nobody will be laid off out of the blue, either—as some co-owners have been in the past. In recent months, Sports Illustrated announced layoffs, as did the Washington Post, NPR, and Vox Media, following cuts at Gannett and CNN. In April, Disney slashed its staff, including journalists at ESPN and FiveThirtyEight. BuzzFeed News shut down in May. Substack may offer a life raft, though Henry Abbott—a former ESPN employee who, along with several others, took the leap in 2019 with TrueHoop—said that, even with more than seventeen thousand subscribers, “everyone’s working for a lot less than they used to make.” He added, “I’m very jealous of Defector.” Ray Ratto, who, at sixty-eight, is Defector’s elder statesman, began writing for Deadspin after his contract at NBC Sports Bay Area was not renewed. A day before we spoke, Ratto lost yet another job, at a California sports radio station. At Defector, he said, the editorial freedom—coupled with freedom from employers’ mood swings—is “remarkably pleasant.”

To a large extent, that pleasantness comes from Defector’s success, which may be unique. Josh Benson—a journalist whose company, Old Town Media, helped launch the Sun—has cautioned startups that they’re unlikely to replicate what Defector has built. “They started out with an accomplished team and an extraordinarily large and loyal following, in a really big category, in comic-book-hero circumstances, and then proceeded to execute perfectly.” 

Defector regularly receives inquiries from journalists seeking advice on starting a news cooperative of their own. “A lot of those conversations don’t go anywhere,” Wang said. But there are some promising exceptions, including Hell Gate, a worker-owned outlet covering New York, which debuted last May. “We don’t get where we’re at without them being such an open book,” Max Rivlin-Nadler, a Hell Gate co-owner, told me. Hell Gate has more than twenty-two hundred subscribers, generating more than a hundred and twenty-eight thousand dollars in gross subscription revenue. Four co-owners receive forty-eight-thousand-dollar salaries, plus a five-hundred-dollar monthly healthcare allowance. 

Defector also heard from Jay Boller, a former editor at City Pages—a Minneapolis alt-weekly, whose owner, the billionaire Glen Taylor, shuttered it abruptly in 2020. Boller and a few colleagues had ambitions to start a collaborative called Racket; Ley replied quickly, with an offer to meet on Zoom. Racket now has thirty-five hundred subscribers, which last year allowed for salaries of thirty-three thousand dollars; this year, they expect salaries to exceed forty thousand. There are drawbacks to employee ownership, Boller said; he’s turned into a “merch elf.” But that’s the cost of doing business. As Maitreyi Anantharaman, a writer at Defector, put it: “How many media people can go to sleep every night one hundred percent sure that they will not be laid off the next day?”

Defector has not yet had to confront some of the potential awkwardness of employee ownership. A job there amounts to a tenured position, but what happens if someone loses the zip on their fastball, like the fogies Deadspin used to mock? What if revenue declines, and co-owners must choose between slashing salaries and slimming the staff? Shared values make it easier to navigate difficult decisions, but can Defector avoid becoming too homogeneous? Alice Chin, the chief executive of Your Other Half, Defector’s human resources consultancy firm, asked the staff, “Would you hire a Republican?” (A long pause followed.) Chin said Defector has taken other forms of diversity seriously, becoming less white, less male, and less cisgender and straight since its founding. “Every one of them cares deeply and treats the organization like something they’re building,” she said.

Last year, Defector saw its first writer defect: Kalyn Kahler, an NFL reporter, accepted an offer to make substantially more money at The Athletic. (She wouldn’t say how much.) “I wasn’t trying to leave Defector,” she told me. “I was very happy. I loved the people I worked with.” More important than the raise, Kahler said, was The Athletic’s larger audience—just over a million subscribers in 2022—and better access. At Defector, “I can think of at least four teams that wouldn’t credential me,” she said. It probably doesn’t help that Defector published a series of articles labeled “Better Hate an Owner,” about “all those awful old people who get to hold the trophy first at championship ceremonies.” Members of the Defector staff told me they didn’t resent Kahler. “For the type of work she wants to do, it makes a hundred percent sense for her,” Petchesky said. “Zero hard feelings.”

The other day, Laura Wagner also broke the news to her colleagues that she would be leaving, for a media-reporter role at the Washington Post. She told me that the limited access Defector afforded had been holding her back from doing her best work. “I’m excited to join the Washington Post and have everyone answer my calls and emails,” she said. She would also be making more money. “I am obviously bummed that Wags is leaving,” Ley said, “not only because she’s a great reporter and writer, but also because she’s a good friend. I am also extremely excited for her, though.”

The blog must go on. Last fall, Defector held the latest in a series of annual retreats at Mountain Springs Lake Resort, in the Poconos. Co-owners sang karaoke, played Spikeball, and spotted a bear. They also held business meetings in the resort’s lodge, sipping on the house specialty, pretzel-pie martinis. Everyone can see everyone else’s salary in a Google Drive folder, but some conversations felt touchy: Whether to allocate profits toward new hires, raises, or introducing a 401(k) plan. Whether base salaries were fair, considering some people work more than others. “It was an emotional and difficult conversation,” McKinney said, but “one where everyone was very respectful of everyone else’s opinions and feelings.” 

“We didn’t have to harbor silent resentments,” Magary said, “or complain about it to a boss who has no power to do anything, or to a boss’s boss who doesn’t give a crap. That’s why this company has worked as well as it has. By having the hard talks up front, we make our jobs that much easier thereafter.”

Defector’s co-owners anticipate single-digit revenue growth from subscriptions this year. Meanwhile, one of their old enemies, Barstool Sports, was recently acquired by Penn Entertainment, a gambling conglomerate, for three hundred and eighty-eight million dollars. When I asked Ley about that, he didn’t express envy. Instead, he compared Defector to a neighborhood bar, no pun intended. “This is our little business—we just need to have these margins, pay our employees, and that’s it,” he said. “No one who owns a bar is thinking, ‘I can’t wait for NBCUniversal to come offer to buy my bar for a hundred million dollars.’ If you think of it as a business that you’re running with your friends, it becomes a lot easier to just be like, ‘Yeah, we’re having success, and that’s all we need.’” 

Danny Funt is a senior editor at The Week and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt

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