On Oct. 28, journalists at Deadspin, a sports-centered journalism website, were instructed by site’s upper management to “stick to sports.” On Tuesday, the interim editor-in-chief was fired for refusing to obey the instruction. And on Wednesday, at least 10 journalists resigned their positions.
Deadspin, a rival of Barstool Sports, has been described as “freewheeling” by the New York Times. The site primarily covers sports but also dabbles in media, politics and culture. This diverse range of stories is part of the fingerprint of Deadspin; in fact, non-sports coverage has often boosted the company’s online readership.
Deadspin was founded in 2005 as a sports-centric journalism website, sold to Univision in 2016, and is now owned by G/O Media. The site is known for stirring things up, taking a controversial spin on traditional game coverage and sports reporting stories. In fact, the header of their website boasts: “Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion.” Writers cover a wide variety of topics — from light reads reminiscent of Buzzfeed articles to musings on more heavy topics. Headlines range from “Check Out The Wheels On This Pumpkin Thief” to “For Palestinians In And Out Of Refugee Camps, Al Wihdat Is More Than A Soccer Team.”
Given this foundation, their reporting has broken some big and controversial sports stories in the last decade and a half, among these being Brett Favre’s alleged sexual misconduct towards a journalist, the story of an ESPN reporter who lied about her identity to get the job and the story of a Notre Dame All-American linebacker falsely spreading news of the death of his non-existent girlriend.
In the past, the site has satirized criticism of its choice to write about non-sports topics, even selling “Stick to Sports” merchandise and labeling articles without a link to sports with a “Stick to Sports” tag. But when the order came from management, it became far too real. G/O Media editorial director Paul Maidment claimed that sports have to be the “sole focus” in order to “create as much great sports journalism as we can.”
It would appear that Deadspin’s writing staff strongly disagreed with their upper management’s vision for the website as many of them resigned in response. Those who remained on staff responded with a not-so-subtle jab, publishing a headline on the night of Oct. 28 that read “Nationals Fans Didn’t Stick To Sports,” referring to the boos that U.S. President Donald Trump received when he attended Game 5 of World Series at Nationals Park.
It seems we should take a moment to acknowledge how difficult it is to make an online media outlet thrive in the ways in which Deadspin has been able. In 2006, just a year after its founding, it was named one of the 50 coolest websites by Time magazine. By building its success from the ground up, Deadspin writers have earned the prerogative to publish whatever content they feel is pertinent — and whatever content will continue to foster success — on their site. Deadspin’s articles have been a hallmark of freedom of speech and freedom of opinion in an environment where political correctness and “fake news” have infiltrated the media. Their writers deserve to be commended, not reprimanded, for their candidness and boldness.
Aside from a restriction of journalistic freedom, the move was a poor one logistically for G/O Media. With millions of readers, Deadspin was one of their most well-read and profitable sites, and the off-sports pieces played a major role in their success. Critics have called the ownership’s action yet another example of how private equity firms have stolen character away from successful media outlets.
Regardless of opinion on private equity’s “catastrophic influence on journalism,” as The New Republic terms it, we should all be wary when powerful executives seek to curtail the rights of journalists to publish original, creative content.