“They Know What They Know, and They Don’t Need to Know Anything Else”

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What happened at Deadspin this week felt kind of familiar to me, and to other radio people, I’ll bet.

The short version if you haven’t been following: the site got new owners earlier this year—rich dopes who have experience in online publishing but little actual success at it—and they issued a “stick to sports” edict, although Deadspin was years evolved beyond its creation as an independent sports website into a politics and culture magazine with a wide ambit and a unique point of view. It was home to legitimately great writers, including Drew Magary, David Roth, and Albert Burneko, tenacious journalists including Diana Moskovitz and Laura Wagner, and a crew of brilliant bloggers. The site’s most recent editor, Megan Greenwell, quit in August (and set fire to her bosses on her way out the door); after this week’s latest “stick to sports” edict, deputy editor Barry Petchesky pinned Deadspin’s best non-sports posts on the front page and got fired for it. Within 48 hours, most of the other writers had hit the door, and Deadspin, a site I have visited several times a day for over a decade, was dead.

Any radio person who has been through a station sale probably can feel pains of sympathy for what the Deadspinners have been going through.

Understand first of all that I get it, and my radio colleagues who have been through it get it: when you own the company, you can do whatever you want with it. But it happens time and again, as it happened at G/O Media (owners of Deadspin and other sites including Jezebel, the Root, and the sadly shuttered Splinter, the news site the private-equity dopes terminated last month), and at radio stations from here to West Overshoe: new owners come in with a set of prejudices and the intent to act on them. They look at what the place is doing, and they say, “This can’t be working,” which often translates to, “I don’t like this, which means it’s wrong.” Or they say—and this is closer to what happened at Deadspin—“I’m going to do this thing even if it makes no sense to you, because I’m playing a game of nine-dimensional chess you can’t understand.”

It doesn’t have to be new owners. It can be new bosses brought in by old owners. I know of a radio station where a new boss announced that he would curtail the amount of live sports the station was doing, because nobody was listening and they couldn’t sell it. This was before he’d bothered to look at the revenue figures, which proved that they could sell it, which in a non-measured market is all that matters. I know of another station with a specialty show that made money like there was a printer in the basement, but a new manager wanted to kill it because he couldn’t understand its appeal. Years ago, I got fired for the simple reason that a new boss wanted his people. That the new people were not as talented never entered his mind.

Deadspin’s owners do not understand that recaps of the World Series or some shit, no matter how engagingly written, were not what kept people coming back to the site. And that’s what makes this so absolutely maddening, and what makes it so maddening to we radio types when new owners or managers take over and start messing with a proven product. The evidence for what works is right the fuck in front of you—why are you unable to see it?

Megan Greenwell wrote: “A metastasizing swath of media is controlled by private-equity vultures and capricious billionaires and other people who genuinely believe that they are rich because they are smart and that they are smart because they are rich, and that anyone less rich is by definition less smart. They know what they know, and they don’t need to know anything else.” [Italics mine.] But you don’t have to be rich, necessarily, to think this way. It’s enough to believe you’re smart because you have been told that you’re smart—even if it’s only yourself who has done the telling—and that anyone who isn’t you is less smart. And so you will, with eyes wide open, make decisions based on your own perceived smartness and discount the real-world evidence that is, and let me repeat this, right the fuck in front of you.

TL, DR: so long, Deadspinners. You were awesome. A lot of us out here feel your pain, wish you well, and look forward to following you wherever you land.

7 responses

  1. I wasn’t familiar with Deadspin, JB, but after reading your post and the one you referenced by Megan Greenwell, I experienced personal flashbacks and facial tics as I was reminded by multiple incidents, eerily similar, in my professional past. The offending, head-in-the-sand management types don’t even have to originate in the realm of deep pockets.

    When leadership is rooted strictly in sales, matters of content –even that which feeds marketing and advertising initiatives– are often diminished by pursuit of numbers in both the form of statistics and cash. Arrogance, coupled with a deficit of knowledge, results in a diminishment –if not death– of a creative enterprise. And as you pointed out, the “I’m rich, therefore I’m brilliant” factor is added poison in that deadly cocktail.

  2. More good writing, Jim, thanks. I don’t know from Deadspin, but I’ve sure seen my share of new-owners-changing-everything. In the case of one infamous episode where I was, their first words were “We won’t be making any changes right now” (yeah, right) and their later Borg-like words (I kid you not) were “You are being assimilated.” For those of us into Star Trek, that apparently well-intended phrase was quite terrifying.

    1. The first draft of this post actually contained a list of life’s three biggest lies: 1) “The check is in the mail”; 2) “I’ll still respect you in the morning”; and 3) “New ownership plans no major changes.”

      1. Another common wording of #3 is, “Nothing is going to change but the name on the building!” When you hear that, look out!
        And thanks for the new word to me, ambit. I have a pretty good vocabulary but somehow missed that one for the last 56 years.

  3. Yep.

    In 1984, I was working for the CBS TV affiliate in Reno, Nevada, anchoring the weekend news and covering government.

    The station had been a mom-and-pop for 13 years, before selling to a small midwestern chain. Said chain was smart enough to keep Pop on as GM.

    But four years after the sale, Pop’s contract was up and, with zero warning, he was told thank you and goodbye. The new GM, a sales manager from one of their other markets, flies into Reno, leases a Saab 900 Turbo, parks it in the lot, walks into the building and fires the News Director, who’s been there for 15 years and has us winning at 5, tied at 6 and #2 at 11 (the CBS audience went to bed earlier than the ABC audience in those days).

    He also fires our San Francisco-based consultant by phone.

    He calls an all-staff meeting for 4:00 p.m. It’s my day off, but I come in. As I listen to this guy tell us how he’s here to “fix” what was already working, I do some rough calculations—I’m single and my car is paid off. Okay, then.

    New GM opens the floor for questions and answers.

    Me: “Where are you right now?”

    New GM: “You mean with my 90-day plan, or my one-year plan or my five…”

    Me: “No. Physically. What’s the address of the building you’re standing in right now?”

    New GM: “Well, that’s hardly fair. I just got off the plane at 8 this morning…”

    Me: “And you’ve already fired the News Director and consultant who made this place a winner. By the way, it’s 4925 Energy Way.”

    New GM (after about four seconds): “I’m gonna have trouble with you, aren’t I?”

    Me: “I wouldn’t think so. Not for long, anyway.”

    Somehow, I was still employed when I left the building. When I got home, there was a message on the phone from our now former consultant. Lunch tomorrow in Las Vegas with the ND at the ABC station there? Sure.

    I took the gig, New GM tried to talk me into staying in Reno (which told me just how ill-equipped this dude was), and it took the station 20 years to get a number as good as it had when this whole crapshow happened—probably because the News Director the New GM fired on day one walked across the street to the competition, where he’s still gainfully employed—marking his 50th anniversary as a trusted newsman in that town.

    1. You make an excellent point: these Master-of-the-Universe types often either don’t bother to game out the likely consequences of their plans, or they act like the law of unintended consequences only applies to other people.

  4. Longtime Deadspin reader here, and though there had been signs of problems developing there lately, I was still shocked at what happened this week. Somewhat will be smart somewhere and develop something like it, but yeah, it’s this attitude of trying to fix something that’s not broken that constantly kills all forms of media, be it online, radio, TV or print.

    And on an unrelated note – and I hope this digression won’t get me banned here – turns out Jim Stafford now is the latest one to be called out for his behavior toward women. Comedy writer Nell Scovell recalls planning to work with the singer-comedian in the 1980s for a TV series when she attended a pool party at his house. From there, she writes in Vanity Fair quoting from her memoirs, “He walked me into a bedroom, closed the door, pinned me against the wall, and just started kissing me. His pants come down and—boom—with my head.” My hand pressed the air down. “He was deciding whether I was going to get a job or not.” Scovell adds that “I reached out to Stafford before my book was published in March 2018, and he has never responded.” Scovell also is upset with the way David Letterman didn’t act against such behavior from his writers, but he offered a sincere apology to her in the article.

    https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2019/10/david-letterman-conversation-with-nell-scovell?utm_source=fark&utm_medium=website&utm_content=link&ICID=ref_fark

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