Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.
This week, it’s with Tom Ley, the editor-in-chief at Defector, a new venture created and run by many former Deadspin staff members. Tom has been in the sports blogging world for a long time, and it’s so exciting to have him as a guest. Here, we talk about the experience of starting Defector, what he wants the new site to be and what it was really like to resign from Deadspin in protest.
1. We start all our Q&As in the same way—at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?
I broke into journalism basically on a whim. After graduating from CU Boulder in 2010 with a fairly useless English degree, I spent two years working as a receptionist at the law school on campus. I spent a lot of hours reading Deadspin at my desk, and one day they posted a call for interns. I sent in an application, and after a brief and awkward phone call with then-staffers Jack Dickey and Dom Cosentino, I was invited to move to New York and join the site’s staff for a summer.The internship was totally unpaid, and at that point I had about $7,000 in my bank account. I decided that was enough to get me through a summer in New York City with no additional income (it was, but just barely), and that the opportunity was too rare to pass up. So I quit my job and moved to the city and started blogging for free at Deadspin. At the end of the internship, Tommy Craggs, who was the editor-in-chief at the time, was able to find room in the budget to offer me a full-time job as an editorial assistant. It paid just as much as my old receptionist gig did ($30,000 a year), so I took it. The rest is history, as they say. I never left Deadspin, moved up the editorial ladder over the course of the next seven years, and resigned from the site with the rest of my colleagues in October of 2019.
2. Before we get into specifics, what can you tell us about Defector, the new venture you run with many of the people previously with Deadspin? What inspired you to start it? What was the process like? Basically: What is Defector?
Defector is a sports and culture publication that aims to provide an alternative to readers who have spent the last decade or so reading online publications that feel increasingly hostile towards their own audiences. The simplest way to put it is to say that Defector wants to be a website that people actually want to read.
3. One big part of the pitch of Defector is that it is “worker-owned,” which obviously makes the site different than most of its competitors in the media. What does “worker-owned” mean in practice? What are the benefits and challenges of such a business model?
As far as Defector is concerned, “worker-owned” means that the fate and direction of the site will always be determined by the people who make it. We all have equity, but more importantly we have a set of bylaws that enshrines various decision-making rights with the full staff. I can be fired, for example, if a two-thirds majority of the editorial staff vote that I should be. The same goes for selling a portion of the company or hiring an executive.Another key piece to our structure is that these decision rights are not inextricably bound up with our equity. If, say, I decide to leave Defector next year, I would keep my equity share but I would lose all of my voting rights. We specifically wanted to design the company in a way that would make it impossible for us founding members, having perhaps moved on to other things, to one day end up acting like some sort of shitty absentee management layer, imposing our will on the current employees from afar. What happens to Defector will always be determined by the people who actually work there at any given moment.
4. We’ve had many Old Deadspin writers as guests here before and have heard so many wild stories about the implosion of the site. It’s been a year since you and your colleagues resigned as a group. Looking back now, what sticks out to you about how all of that played out? How scary was it to take such a big leap into the unknown? What have you learned in the last year from the experience?
When I look back on our resignations what sticks out to me was how little hesitation there was when it came time to decide if we were going to quit in solidarity with Barry Petchesky, who had just been fired for absurd reasons. It’s easy to imagine giving something up for someone else, but it’s hard to actually do it, particularly when it’s 20 people all trying to make that choice together. But nobody ever wavered. The resolve that I saw from my colleagues on that last day still blows me away. People with kids and mortgages and medical bills threw away their careers for each other because it was the right thing to do.Since then I’ve only gained a greater understanding for how meaningful that collective choice was. Being unemployed sucks! Most of us spent 10 whole months without steady income, and things got pretty dire. The symbolic nature of resignations is what got a lot of attention, but it was the material consequences that we all felt most acutely. I do not recommend being unemployed.
5. To what extent is Defector an extension of Old Deadspin? What’s different about it? What makes Defector Defector?
I think our voice and point of view have largely carried over from Deadspin, but my hope is that it is being applied a little more deliberately at Defector. All that really means is that we are a site where driving up traffic and engagement is near the bottom of our list of priorities, which was very much not the case at Deadspin. We’re still sort of feeling our way through this change in priorities, but I think people who have followed us from Deadspin to Defector will notice that things move just a little bit slower at the new place, and that the new pace has allowed us to be just a little bit funnier, weirder and more considered than we had the opportunity to be at Deadspin.
6. It’s been about two months since Defector started. It’s a subscription site and is relying on readers to thrive. What about the launch and this first period went according to plan? What surprised you? What gives you the confidence at this point that Defector will continue to succeed?
At the risk of severely jinxing myself, everything has gone much better than any of us could have anticipated. We all went into this expecting to be able to cobble together enough money to get ourselves health insurance, but not really have any kind of steady income for the first six months or so. Then we got 10,000 subscribers on the day of our announcement, and the calculus changed a bit. We’re now over 30,000 subscribers, which has allowed us to start cutting modest checks for ourselves every month, and even do things like establish a small freelance budget. We’re not swimming around in a pile of gold coins or anything, but we’re on a trajectory none of us expected to be on this early.As for what gives me confidence that this project will continue to be successful, that comes down to how we choose to collectively define success. For us, success is not turning this site into the Next Big Thing In Media, or convincing some VC firm to give us a $50 million cash injection, or eventually selling the site to Viacom so that we can all enjoy our equity payouts. All we want to do is make enough money to pay rent in exchange for publishing blogs onto the internet. That’s it! All we have to do in order to achieve that goal is make a decent site that accumulates a solid subscriber base and doesn’t eventually drive away a huge chunk of our readers by becoming a site that sucks. I think we can pull that off.
7. What is the role of sports blogging in 2020? Obviously the media landscape has changed dramatically since the Golden Age of Blogs, and yet here is Defector, proving that blogs are still so valuable to the conversation. How do you see Defector — and blogging in general — fitting into the current media environment?
One thing that defined the golden era of blogging that I’d like to see a return to, and I hope Defector can help this along, is websites establishing a real sense of place. What I mean by that is that I miss reading websites that had institutionally defined voices, points of view, internal references, recurring bits, commenting communities, etc. Good websites, the fun ones that you want to keep coming back to, are not the ones that just spit out as much coverage as possible so as to attract a ton of readers, but the ones that you can visit a few times and easily come to an understanding about what the site’s Whole Deal is. People should be given a better reason than, “Well, we all need some shit to read while we pass the time at work” for visiting a website. I think blogs used to give people that in a way that a lot of publications are, by design, unable to now.
8. After Deadspin writers resigned from Deadspin en masse there was some amount of social media anger when someone tried to take a job at Deadspin or even write for it. New Deadspin writers were called scabs. That forced some to retract their positions and others stayed nonetheless. What did you think about that response? How should we view the divide between corporate-owned media outlets and the people who work there who aren’t in a position of influence?
I guess I want to quibble a little bit with the assumption that the current staff of Deadspin is without power. They are powerless to the same degree that we were powerless, in that they are just as subjected to the destructive decision-making of G/O Media management. We did have power, though. We had the power to decide, collectively, that the Deadspin we had created, the site that had been meticulously crafted and refined by us and our predecessors for over a decade, should cease to exist. We couldn’t literally shut the servers down, but we could take away everything that actually made the site what it was: the writers and editors and readers. We had the power to effectively if not literally kill the website we loved, and we exercised that power at great personal cost.The people who eventually replaced us exercised their own form of collective power. They decided that the website we had thrown our own careers away in order to destroy should be revived. I’m sure they had plenty of good reasons for doing this, even ones I myself might find convincing. But I also think it would have been exceptionally naive for them to assume or expect that the people who understood what our resignations were all about—and I don’t think our intentions were all that hard to intuit from the outside—might bristle at Deadspin being dug up and reanimated for the benefit of G/O Media’s revenue streams. So they got called scabs. Is a person who takes a job that’s mere existence is a direct repudiation of an act of labor solidarity, and then trades on the legacy and notoriety left behind by the authors of that act of solidarity, a scab? I don’t know, maybe? They are certainly people who wielded the power of their own decisions, though.
It was fine!
10. How often do people ask you if you are related to Bob Ley? Can you tell us a story about sharing a surname with him?
Pretty often. We used to jokingly refer to Bob Ley as my Uncle Bob when we were at Deadspin, and I still have a sneaking suspicion that I was only ever hired as an intern because Tommy Craggs was hoping to get some family secrets out of me. Just to be clear, I am not related to Bob Ley, and we do not even pronounce our last names the same way. Mine is pronounced like “Lay.”