A Q&A with Tim Marchman of Deadspin on working for Univision, being a media watchdog and covering sports “without access, favor or discretion”

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 Tim Marchman, the editor-in-chief at Deadspin. Tim has led Deadspin through a tumultuous time, seeing Gawker go out of business and having the company sold to Univision. Through all of that, Deadspin has only gotten larger and stronger, reaffirming its place as a fixture in the sports media that is here to stay. Here, we talk to Tim about weathering the storm, the role of Deadspin in the media landscape and what’s still to come.

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. How did you get into journalism and land at the job you hold now?

I started out at the New York Sun, which was the kind of place that would let a random guy with no experience (or college degree!) write about baseball. It was actually a pretty good lesson in how constraints can be useful when they make you do something unique rather than a worse version of what everyone else is doing. The paper couldn’t afford and didn’t have room for a slate of beat writers, but it could let people write from an analytical perspective, which made it totally different from any other sports section in the country.

I actually came on at Deadspin due to getting into a stupid argument with an idiot on Twitter; Tommy Craggs dropped me an email about it because he also disliked the idiot I was arguing with and one thing led to another.

2. How would you assess the state of Deadspin at this moment, especially in light of the demise of Gawker and the company’s sale to Univision? How was Deadspin affected by the turmoil going on at Gawker both in the short and long terms?

For more than a year, it was just crisis after crisis, and we kept thinking, “If we can just get through this, things will be OK,” and they were never OK, and it was really hard on people. It’s hard watching your friends lose jobs, it’s hard telling people you don’t have work for them because the company’s out of money, it’s hard watching a great publication get killed due essentially to decisions made by a judge who thinks speech literally refers to words coming out of people’s mouths, it makes you just want to throw up to realize that all along it was part of a malevolent billionaire’s sick prank, and it’s hard to focus on just doing your job while you’re dealing with all that. For all that, though, Deadspin’s just fine; people here stuck together and did focus on just doing their jobs (and did great work!), the revelations about Peter Thiel just made everyone even more committed to doing what we do, and at least the last thing that could have gone wrong didn’t. We got off to a less than ideal start, but Univision’s made it pretty clear that they get what we do, want us to keep doing it and want to give us the space and resources to do it, so we’re looking forward to and anticipating a pretty stable and boring year where we get used to the differences between being owned by this one guy you could smoke weed with and a massive company (and it’s hardly like all those differences are bad!) and mainly just cover stories. Long-term, I expect us to be what we are, just more so.

3. Before Deadspin, you worked at SI and the WSJ — pretty much the epitome of mainstream media. How did that experience affect the way you run Deadspin? How did you parse out which journalism norms are worth keeping and discarding?

Not to disappoint anyone, but Deadspin is and always has been filled with people who have worked at traditional outlets and gone to J-school and such. So while it’s an ongoing thing, most of the parsing was done way before I got here and has to do with distinguishing between what’s done because that’s the way it’s always been done and what’s done because it works, none of which has much to do with whether it’s okay to draw a dick on Clark the Cub or call an asshole an asshole.

If the point is to tell readers what you know, for instance — and one of the best things about the site is that we try to live up to the “Whatever we think, whatever we know” slogan on the old Gawker t-shirt—  you have to start with the question of how you know anything. We know things when we’ve seen them ourselves, when people have told us about them, when we’ve read about them in court records, and so on. We also know that your eyes can deceive you, that people can lie, and that just because you can run something under fair report privilege doesn’t mean it’s true. Besides, even agreed-upon facts are subject to varying levels of bias and interpretation. The traditional journalistic convention is essentially to ignore all that and do what it takes to project authority, which is more than anything else a branding strategy designed to make, say, a newspaper seem all-knowing and trustworthy, and this gets embedded in various protocols like the rule about not paying sources. The general idea there — that sources should be reliable and shouldn’t be given incentive to lie — is fine in theory, but obviously there are unpaid sources who lie and people who are paid for videos or records and deliver the goods, so that in the end the rule is more about appearances than about getting accurate information for readers. (Of course, a rule that prevents outlets from having to pay for valuable information is in those outlets’ interests, too.)

Our convention is to worry less about means than the end, which is to tell readers what we know and how we know it. You have to be fair and you have to be accurate, and you have to balance the ideal of telling what you know against the harm it might do, but that’s about common sense and decency, not whether you’re following made-up rules.

4. Deadspin has been producing a number of really good enterprise and investigative stories lately and is now in the process of hiring another full-time sportswriter. Is this a signal of what the outlet wants to be going forward?

Sure, in the sense that that’s what we do and have been doing before I got here. Scoops and investigations and features have always been a main emphasis around here and if there are more of them now that’s just because the staff has gotten bigger, which I expect it will continue to do. We’ll be doing more videos, podcasts, and events this year, and we’d like to develop coverage of some new beats like esports and tennis, but in all it should be Deadspin. There will just be more of it.

5. What do you see as the relationship between Deadspin and the “mainstream media?” On the one hand, Deadspin has never shied away from calling out journalists for what is perceived as bad work, and it’s safe to say that many sportswriters live in fear of winding up on Deadspin for the wrong reason. On the other hand, having a story posted on and praised by Deadspin results in an enormous surge in traffic and plaudits from bosses. What do you see as Deadspin’s role in the sports media landscape, and how do you want Deadspin to be perceived?

I can understand how from reading the site someone would get the impression that we’re just off on an island, but for the most part we actually have pretty collegial relationships. Partly it’s that we’ve worked at a lot of places between us and Deadspin alumni are everywhere, so we just know a lot of people at a lot of outlets. But, also, the press has changed. The traffic surge you mention is a good example. A few years ago it might have been different, but right now the vast majority of working journalists understand that aggregation isn’t a zero-sum thing where one party is leeching off another’s work (and, incidentally, isn’t even anything new; everyone, especially at wires and magazines, has done it forever) but a journalistic act in its own right that when done properly actually increases the audience for a story, which is why our tips box fills up every day with editors and reporters touting stories our readers might be into. Also, people just get what we’re about. Sure, we’re bad if we’re making fun of something you or your friend did, but then we’re good if we’re making fun of that shitty piece everyone in your newsroom hated or pointing you to a good scoop or feature that deserves more attention, so it balances out. Generally, I’d like for us to deserve a reputation for being honest — willing to say things other people are too polite or not allowed to say, but also generous with credit and praise and in spirit — and interested in lots of different things.

6. Deadspin is really the first site I can remember really taking on media outlets and writers and calling out their bullshit. How do you think outlets have responded to that criticism? Has it changed the type of work they’re producing?  

Deadspin didn’t invent Statler and Waldorf-style heckling — obvious technical differences aside, I don’t know that there’s too much in our playbook that wouldn’t have basically fit in at an alt-weekly 25 years ago — but I think the site’s been pretty effective at it.

One basic proposition the site has made all along is that the sports media, especially ESPN, treat sports fans like idiots, which is definitely less true than it was even a few years ago. I have no idea how much of that is due to the site, but it’s reflected in our coverage and we think about it a lot. Being honest means that you call out bullshit, but also that you acknowledge that things change. Ten years ago Jay Mariotti had the power, and people online were shooting spitballs; now he’s a bum in the street, ESPN has Dan Le Batard and Bomani Jones on the air, and the people who were shooting spitballs have big audiences. That’s good!

7. You inherited a very successful outlet from other very successful editors, all of whom put their own stamp on what Deadspin is. To what extent did you want to make your own mark on the site? How do you decide what to continue and what to change? How would you describe Tim Marchman’s Deadspin?

I don’t really think about things that way. Will Leitch, A.J. Daulerio, and Tommy Craggs had direct involvement in or oversight of pretty much everything that went up on the site in a way I can’t, if just because the staff is so much larger now, so I don’t think that even if I was a big, charismatic personality it could ever be my site the way it was theirs. I wouldn’t want it to be, anyway; I don’t think it’s my site any more than it’s Barry Petchesky’s or Billy Haisley’s or Lindsey Adler’s, and my job is mainly to get or keep people like that writing here and make sure they have the kind of support they need to do what they want to do, which in turn determines what the site is doing. The other thing is that there’s a really direct continuity between each iteration of Deadspin and each preceding one, so that I’m not sure there’s too much to distinguish between them. Our Deadspin is a direct outgrowth of Tommy’s, which was a direct outgrowth of A.J.’s, which was a direct outgrowth of Leitch’s, and really the main idea is just to not fuck everything up.

8. Deadspin has never shied away from taking a stand — politically, socially — when it feels it’s necessary, even on topics that transcend your traditional coverage area of sports. To what extent do you see Deadspin as an advocate, and how does that influence your coverage, especially now as Deadspin houses stories that previously used to go on Gawker?

What we cover is a function of what our writers are into, what our readers are into, and what we think needs to be covered given that we figure part of the job here is to cover what other places aren’t covering or aren’t covering well. How we cover it is basically a function of the fact that we expect people to write what they actually think. I don’t think we have any role as advocates for anything, and the various balancing tests we apply to what we’re on rely on the staff having an intuitive sense of what we should be on (if everyone wanted to write about nothing but income inequality, that would be an issue we’d have to address). But obviously some topics are Deadspin obsessions and some aren’t. I don’t think there’s any problem there, because every outlet has to make its choices about what it fixates on and what it doesn’t. All we can do is be open about why we make the choices we do, lay our cards on the table so readers can judge the hand we’re holding, and think a lot about what we might be missing and how to address it.

9. What would you change about how sports — and the sports media — are covered?

That’s a big question, but the main thing might be that the biggest outlets tend to have business relationships with the leagues they’re covering and this ramifies through the way everyone else covers sports. As a site we cover the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NCAA football and men’s basketball more than might be ideal relative to everything that’s going on in sports, largely because that’s what people are into, largely because that’s what the biggest actors in sports promote, though there are obvious cause-and-effect issues there. If I could change anything with a wave of a wand I’d want relationships between leagues and outlets to be more arms-length. As a secondary thing I’d like for beat writers to more concretely describe what happens in the sports they spend so much time watching so closely. Among five gamers, the best and the worst are going to do a pretty similar job telling a reader who already knows what happened what happened, but the one that breaks down why a pitch sequence or a defensive set happened the way they did, or even what they looked like, will stand out.

10. As someone who has to consume media all day and produce content, do you ever feel like you’re caught in a media carousel that follows a familiar path: There’s a story, then praise or outrage, then criticism, then a response to that, too. Is there a way to break through that? Is sports media too cyclical and predictable now?

I definitely feel that way at times, but point-counterpoint-countercounterpoint seems like a hardwired feature of human psychology. I don’t think anyone wants to be part of a ritualized back and forth, but productive discourse seems to more or less follow that model, so the main thing is probably to try to do some actual arguing rather than just posturing if you find yourself in an argument, at least in my experience. (I’m sure I could take my own advice here.)

BONUS: OK, now that we’ve done this, can you promise not to publish any of those photos of us on Deadspin?

“Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion.”

 

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