A Q&A with Laura Wagner

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 Laura Wagner, who had covered media for Deadspin. As you know, Deadspin has imploded in recent weeks, with the entire staff resigning in protest of management decisions, essentially killing what was one of the stalwarts of the modern sports media. Given that, we’re really grateful to have Laura as a guest. Here, we discuss what really went down at Deadspin, adversarial journalism and how she goes about reporting so strongly on media companies — including her own employer.

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 joined the college newspaper at Georgetown and did a few internships. I first interned for a now-defunct alt-weekly in Charlottesville, Va., the summer before my junior year. I had no clue what I was doing, but the editor-in-chief, Courteney Stuart, was fun as hell and let me write about all sorts of small-town shenanigans. I was an intern for ESPN’s “Around the Horn” during the fall semester of my senior year, which was great, and then I interned for ABC’s Sunday morning news show in the spring, which was not at all great mostly because I had to be at the studio at 6 a.m. every Sunday morning to get Martha Raddatz’s latte.

After graduating in 2015, I got a summer internship at NPR. I parlayed that into a temporary full-time job blogging on the news desk, which served as a useful news writing/aggregation bootcamp. But I wanted to be a reporter and the infamous NPR temp system didn’t really allow for that, so I left NPR to intern for Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Josh Levin hired me to help with the podcast and with blogging the 2016 Olympics, but he also was the first editor to really set me loose on reporting a story, and, with much guidance, I reported a few that I’m still proud of. At the end of the summer, I stayed on as a freelancer for Slate where I worked with several great editors, including Tommy Craggs, the former EIC of Deadspin/executive editor of Gawker Media. In early 2017, Tim Marchman hired me at Deadspin.

2. Before we talk about any specifics of what transpired at Deadspin, let’s just begin here: What have the last couple weeks been like for you? Given everything that’s happened, how are you doing now? Has your head stopped spinning?

The adrenaline rush that came from quitting in such a public way didn’t last very long. I basically cycled through the stages of grief but kept getting stuck on anger. In fact, I’m still angry that a private-equity firm took over a successful media company, killed off the politics site, and then tried to beat Deadspin into submission. In the past few weeks, though, I read a few books, took a trip with my boyfriend, watched some old movies, hung out with my nine-month-old nephew, spent a lot of time with my non-Deadspin friends (none of whom work in media) and just generally tried to remember that my worth as a human is not tied to the work I do.

3. Watching from the outside, the Deadspin decimation appears to have gone down like this: Barry Petchesky, the editor-in-chief, was fired for not following the corporate “stick-to-sports” dictum — and then the entire staff systematically resigned in protest after a meeting with the editorial director that did not calm the staff’s nerves. How accurate is that narrative? Why did you and your colleagues respond the way you did, and how did it actually happen?

That’s broadly accurate. As you said, for people on the outside, I think it seems like the Deadspin situation escalated quickly, but really we had been dealing with various kinds of interference and incompetence from management for months.

First, CEO Jim Spanfeller hired a bunch of guys from his heyday who were, in many cases, ill-equipped to run a digital media company in 2019. Most notably, these hires included the now-former editorial director Paul Maidment, who was unable or unwilling to stand up for the newsroom’s editorial integrity and be a firewall between business prerogatives and newsroom best practices.

For example, fairly early on, Maidment indicated that Deadspin should “stick to sports” (we successfully ignored this for some time). Then there was a brutally biased “reader satisfaction” survey that Spanfeller told one of his minions to put on Deadspin, which targeted Deadspin’s non-sports coverage and media reporting. There was also constant haggling over our contractually guaranteed editorial independence and whether or not we could report on our own company. As a result of this — and generally toxic management — Deadspin’s former EIC Megan Greenwell was essentially forced out.

In addition to all of this, there were several hilariously botched attempts at deploying an “employee handbook” that said reporters weren’t allowed to use encrypted messaging and also included a dress code banning shorts, which was actually enforced. And then, in the final week leading up to Barry’s firing, management plastered that godawful autoplaying Farmers Insurance ad across all the company’s sites, driving away readers by creating a disgusting user experience and rankling editorial and sales staffers alike.

So while we were trying to figure out how to best deal with the ongoing autoplay ad situation, the written “stick to sports” mandate from Paul Maidment popped up in our inboxes. Deadspin responded to it by re-posting some of our most popular non-sports stories on the homepage and also publishing new non-sports posts. We thought it was a funny, Deadspin-y way to point out how ridiculous the mandate was and signal our intention to continue ignoring it. But Spanfeller saw it and fired Barry, who was not only the interim EIC, but the heart and soul of Deadspin. It was the last straw.

You’re correct that the meeting with editorial director Paul Maidment did not reassure anyone. But it did result in this incredible photo captured by the great Victor Jeffreys.

I’d like to add: I think there is a perception that the Deadspin staff was unwilling to work with new management and that we were simply pig-headed troublemakers bent on having our way for the sake of it. In reality, we had many, many meetings — as a staff, as a company, just the EICs, one-on-one — with management where we tried to explain not only the value of editorial independence and what made Deadspin unique and valuable, but also areas where we thought Deadspin could be better monetized and our hopes for the future of the site. Even after Megan left, there was a sense that we could survive under Spanfeller’s management and do the work we had always successfully done — work that drew around 17 million unique viewers per month — but we underestimated management’s vindictive streak.

4. It’s easy to talk about quitting your job out of principle. We imagine it’s much harder in practice. How difficult was it to leave a place into the great unknown for the reason you and your colleagues did?

As soon as Barry got fired I knew I wanted to quit. I think a lot of us did because at that point, it just wasn’t a place where we could work productively. But it was an intensely personal decision for each person. For me, it was my first real job, at a site I’d read since high school, where I got to go to work every day and bullshit with my friends. I was sad about it and I’m still sad about it. For people with kids and mortgages, though, the decision to resign meant much more than leaving a job they loved, and I really admire them.

5. It’s important to remember that much of this stems from a corporate mandate that Deadspin “stick to sports,” even though not sticking to sports is a vital part of Deadspin’s DNA. Why was it so important for Deadspin to branch off from sports and write about politics and culture and whatever else Deadspin wrote about? What made that coverage quintessentially Deadspin to the point that eliminating that coverage would crush the soul of the website?

Deadspin was known for its sports investigations and smart sports takes. But Deadspin wouldn’t have been Deadspin without the random stuff that we wrote just because we thought it was fun or funny or gross or weird or needed to be said: Albert Burneko’s Foodpsins, Billy Haisley on music or movies or anything else, Samer Kalaf on the dangers of falling in love with Ted Cruz, Kelsey McKinney reviewing the Untitled Goose Game, David Roth on Donald Trump, Patrick Redford on wildfires, Tim Marchman on the majestic plural, Giri Nathan on the big berry, Diana Moskovitz’s coverage of sexual assault and domestic violence, Tom Ley and his bears, Chris Thompson’s cranky review of Avengers: Endgame, Emma Carmichael attending a gathering of Juggalos, Kyle Wagner writing about Gamergate, Lauren Theisen telling conservative gays to shut the fuck up, Barry Petchesky writing about the ugliness of reporting, Dan McQuade on visiting the chonky cat, Drew Magary’s Hater’s Guide To Williams Sonoma, Dom Cosentino on becoming a sociopath, Luis Paez-Pumar ranking “Game of Thrones” episodes, our incredible video pals making Barry eat 50 eggs and Dave McKenna telling the story of that time Obama tracked him down in a coffee shop.

These non-sports stories were ultimately a fraction of Deadspin’s total output, but being empowered to write about topics beyond sports — and seeing readers respond in droves — is what made Deadspin different and unpredictable. And it’s worth noting that having non-sports coverage on Deadspin wasn’t just important as a matter of tradition and principle. Many of our non-sports posts far out-performed the daily sports blogs on the site in terms of traffic. Those big, viral stories drew readers to the site in a singular way. People with no interest in sports at all became loyal readers of Deadspin because they ended up on the site after reading about, I don’t know, a lady furiously chucking her own poop all over a Tim Hortons.

6. You, famously, wrote an incredible story this summer about the corporate overloads now running G/O Media, potentially putting your job at risk to do so. Why was it so important for you to report and write that story? Why did you keep going even when it became clear that there could potentially be consequences? What did that experience show you about the people running your company and what it might mean for the future of Deadspin?

I got a tip about G/O management’s hiring practices the same way I got tips about many other stories. I vetted it and discussed with my editors, at which point we decided that a private-equity firm taking over a digital media company and installing a stable of older white men, whose freshest ideas came from mid-2000s Forbes, without posting the jobs publicly or announcing their hires, was at least worth looking into.

As I worked on it, the story grew from a narrow look at G/O’s hiring practices into a broader report on Spanfeller’s management, the incompetence of his assembled team and his efforts to undermine the story itself. I didn’t think they would fire me for the story, but Megan knew she would face consequences and told me to report it anyhow. The process of reporting the story was demoralizing, especially when Spanfeller blasted an email to the whole company trying to smear our work. But even then I didn’t expect management to go about destroying a key part of their own company.

7.  You have, of course, written a lot of stories about media and have been unafraid to go after outlets and people that your reporting tells you are worthy of criticism  — your stories on SB Nation not paying people are especially memorable. That said, you are also in the media and live in this landscape. How much do you worry about burning bridges with potential connections and even future employers before publishing a piece. Has anything you’ve written ever come back to bite you in a way you didn’t foresee? 

Deadspin, as an institution, has a long history of unabashedly covering media in a way no one else does. Deadspin was covering sexual harassment in sports media long before #MeToo. It built a whole beat dedicated to shredding vapid schlongform stories. It had a whole well-populated tag called “The Brands” reserved for mocking lame marketing ploys and the reporters who fell for (or embraced) them. Reporting on and writing about sports media has been a cornerstone of Deadspin ever since A.J. Daulerio took over the site in 2008. So there was a well-established blueprint and I’m glad I was able to follow it.

I’ve written critically about ESPN, SB Nation, Vox Media, FanSided, Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Barstool, MLB Advanced Media, Bleacher Report and many other media companies and figures. I never really thought about it explicitly, but I couldn’t have written and reported that stuff if I was worried about burning bridges. I’m not naive and I accept that I’ve probably torched a few, but I didn’t become a reporter to get people to like me or climb some career ladder. Writing about the stuff that important people and institutions would rather you not write about is the absolute best part of the job. In the end, I didn’t (and don’t) want to work anywhere that doesn’t share this value. With that said, I recognize that Deadspin’s position in sports media meant we could take aim at basically whoever or whatever we wanted and that working somewhere else would likely mean choosing my spots more judiciously.

I’m sure it’s happened, but I can’t think of any instances of something I’ve written really coming back to bite me, mostly because I think people realize that my reporting and media criticism isn’t personal (usually). After all, a subject one day is a source the next; all I can do is be honest in every aspect of my work. The only example I can think of is a few weeks before I quit, someone ignored me because I had been critical of that person’s friend. There’s really nothing I can do about that except shrug.

8. Having reported on the sports media industry and how it operates – you’ve seen the guts of many sports media companies. Where do you see the industry right now? What do you think the future looks like?

Media is foundering for a whole mess of reasons. As a result, more and more companies, including those in sports media, are turning to unpaid and underpaid labor. Sports media is especially susceptible to this because there are so many aspiring sportswriters out there willing to work for pennies. This is true of SB Nation (which is facing two federal collective action lawsuits over its labor practices), FanSided, 12up.com, and recently, Sports Illustrated’s new owners have adopted a version of this model. Even ESPN is now relying on low-paid college-student labor to broadcast games for SEC and ACC Network streaming platforms.

The sports media organizations that aren’t relying on cheap labor to churn out content — and I use that word derisively — are the sports sections of major newspapers (which are generally doing good but unbearably staid work) and The Athletic (I will always have doubts about a Silicon Valley startup that grows for the sake of growth, but I hope it succeeds, and I also hope the workers there follow The Ringer’s lead and unionize while things are still relatively good).

9.  If you could, what would you change about sportswriting?

You mean besides eliminating the reliance on unpaid and underpaid labor, which is not only unethical but systematically excludes people who can’t afford to work for little or no money from breaking into the overwhelmingly white and male sports media industry? I would make sportswriting more adversarial. Not everything has to be hyper aggressive, but day-to-day oppositional reporting in sports seems to have taken a back seat as reporters cling to access, with a few exceptions.

10. What are the secrets to making sure we personally never get written about by you, because, honestly, we’re a kind of terrified?

Don’t be bad. And even then, no promises!

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