Stress eating an entire frozen pizza for Deadspin
“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” -Gandalf
(This post was originally posted to Katelyn’s Substack on 11/19/2019 and has been moved here as her Substack no longer exists)
There’s something vaguely ritualistic and comforting to cooking a frozen pizza. Opening the box and unwrapping the plastic surrounding the plastic-y looking pie. It always seems like such a good idea in the moment, especially when you’re hungry after a long day and you’re too tired to cook anything more complex…
Ever since I was a child, I would eat when I’m upset. Eating was how I dealt with my dysphoria or family distress for decades. Frozen pizza has always been the standard in my stress-eating moments.
Lately, however, a new distress has emerged in my life and career. Private equity firms.
What was once the domain of now-Senator Mitt Romney and Bain Capital has now moved into my own backyard. Private equity firms have been snapping up newspapers and online media outlets at increasingly metastasizing rates for the last several years.
Enter Deadspin. Staff at the sports blog that never stuck to sports quit en masse in the face of a corporate edict to, well… stick to sports. Top editor Barry Petchesky was fired by parent company G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller, a herb, for refusing the sports only order. Earlier this year, then Editor-In-Chief Megan Greenwell resigned in the face of similar demands, and allegedly abusive treatment from management. Greenwell wrote a damning goodbye post summarizing her experience and diagnosing the problem in media these days.
“The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen,” wrote Greenwell. In other words: the problem is dipshit rich dudes who believe they’re smart because they’re rich.
What’s happening at G/O and Deadspin is currently playing out throughout the media landscape. Private equity firm Alden Capital has eliminated two out of every three jobs at the 100 or so newspapers it owns. Similar stories have played out at SAGE Publishing, First Look Media, and e.Republic, owners of Pacific Standard, Topic, and Governing, respectively. None of the three have survived the great media purge of 2019.
Preheating the oven.
Private equity vultures were attracted to an already reeling media industry. In 2017, a devastating round of layoffs hit multiple digital media sites as corporate overlords chased dollars in video advertising. They called it the “pivot to video,” but we now know the scheme was based on a lie. It was discovered in 2018 that Facebook had been juicing the numbers for its video views, setting off a cascade of perhaps unintentional consequences as media companies contorted themselves, and their staffs to fit a seemingly new advertising paradigm. For its sins, Facebook got away with a pathetic $5 billion fine for killing off thousands of jobs for writers and journalists.
While Google and Facebook continue to suck up almost 70% of all digital advertising dollars, media companies are left to make due with a decreasingly small slice of the revenue pie. According to Pew Research data, the number of newsroom jobs fell 25% from 2008 to 2018, with little sign of slowing down.
Love to be a journalist in 2019.
Legally, I can only say that I mutually parted ways with my last full time reporter job earlier this year. There are but a handful of trans journalists sprinkled throughout modern digital media, which I suppose is an improvement over what the situation was for trans reporters decades ago. Nonetheless, I was hopeful I could land on my feet again quickly.
The first publication to come calling with an interview was at Deadspin, whose parent company had just been acquired from Univision by private equity firm Great Hills Partners. I asked the recruiter then how they felt about about having new ownership and they explained that they were happy to finally have a CEO, the aforementioned Spanfeller, after going without one under previous ownership. The recruiter said staff was generally hopeful for the future. Turns out I was right to be skeptical.
I was a bit surprised to get the interview, given I had spent the previous 10 months covering abortion and reproductive health policy on Capitol Hill, and before that, primarily writing about transgender issues. But I did have some sports bylines earlier in my career, and I have a degree in sport management from a very good program at the University of Massachusetts. I think Greenwell saw potential for good work at Deadspin.
The familiar pizza smell wafting through my apartment.
The thing is, Deadspin, the original ethos of the site anyways, correctly recognized sports as a cultural experience. The fallacy inherent to the “stick to sports” directive from G/O management is that sports don’t occur in a vacuum. When fans go to a sporting event, do they sit there and only talk about the game in front of them? When you’re watching a game on TV with your friends, is the conversation centered on what’s happening on the screen? Hardly.
Only a myopic marketer could view the millions of people who ritualistically gather in stadiums and in front of their televisions as sports enthusiasts waiting to be marketed to. No, every sports fan has a life of their own, with significant experiences outside the arena.
My father is the quintessential “stick to sports” guy. He was a physical education teacher and coach for 30 years. When we talk on the phone, our conversation is generally limited to sports, hunting, fishing, and my mom. But when we go to games together, it’s different. The last time we went to a sporting event together, the only time we’ve done so since my gender transition, we had our deepest conversation yet about how I’ve experienced my gender throughout my life. Attending a game allows my dad and I to get into life’s deep cuts.
You see, sports fans are deeper than just their enthusiasm for sports, they’re also going through complex life situations, like… well their child going through a gender transition. What made Deadspin unique, and ultimately successful is that they understood the balance between sports, humanity, humor, and the culture at large.
The first bite, once again burning the roof of my mouth.
But rich assholes who think they know better had a different idea for the cultural hub at Deadspin, and so they leveraged the only thing they had to change the situation, their money. Staff at countless brilliant outlets have suffered under similar threats, valuing their paychecks until the bitter end. Elsewhere at G/O Media, the progressive politics site Splinter (for which I’ve written for, twice) was shuddered and the staff laid off. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that a group of one percenters took over the remnants of Gawker and nearly immediately killed off the media company’s most insightful criticism of the Trump administration and conservatism at large.
The immediate regret, and oncoming stomach-ache.
The private equity media game is based on one little trick. Introduce gimmicks to juice whatever metric advertisers are buying on at the lowest possible labor cost. It degrades the reader experience faster than readers can leave and ownership extracts the value until nothing is left but the skeleton. They call it “disrupting media.”
In the face of overwhelming capital, labor has one final piece of leverage, withholding their labor. The staffers and editors at Deadspin played it with aplomb. They disrupted the disrupters. Rather than wait for the inevitable end they decided to go out like only Deadspinners could. With middle fingers raised high.
By leaving en masse, the entire staff effectively scuttled the ship before it could be sunk, giving readers permission to abandon the site in solidarity. Walking out took tremendous guts and leaving jobs with a regular salary and benefits might not be the best best for every journalist in the worst media marketplace in history. But someone had to stand up to the corporate vultures currently picking over the bones of this industry.
Of course it was Deadspin.