RIP, Deadspin: A death as sad as it is chilling

Deadspin arrived on the sports scene in September 2005, about 100 years ago in internet time (or a little over 14 years in real time).

It died this week, perhaps not officially but for all practical purposes, in a flurry of accelerating moves that started with its new private venture owners creating a new “stick to sports” mandate for the site and ending with several of its most prominent writers or editors, including interim editor in chief Barry Petchesky either being fired or resigning.

In a lot of ways, the site — famously dedicated to “Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion” — provides a perfect snap shot of the evolution of digital media and discourse.

It started with founding editor Will Leitch and a host of inside jokes, snark combined with a “plus-one” commenting section of like-minded people trying to one-up each other.

And while I was a sports journalist long before Deadspin arrived, there is no doubt it had a significant influence in my decision to start this blog in 2006 and in the voice I adopted.

Early Deadspin was for the cool kids, the ones who watched sports but liked athletes and broadcasters held accountable. ESPN was a frequent target back in those days, and those squabbles seem so tame now.

It evolved and became more mainstream but more controversial at the same time. The site grew, made some mistakes, crossed some lines and took on even more enemies.

One of those lines and one of those enemies led to a lawsuit that forced parent company Gawker into bankruptcy, which led to liquidation, which led eventually to a loss of independence and a purchase by a private equity firm. And then this week happened, which maybe was inevitable. Deadspin has had a lot of unofficial deaths in the last few years, but this one feels real.

I’ve had a lot of people tell me in recent years that they just don’t read Deadspin that much any more, and I suppose that’s true for me as well. But I think that has more to do with 1) the destabilization of the site a few years back and 2) the fact that there is just so much more content out there than there was a decade ago, and it’s delivered in a much more splintered way.

Usually I go directly to a post now that I’m interested in via Twitter instead of refreshing the site several times a day to see the latest post.

But when I do, it’s almost always worth it. Drew Magary (a friend and longtime Vikings sufferer with whom I did a weekly feature after Vikings games called “The Monday Meltdown” back in the early days of this blog) is one of the most interesting and thoughtful writers out there. David J. Roth is a must-read, particularly and specifically when he is NOT sticking to sports.

Both writers, and plenty others on the site, came right at their targets. Often they are people in power. People in power don’t like to be held up to a light and held accountable.

And that’s the particularly chilling part of this story. Venture capital owners wringing cash out of a property while bleeding dry the product is a tale both sad and familiar.

Even if we give the new management the benefit of the doubt — that it’s merely particularly clumsy and bad in its attempt to make money, failing to recognize what gives the site value and that the writers, in this case, are very literally the brand — it’s bad enough.

It’s much darker but far from unreasonable to think that the “stick to sports” edict is a way to suppress dissenting, non-mainstream voices on important topics instead of any sort of business decision.

If they were merely clumsy, would there have been mass resignations as there were Wednesday?

To watch the way they punched and screamed and clawed on the way out the door is truly inspiring, and as true to the spirit of Deadspin as anything I could have ever imagined,” Leitch told the New York Times. “They refused to give in to the bad guys. During a time when so many people have made a profession of that very thing, I find it downright heroic.”

What we’re left with, though, is a site that is a shadow of its former self — one that was executing its mission and making money before being told not to.

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