Websites Don’t Just Die Anymore. It’s Stranger Than That.

The sports-focused news site died the first time when the Gawker empire was sued into oblivion and its sibling websites were sold off to Univision for $135 million at a 2016 bankruptcy auction. It died when a struggling Univision sold off those sites again—which also included Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Jezebel, and Lifehacker, among others—for “considerably less” than $135 million in 2019. Deadspin then died its most public, blood-curdling death in 2019 when the newest owner, the private-equity backed G/O Media, instructed the editorial staff more or less to “stick to sports” and fired deputy editor Barry Petchesky, leading to a mass resignation of staff mere months after the acquisition.

G/O Media hired a smaller staff to fill the pages of Deadspin. By that point, the original ethos of the site was gone—it was once a blogger’s blog, full of brilliant and sanctimonious sports and nonsports coverage alike. Many of the longtime staffers who resigned went on to start Defector, a much-beloved and aptly named independent media company with a thriving (and paying) subscriber base.

Monday, G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller, long ago cast as the central villain in the Deadspin exodus, sent a memo to staff informing them that he had been approached by a new European media company interested in purchasing the sports site. (I should disclose that G/O is my former employer; it bought the business news site Quartz, where I worked, in 2022.) As part of the latest G/O deal, Spanfeller said that none of the current staff would join the new company. Instead, they’d be laid off. “While the new owners plan to be reverential to Deadpin’s [sic] unique voice,” he wrote, “they plan to take a different content approach regarding the site’s overall sports coverage.”

In digital media, death isn’t so simple. News websites often shut down with their work entirely vanished. But sometimes, there’s no open casket or closed casket, no urn with ashes to scatter. The body isn’t just missing, it’s desecrated.

When publications like Deadspin are sold, their sites often become littered with crappy ads that make reading the site impossible. Not that old fans may want to read them anyway. Their staffs are replaced with skeleton crews, or clickbait-farming contractors, or worse—A.I.-generated nonsense, a fate that has met the once-beloved blog the Hairpin. (No shame to the humans who take work at these zombie publications—it’s not like finding a job in writing is easy.) When publications can’t simply die, when they’re forced to roam the Earth in search of salvation, they pervert the very thing they were once trying to accomplish.

Despite the best intentions of many on its late-stage staff, the G/O version of Deadspin was a sports blog with little of the original’s charm, let alone edge. Deadspin was imperfect and brash, as were all of the ex-Gawker properties, but it succeeded in providing an irreverent internet-native alternative to established sports institutions like ESPN and Sports Illustrated—but it also covered media, food, culture, politics, and everything the staff felt like writing about. New management turned off the once-popular comments section and employed headlines that were just “self-consciously edgy without actually being sharp,” as my Slate colleague Justin Peters wrote at the time. (“Shocking but True: Aubrey Huff Is Still the Worst,” and “The World Series of Poker Is a Petri Dish for Disease. Why The Hell Hasn’t It Been Cancelled Yet?” stood out at the time.) In recent years, the site has been marred with sloppy errors like when it called Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel “a white guy” and implied he’s not fit for a head coaching job (he’s biracial, his father is Black, and he’s a very good coach); when a writer wrongly assumed a Kansas City Chiefs fan wore blackface to a game, which led to a recently filed lawsuit; or even recently when it misspelled college basketball legend Caitlin Clark’s name twice in a single headline.

What comes next may very well be worse. The new owner is a previously unknown Maltese media startup that couldn’t even muster a comment to the New York Times. Will this new website hire accomplished journalists, or even human writers? Or, will it descend instead into an A.I.-generated husk of clickbait? It’s hard to muster hope for a good outcome. I wish its owners would just let it die, rather than resurrect it into a zombie. Unfortunately, it seems that while it’s tough to make money in media, there is money to be made by selling a corpse.