Talking the Deadspin debacle, the future of digital news, and more

Victor Pickard, an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, chats with Penn Today about how the recent happenings at the sports blog are reminiscent of a worsening journalism crisis in the U.S.

Pickard in his office

The latest? G/O Media’s editorial director, who previously told Deadspin journalists to “stick to sports,” resigns.

The news comes this week on the heels of the months long Deadspin debacle, in which the entirety of the blog’s 20-plus staff were fired or resigned over serious conflict with management. It was just April when the Gizmodo Media Group, which operates Deadspin (as well as Gizmodo, Kotaku, Jezebel, The Onion, and other online sites) was acquired by private equity firm Great Hill Partners and renamed G/O Media.

Different ownership brought new rules, and haphazard guidelines that clearly weren’t in line with Deadspin’s mission, and the unique niche the organization had carved for itself, its journalists argued. Yes, indeed, Deadspin was created as a sports blog, but its skilled writers also touched on media, pop culture, and politics, and even broke important stories. As Louisa Thomas of The New Yorker wrote on the subject Sunday, “It has long been a fundamental tenet of the site that in order to understand what happens in sports you have to look outside of them.”

“From the outset, [G/O Media] CEO Jim Spanfeller has worked to undermine a successful site by curtailing its most well-read coverage because it makes him personally uncomfortable,” reads last week’s statement from GMG Union, which represents the former Deadspin staff. “This is not what journalism looks like and it is not what editorial independence looks like.”

Victor Pickard, an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, has been following the interesting—and alarming—story all the way from the U.K., where he is on sabbatical from Penn this semester, serving as a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Goldsmiths, University of London. Pickard, who researches the politics of media policy and the role of journalism in a democratic society has a new book titled “Democracy without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society,” which will be available in December.

Pickard chatted with Penn Today about the chaos that surrounds Deadspin, the gobbling up of media companies by shortsighted buyers, digital news in general and its future, why the increasing unionization of newsrooms gives him hope, and much, much more.

Let’s chat briefly about your new book. What is it about?

Generally, the book is focused on the ongoing and worsening journalism crisis in the United States. I look at some of the broader, structural challenges to the future of digital journalism, and I try to show that this really is a problem for policy. It’s a major threat to democracy. I think many of the things that we see, what just happened with Deadspin, are symptomatic of these bigger problems. They reflect these bigger, structural threats to journalism in the U.S. today.

Back in journalism school, everyone told me newspapers were ‘dying,’ but that’s as the digital age was growing, even flourishing. Let’s discuss this evolution a bit. Is this idea of digital news dying, now, too?

What you said is true to the narrative that many of us heard, which was that even though traditional print journalism seemed to be imploding in many ways, there was this brief moment, at least for a few years, where many commentators held much hope for these digital upstarts. It seemed like there was a growing sector within digital journalism that provided some hope, was providing some jobs. What we are seeing today is that, unfortunately, a lot of those hopes were misplaced; we still haven’t seen a truly viable economic model that supports digital journalism in any major way. Many of those earlier digital upstarts have since begun to lay off reporters. Many of them are desperately trying to find a sustainable business model. They’ve tried deceptive and invasive forms of advertising—what are sometimes called native advertising and behavioral advertising. Increasingly these outlets are subjected to severe economic and political pressures. And I think that’s what we’ve seen with Deadspin.

Let’s talk about Deadspin and what’s going on right now. What stands out the most to you?

I tend to look at the big picture here. Even though there were some very interesting particulars with this case—and why not point out just the remarkable courage and solidarity that was demonstrated by the journalists themselves when they resigned. But unfortunately the pressures they were facing are becoming all too common. This is especially true when you see these private equity firms buy up news organizations. Sometimes they are referred to as ‘vulture capitalists.’ In many cases, it’s very clear that they are not interested in informing the public or treating their news workers with dignity. Instead they are more interested in making as much profit as possible, to the detriment to the journalists and the local communities and the readers that those journalists serve. 

So, it’s the immediate money they are concerned with, they don’t really care about the news organization down the road, it seems?

That’s often the case. In some cases, it’s clear the private equity firms don’t actually see longtime viability. This might not pertain as much to the Deadspin case. But certainly, if you look at, for example, what has happened with The Denver Post, the hedge fund owner there is clearly stripping down the paper. Sometimes, the private equity firms actually buy up struggling newspapers and begin to sell off the real estate, they sell off the equipment. It’s just clear that they are selling these news organizations for parts, trying to bleed them dry. 

We’re really seeing this happen across the country, to print and digital publications.

As news organizations are increasingly under financial duress, they become vulnerable to these kinds of economic and political pressures. In the United States we are often very concerned about government censorship. We get very upset and up in arms when there is state-sanctioned censorship. But there is a market-driven censorship as well. And I think this is especially true when you consider that we’ve lost over half of our newsroom employees since 2000. We are increasingly seeing newspapers close down or go online-only. There are just fewer journalists who are able to produce news content. One other thing I’ll add, that the Deadspin story brought into focus, is that ownership matters. Media ownership matters. Whoever owns these news organizations can exert particular pressures, often political agendas, on what journalists are allowed to cover. These are all structural concerns that we often neglect.

It’s fascinating to think about how the Deadspin staff handled this situation. They posted stories that were critical of their management, which ownership took down. They began posting stories on purpose that were not related to sports. Then, seeing them all resign. They really took a stand for what they believed in. Talk to me a bit about this.

There is this growing economic precariousness to all forms of news labor, digital journalists as well as more traditional journalists are increasingly facing these challenges to their livelihood. And it’s not just that there are fewer jobs. Jobs are lower paid. There’s an increasing reliance on freelance labor. Yet, in the midst of this growing precarity, I think you are also seeing a renewed sense of solidarity. We’ve seen this earlier in American history, in the 1930s and ‘40s, journalists were quite militant in creating a union, the Newspaper Guild. And now we’ve been seeing in the last few years a new wave of newsroom unionization. Digital newsrooms in particular have been unionizing. That gives me hope. I think journalists are sticking together and trying to resist some of these trends. But at the same time, it’s very difficult for them to resist these economic pressures when digital journalism lacks a viable economic model. There’s not a commercial model that supports widescale digital journalism jobs. The advertising that used to support newspaper jobs, when you move online, has become pennies to the dollar. In most cases, digital advertising simply does not generate enough revenue to support these journalists.

What do you think is going to happen?

Well, I certainly can’t predict the future as much as I would like to. Let me just make a side note here. We certainly should be concerned about journalists losing their jobs. This is an important labor issue when thousands of people are losing their livelihood. It’s a very unfortunate and sad tale. However, it’s not just about the journalists, it’s about our democracy. In this sense, we all lose when they lose their jobs. It’s a much bigger story than a labor story or a story about a particular plucky newsroom. There’s increasing empirical evidence that there is no commercial option to support the level of journalism that democratic society needs. We really have to start looking seriously at public options. We have to look at nonprofit options, we should consider journalist-owned and controlled newsrooms and various kinds of cooperatives. We should consider press subsidies and different ways that we can subsidize newsrooms that the market will not support, such as expanding our public media system. These are all things that I advocate for in my book.

Are there any particular political figures who’ve advocated for some type of new media system?

I think you’re starting to see early signs of that. You are beginning to see various lawmakers recognize that we have market failure in the sense that the market will not support the level of journalism that democracy requires. Bernie Sanders, for example, has proposed some ideas for reforming our media system and protecting news jobs. Increasingly, lawmakers are looking at the role that Facebook and Google play in hastening the demise of journalism. What digital advertising revenue is being generated is largely going to those two corporations. Many people, myself included, have said the platform monopolies need to play a bigger role in supporting journalism. There are some ideas beginning to percolate, but we need to see much more. This is a national crisis.

What are you doing in the U.K.?

One of the things I’m doing is studying how the BBC is responding to Britain’s journalism crisis. Even though much of my work is focused on the American journalism crisis, I’m also very clear to show that this is also a global journalism crisis. Democracies around the world are struggling with many of the same problems with regards to supporting journalism.

Generally, is it technology that has caused this massive shift around the world for media?

I would say technology plays an important secondary role. I would say it’s primarily an economic problem. Some people say ‘the internet is killing journalism.’ That’s not entirely accurate. First of all, especially in the American case, journalism was overly reliant on advertising revenue. You could say that in the United States we were structurally vulnerable to these pressures. And as you move to a digital format, there just isn’t a business model for most news organizations. One of the things people have tried to do is set up paywalls based on an online subscription model. That works for some big news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, perhaps, but it’s not working out for many smaller news outlets.

What happened at Deadspin really seems to underscore what’s happening across many news organizations.

This is a systemic problem. It’s going to require structural reform. And it’s a problem for all of us. It’s a problem for our democracy and it will require policy interventions. We need to start a national conversation to try to figure out what we can do to address this market failure.