Deadspin: An Oral History

How an irreverent sports site made the big leagues

The Costas Incident
On April 29, 2008, Leitch appeared on the HBO show Costas Now in what was billed to be a conversation about blog culture and its effect on mainstream media. To Leitch’s surprise, the segment immediately went viral after a meltdown by Pulitzer Prize-winning sports writer Buzz Bissinger, who, in voicing his annoyance of blogging, showed visible disdain for Leitch, who Bissinger called “Jimmy Olsen on Percocet.”

Leitch: I’ve never watched that, by the way. I hate everything about that night. I wasn’t personally humiliated. I think Buzz Bissinger is a beautiful author and reporter, and it’s like that night broke him. The show turned it into this freak-show TV moment. Buzz has embraced this angry-guy persona now, and I think that has made him a worse writer. I think the reason it backfired for [Bissinger and Costas] is because they didn’t read the site or really know who I was. It’s like they thought I’d show up in a leather jacket looking like Johnny Rotten saying, “Fuck you and your media.” I found that night made everybody involved look dumb. I feel like it foretold how things were going to go. People didn’t care about an actual discussion.

Blowing Up Deadspin
In the summer of 2008, Leitch left Deadspin for New York magazine, with A.J. Daulerio taking over as editor in chief. Quickly making his mark, he revamped Deadspin’s reader comments, focused on more magazine-style reporting and ratcheted up his war with the sports media establishment.

Leitch: I had to really fight to get Denton to give him the job. A.J. famously told him he’d give him his left nut for the job.

Denton: I can never remember whether it was left ball or right ball actually, but the ball speech convinced me [to promote A.J.]. Conviction is a rare commodity.

Daulerio: Tommy and I established the formula that we’d try to do more and not just treat this thing like a blog—small-scale, original reporting, fun stuff, aggregation—and build it into a different direction. People didn’t notice that alongside some of the Favre-type stories, we would have this magazine content you’d expect to find on Slate or something.

Other Gawker sites were doing 60 posts a day, and we’d do, like, eight. But we’d get, like, one post a month where we’d get all these uniques and we were going outside our readership. We alienated a lot of Deadspin’s core audience, but it felt like the natural thing to do. I was looking to do my own thing, and there was a bigger world out there.

Leitch: The first thing A.J. said when he took over the site is, “I just don’t want to kill this.” If A.J. had run Deadspin the old way I did, the site would’ve died. He did some stuff that I disagreed with and disagree with now. It’s probably good that I got out when I did. Deadspin was my absolute life, but nothing like that can last. Eventually it had to get bigger. It needed to become more gossipy and there is nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t something I cared to do.

Chandler: Everything changed. I always looked at it as our passion project, and we were outsiders not beholden to corporate interests or anything. Then when Will left, Deadspin became what we were mocking. We became big. We were on a level, kind of, with ESPN and the mainstream. It was disappointing to me, but inevitable. That’s the direction they wanted to go. They went that way, and it wasn’t something I felt I wanted to be a part of anymore.

Craggs: A.J. took an omni-directional approach to covering ESPN. He would look for any way to fuck with them that he could think of. I wasn’t totally thrilled about the “horndoggery” stuff [one of Deadspin’s ongoing initiatives to root out rampant sexual behavior among ESPN staffers and executives]. As a stunt, it was awesome. As a way of attacking ESPN, it wasn’t my favorite piece of ESPN. It sort of made Deadspin look anti-sex, and we’re certainly not anti-wanton-sex. That was part of the philosophy of any weapon at hand.

Favre as the White Whale

Before Manti Te'o, Deadspin’s biggest moment was when it broke the news that then-New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre had left a series of inappropriate voicemails and pictures on the phone of sideline reporter Jenn Sterger. Deadspin published the pictures and emails, taking heat for the decision at the same time it found itself at the forefront of a major national news story.

Leitch: Favre is the story that really broke Deadspin. Now, I’m not ashamed of anything A.J. has ever done on with the site—I will say I would have never gotten the Favre story, but because I wouldn’t have cared enough personally to pursue it. People don’t realize that A.J. went out and got that story. He chased it for a very long time.

Deitsch: A.J. pushed the envelope. I don’t think any mainstream publication would put the Favre story up. What A.J.’s Deadspin did was it allowed a lot of mainstream publications to do follow-ups on stories they normally wouldn’t do. There’s no way the New York Post would run Favre junk photos, but they could do a follow-up 10 seconds after Deadspin released the photos. Deadspin took pressure off the mainstream to cover stories that would get pageviews.

Magary: The Favre shots put Deadspin in the rotation of big sites on par with the bigger sites and in the same breath as places like ESPN as far as sports news and opinion. It legitimized the site, which is funny thing considering it came from dick pics. A.J. actually told me about the Favre photos before he posted them, and I have a huge mouth and blurt things out all the time. I promised I wouldn’t tell, and I was writing the NFL column that week and it was supposed to run after the Favre post so I mentioned what we had, but I accidentally hit publish instead of save as draft. He paid 10 grand for that, and I spoiled it. He was so pissed.

Daulerio: I went to Craggs and said, “Man, I think this is the white whale.” From February until August, I asked who knew about this and ESPN knew as well. They felt it was insignificant and asked why I’d want to run this. I could not for the life of me understand why people shouldn’t know about this. Finally, I figured I’d pull the trigger. I called Jenn [Sterger], and she said to wait. I didn’t want her to change the whole piece, so I figured I’d go with the information I had and take the risk that somebody else out there would have this or back me up. It was a make or break moment. If it didn’t pan out, it would be a “look what horrible human beings these guys are” thing.

Two weeks later, I got an anonymous email about some pictures. The guy wouldn’t tell me how he knew Jenn. He wanted $20,000, and I got it down to $10,000 plus travel expenses. Next thing I know, everything I’d chased was there sitting on a little disc. We spent the whole night packaging it, and I actually didn’t want to go with the Favre photos. There was nothing that shows people it is him. We crosschecked the phone numbers and knew it was him, but I knew everyone would focus too much on the photo. Tommy convinced me to go with the dick photo.

Denton: I think it was A.J. who was against the Favre dick, funnily enough, and Craggs who was pro.

Daulerio: When Favre was asked at a press conference later about the photos and Favre waved it off, that’s when I thought, I got it. Slowly but surely, all the NFL beat reporters came out of the woodwork and said, “I don’t support how you got this, but you are right.” It was surreal for me. I hated the fact that people didn’t realize that the actual photo isn’t the whole story. The story is about the scummy nature of what he did and the possibility that there was harassment going on, as well as the idea that this kind of thing is accepted behavior in the NFL.

Coming full circle: the Te’o story
In late November 2011, Daulerio left Deadspin to assume editorship of Gawker Media’s flagship property, Gawker, placing senior editor Tommy Craggs at the helm.

Leitch: Craggs found the strike zone between the two of us. There is this high-minded great work out there, but it’s supplemented with the big traffic hits.

Craggs: A.J. and I have different temperaments.

Daulerio: The Te’o story was Tommy’s doing, and he took it to this level way past Favre. They’re on a new level now. This is, in a lot of ways, the perfect Deadspin story and shows that mainstream media isn’t quite caught up if they’re missing stories of this magnitude, and we showed them we could rise up and do it. This will last them for a while. Deadspin becomes part of the story, too, because they aren’t that well-known. It couldn’t have worked out better.

Craggs: The great thing about the Te’o story is that it is everything the site has been built toward since it was founded. There’s always this idea that under A.J. the site swerved dramatically in a different direction, but the soul of the site has always been the same. The only thing that changed was the style. You’ve created a self-conscious alternative to the mainstream media. What changes is maybe a few doors that weren’t open before when we were “the penis site,” maybe those open now. Maybe more people see us as a place to get the unauthorized version of the story. I don’t think anything changes about the trajectory of the site, though.

Strip Club photos: courtesy of Deadspin

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