The Former Deadspin People Explain How to Launch a Worker-Owned Media Co-op That Might Succeed

Hamilton Nolan July 30, 2020


For the past five years, the media indus­try has been on a union­iz­ing spree. This wave of work­er empow­er­ment — com­bined with the industry’s reg­u­lar waves of lay­offs, fold­ing pub­li­ca­tions, and man­age­ment shenani­gans — have led many peo­ple to pine for the next evo­lu­tion: Work­er-owned media co-ops. Eas­i­er said than done. But now, the for­mer writ­ers of Dead­spin have announced the launch of Defec­tor Media, which will be an hon­est-to-good­ness media co-op owned by the writ­ers and edi­tors them­selves. It comes on the heels of a recent flow­er­ing of small­er writer-owned newslet­ters and sites like Dis­course Blog, launched by for­mer staffers of Splin­ter (where I used to work). Has the rev­o­lu­tion in media arrived at last? 

Dead­spin had mil­lions of loy­al read­ers. Its employ­ees got a ton of press when they resigned en masse last year after com­pa­ny exec­u­tives (dis­clo­sure: the same com­pa­ny where I used to work) tried to lim­it their edi­to­r­i­al free­dom. That makes Defec­tor the most high-pro­file media co-op project yet. It racked up more than 10,000 sub­scribers on the first day it was announced, an indi­ca­tion that this mod­el may be finan­cial­ly viable after all. 

Three Defec­tor writ­ers—Diana Moskovitz, Giri Nathan, and Samer Kalaf—spoke via email about the real­i­ties of build­ing a work­er co-op in an unsta­ble and always uncer­tain industry. 

Hamil­ton Nolan: How did you land on this super-equal, shared own­er­ship struc­ture? Did you explore oth­er options, or go straight to this?

Giri Nathan: We had con­ver­sa­tions with var­i­ous investors, each of whom had their own pre­ferred struc­ture for our busi­ness. It will not shock you to learn that they had con­ven­tion­al busi­ness struc­tures in mind. But at some point, the group began think­ing about things very dif­fer­ent­ly: What if we ignored all their pref­er­ences and actu­al­ly start­ed to envi­sion what this busi­ness would look like, in a vac­u­um, if we built it in line with our val­ues? If we need­ed to com­pro­mise down the road, that’d be fine — but we might as well start out with this ide­al­ized form and then chis­el away at that as need­ed. This was a lib­er­at­ing thought exper­i­ment. We talked as a group and quick­ly real­ized we were look­ing for a flat struc­ture with plen­ty of checks on pow­er, which may well have been inspired by, uh, pre­vi­ous work­place expe­ri­ences. A small­er sub­group then dis­tilled that abstract con­ver­sa­tion into some­thing clos­er to a con­crete busi­ness struc­ture (with the help of a friend of the site, who is an orga­ni­za­tion­al genius). Then we took that doc­u­ment to a lawyer, who made it into some­thing even more con­crete (the damn law).

Nolan: How will deci­sion-mak­ing work? Do you all vote on stuff, or are cer­tain peo­ple empow­ered to make the big decisions?

Diana Moskovitz: On a day-to-day basis, deci­sion mak­ing will work like a typ­i­cal pub­li­ca­tion. Edi­tor in chief Tom Ley will run edi­to­r­i­al and over­see what we’re writ­ing and edit­ing. Vice pres­i­dent of rev­enue and oper­a­tions Jasper Wang will run our busi­ness side. But, from the get go, we knew there were cer­tain key deci­sions that we want­ed to have a broad­er over­sight over. There also were cer­tain deci­sions that we knew we want­ed the entire staff to have author­i­ty over. A lot of this was pow­ered by this being a work­er-owned com­pa­ny. If we all own it, then we all need to have some say in what’s going on. So build­ing in those levers of pow­er was very impor­tant to us. 

The first lay­er will be the man­age­ment board, which includes the EIC, the VP of rev­enue and oper­a­tions, and one edi­tor and one staff writer from edi­to­r­i­al. These are the peo­ple who will have ulti­mate over­sight of the com­pa­ny. But cer­tain deci­sions by the board, like sales of assets, tak­ing on sig­nif­i­cant debt, or shut­ting down the com­pa­ny, will require a super­ma­jor­i­ty of the staff to be rat­i­fied. The entire staff also has the abil­i­ty to ter­mi­nate exec­u­tives, includ­ing the EIC, if a super­ma­jor­i­ty votes for it.

Nolan: You were all part of a union at Dead­spin, and our indus­try as a whole has become pret­ty wide­ly union­ized over the last five years. I’ve always thought of co-ops as the next evo­lu­tion after a union­ized work­place — mov­ing from hav­ing a seat at the table to own­ing the table. Did being in a union help pre­pare you for this? And do you think oth­er writ­ers could pick up this mod­el real­is­ti­cal­ly, even if they don’t have as much of a built-in fan base as Dead­spin had?

Samer Kalaf: At the start, when we were fig­ur­ing out our val­ues and then pri­or­i­tiz­ing what was essen­tial ver­sus what we’d like to have, our expe­ri­ences in a union def­i­nite­ly came into play. We con­sid­ered what pro­tec­tions we had in that struc­ture, and what pro­tec­tions we could have in a work­er-owned mod­el. Remov­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an oppo­si­tion­al force elim­i­nates some prob­lems, but it also means there’s a lot more account­abil­i­ty for each of us. We will own the table, which is excit­ing and empow­er­ing, and now it’s on us to main­tain it and spray some Pledge on it from time to time.

As for whether oth­er writ­ers should try out this mod­el: I think it’s doable, but a plan real­ly helps the odds. (I say this with the caveat that Defec­tor’s exis­tence has been pub­lic for a day now, and we can’t exact­ly put up the mis­sion accom­plished” ban­ner yet.) The ben­e­fit we had is that there were 19 of us to think care­ful­ly about what Defec­tor should look like and be. Not every­one who tries this out will start with a staff that large or pur­sue it under the same cir­cum­stances, but there are plen­ty of media work­ers out there with fan­bas­es who would fol­low them to an inde­pen­dent mod­el. I think audi­ences are increas­ing­ly amenable to direct sub­scrip­tions, and in a lot of cas­es it strength­ens their loy­al­ty to what they’re lis­ten­ing to or read­ing. There’s also more enthu­si­asm in that mod­el: It feels good to sup­port inde­pen­dent media, and it feels good to know that peo­ple believe in what you’re doing.

Moskovitz: I think being in a union absolute­ly pre­pared us for this, or at least me. Before Dead­spin, I’d only worked in non-union shops. In those cas­es, when man­age­ment did some­thing wild­ly anti­thet­i­cal to the news­room’s val­ues, the cul­ture often was suck it up or else you’ll get fired.” Being in a union did­n’t solve every prob­lem, but it gave work­ers a mech­a­nism to weigh in and exert influ­ence in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions. It took what if we owned the place” from the off­hand com­ment you’d say at an after-work hang­out, only as a joke, to some­thing we active­ly thought about because part of being in the union was think­ing about the com­pa­ny and what we, as a unit, thought about it and felt we could change about it. 

Oth­er writ­ers can pick up this mod­el, but at the same time be flex­i­ble to real­ize that the mod­el won’t be exact­ly the same for every­one. Under cor­po­rate own­er­ship, a lot of news­rooms lost some of their con­nec­tions to their com­mu­ni­ties, which could­n’t help but hurt the jour­nal­ism. I think for jour­nal­ism to sur­vive and grow, those rela­tion­ships have to be rebuilt and trust has to be re-estab­lished. There’s a lot in the Defec­tor mod­el that we did inten­tion­al­ly because we know who our read­ers are, what they love about us, and what they expect from us. The same exact struc­ture might not work for anoth­er writer or small pub­li­ca­tion but the idea — how can we get and incor­po­rate direct sup­port from our read­ers — is one I’m hope­ful for in the future.

Nolan: When Dead­spin blew up it was owned by a pri­vate equi­ty firm, which is about as far away from a work­er co-op mod­el as you can get. Did that expe­ri­ence at Dead­spin teach you any­thing about what it actu­al­ly takes for good jour­nal­ism to exist and be supported?

Nathan: Good jour­nal­ism requires an envi­ron­ment where jour­nal­ists can thrive. Thriv­ing is, rough­ly, being left to our own devices. We don’t need much. (I can do fine with almonds, tea, and health insur­ance.) But if the peo­ple own­ing your jour­nal­ism out­let are try­ing to wring as much mon­ey out of the asset as pos­si­ble, absent any regard for the actu­al peo­ple staffing it, or for the qual­i­ty of the actu­al prod­uct, it will not be an envi­ron­ment where jour­nal­ists can thrive. That kind of own­er­ship might degrade the read­er expe­ri­ence with sleazy low-grade ads until the jour­nal­ism is unread­able. That kind of own­er­ship might come in with lit­tle to no under­stand­ing of the out­let it pur­chased, install pup­pets who sim­i­lar­ly mis­un­der­stand it, and then effort­ful­ly resist the out­let’s most char­ac­ter­is­tic and appeal­ing fea­tures. That own­er­ship might ignore the ways in which the inter­ests of writ­ers and own­er­ship are aligned — every­one wants the writ­ing to reach as many eye­balls as pos­si­ble — and start mak­ing mas­sive com­pro­mis­es on qual­i­ty and integri­ty in the name of Mak­ing Mon­ey. That own­er­ship might even make it clear, through its pup­pets, that any cur­rent staffers are seen as at best inci­den­tal (if not out­right detri­men­tal) to their long-term goals of Mak­ing Money.

These hypo­thet­i­cal dis­trac­tions would make it hard to focus on doing good work. It would be hard to sit down at a key­board if you felt your job would­n’t exist in a month, or your col­league might be canned at a whim, or your read­er could­n’t make it through an 800-word piece with­out crash­ing their brows­er. But a healthy envi­ron­ment for jour­nal­ism is one where the inter­ests of own­er­ship are per­fect­ly aligned with the inter­ests of jour­nal­ists … by virtue of being the same set of peo­ple. All of us want Defec­tor to exist in x years, and we want it to grow in a sus­tain­able way, because we’ll be the ones who ben­e­fit from its sus­tained exis­tence. Plen­ty of own­er­ship is total­ly indif­fer­ent to whether the out­let exists in x years.

Nolan:Peo­ple today are sick of liv­ing with uncer­tain­ty. Please make one pre­dic­tion that you guar­an­tee will come true in 2020 if peo­ple sub­scribe to Defec​tor​.com.

Kalaf: A lot of sites posi­tion them­selves as an escape” from the rest of the inter­net, but I think fram­ing your lit­tle estab­lish­ment like that can some­times leave so much on the table. I want to give sub­scribers of Defec­tor com­pelling and/​or fun­ny writ­ing that they would­n’t find any­where else, but I also want to make our site the place they vis­it first when some­thing hap­pens and they’re look­ing to make sense of it. For the past few months I’ve been watch­ing the var­i­ous labor dis­putes in [sports] leagues because of the pan­dem­ic, the cor­po­rate laun­der­ing of move­ments like Black Lives Mat­ter, and the fun­da­men­tal venal­i­ty in col­lege sports. There have been some elo­quent sto­ries and takes on these top­ics, but many times I’ve felt like if I had a place with the peo­ple I used to work with, we could cov­er this stuff in a real­ly effec­tive way that would appeal to a lot of read­ers. I also vow to write at least one blog.

Nathan: One frus­trat­ing thing about not hav­ing an out­let of our own dur­ing the pan­dem­ic is that we were made for this exact, anom­alous moment. We were always writ­ing about the broad­er cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal con­text of sports, and did not need The Big Game to appear on TV every night to do so. There was so much rich mate­r­i­al that oth­er out­lets wouldn’t or couldn’t touch. So one thing I will pre­dict: Defec­tor will have good, sub­scrip­tion-wor­thy blogs even if sports are can­celled all over again.

Moskovitz: I can guar­an­tee that we will do our best to bring read­ers great work that they could­n’t get any­where else. And I will write at least one sto­ry that will make you sad.

Defec­tors web­site launch­es in Sep­tem­ber. Just don’t ask them to rank pies.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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