The Former Deadspin People Explain How to Launch a Worker-Owned Media Co-op That Might Succeed
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 Defector.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.
Defector’s website launches in September. Just don’t ask them to rank pies.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.