Former Deadspin editor offers misleading account of site's implosion over 'stick to sports' mandate

Barry Petchesky is the former editor of Deadspin who was fired after organizing a protest against the owner’s request that writers at the site “stick to sports.” Today, Petchesky has a piece in the NY Times which offers his take on what happened at Deadspin. Unfortunately, he doesn’t describe the implosion very honestly.

Two weeks ago, I was fired as acting editor in chief of Deadspin, where I’d worked since 2009. The entire staff resigned, following me out the door after we had refused a new company mandate to “stick to sports.” Jim Spanfeller, installed as chief executive of G/O Media by the private equity firm that bought the company seven months ago, called me into his office, pointed to some offending stories on our home page and had me escorted from the building.

Well, that’s partly true but also entirely misleading. As I pointed out last month, Petchesky and the writers at Deadspin were asked to “stick to sports” on a Monday and responded by making Tuesday’s front page a collection of stories that had nothing to do with sports. Here’s a screengrab:

After this internal rebellion, Petchesky was fired. It had something to do with the non-sports stories but also something to do with the site giving a clear middle-finger to management. But in his NY Times piece, Petchesky doesn’t mention the internal revolt and goes on to mischaracterize what the owners had asked him to do, suggesting they wanted Deadspin to avoid all mentions of politics on the site:

We refused to “stick to sports,” because we know that sports is everything, and everything is sports: It’s the N.B.A. kowtowing to its Chinese business interests; it’s pro sports leagues attempting to become shadow justice systems for publicity reasons; it’s the opioid epidemic roiling N.F.L. locker rooms at least as hard as anywhere in Appalachia, even as the league refuses to relax its marijuana policy; it’s racist fan chants chasing black players off the pitch in Italian soccer matches; it’s Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap at the White House. (These last two stories occurred in the past week and so were not covered on Deadspin; the “stick to sports” diktat forced the outlet to ignore the biggest sports stories in the world.)

Reporting sports with integrity requires knowing that there’s no way to wall off the games from the world outside. To anyone who knows anything about sports or cares about the world outside the arena, the notion that sports should or even can be covered merely by box scores and transaction wires is absurd.

Again, what the owners specifically said was that writers could write about anything so long as there was some connection to sports:

In a statement sent after this blog was originally published, Maidment said “we believe that Deadspin reporters and editors should go after every conceivable story, as long as it has something to do with sports. We are sorry that some on the Deadspin staff don’t agree with that editorial direction and refuse to work within that incredibly broad mandate.”

What the owners didn’t want was stuff like the piece about the Covington Catholic kids or more pieces like, “IMPORTANT: I Would Not Bone A Vampire.” That was apparently too much to ask.

Maybe the owners would have been better off letting the writers goof-off occasionally as a cost of doing business. But that’s really all this was about. The writers wanted to act like they owned the site and quickly found out they didn’t. Petchesky can try to make this into some grand moment in the history of journalism but it’s not. And the fact that he won’t tell readers what really happened is a hint that it’s not entirely favorable to his perspective.