The changes at Sports on Earth following the winding down of the USA Today/MLB Advanced Media partnership that ran it sparked plenty of discussion about where the site was headed. In an exclusive interview with Awful Announcing last week, MLBAM’s Dinn Mann said the plan was to continue forward with the site’s initial goal of providing high-quality sportswriting, but doing so with a staff largely comprised of MLBAM personnel. One of the site’s prominent previous contributors who has stayed on is Deadspin founder and New York Magazine contributing editor Will Leitch, though, whom Mann described as “the significant persona of Sports on Earth” and “not a bad person to hang your hat on.” I spoke to Leitch last week about the changes, his role at SoE, and what’s next for the site.
Leitch started at Sports on Earth as a freelancer when the site began in August 2012, but he said he stepped into a larger role when Joe Posnanski left for NBC Sports in January 2013.
“When Pos left, I know they liked the idea of me writing there more,” Leitch said. “I enjoyed working with the editors, I liked the vibe of the site. I liked the idea of writing columns. I liked the idea of shaping something.”
Leitch said Sports on Earth went through significant changes in the wake of Posnanski’s departure, as he’d been such a crucial figure in the early conception and incarnation of the site.
“In the wake of Joe leaving, nobody was sure what it was going to be.”
Sports on Earth wound up evolving into a site that ran plenty of intriguing, thoughtful and unusual sportswriting from a wide variety of contributors, both regulars and freelancers, and Leitch’s columns on sports issues, media issues and fan perspectives wound up being an important part of that site. At first, that might seem odd for a guy who most associate with Deadspin and its rather different approach, but Leitch said that’s a misconception about him; he loves column-based sportswriting and has a long history with it.
“I worked for newspapers long before Deadspin,” he said. “I felt comfortable.”
Sports on Earth was a big change from Deadspin and from New York Magazine, but Leitch said he enjoyed the chance to get back into sports in a different style.
“I’ve always liked writing for different audiences,” he said.
He said he also appreciated getting the chance to just be a columnist, not an editor.
“There’s always this idea that because I started Deadspin, I want to write stuff,” Leitch said. “I hate that. I just want to write.”
Leitch said one of the best things about working at Sports on Earth was the way its staff supported and encouraged writers and gave them freedom.
“In general, they trusted writers,” he said.
While there have been plenty of changes at SoE, Leitch said he expects that writer-focused approach to continue. He said he loves the freedom the editorial side has been given, too.
“There are very few places that can still be called an organization run by the editorial staff,” he said.
Leitch said that will be the case going forward, too.
“I would have left if it wasn’t.”
One of the opinions expressed around Sports on Earth’s restructuring, most prominently by SportsGrid’s Eric Goldschein, was that SoE needed more “tits, asses and scandal” to draw pageviews and succeed in the current internet age. Mann said the site has no plans to go that way, though, and Leitch said that kind of pageview-focused approach doesn’t strike him as a good one.
“That may be a SportsGrid problem, not an industry problem,” Leitch said. “If your goal is just that metric, just making the numbers go up, maybe you should have been a banker.”
Leitch said he doesn’t think going after nothing but pageviews works out in the long run.
“There are places out there that are chasing that dragon,” he said “[Success doing that] is getting harder and harder to find. …Once you start chasing that dragon, you lose touch with why you got into this business in the first place.”
He said focusing on traffic alone is a problematic approach.
“Even at Deadspin, I never looked at traffic,” he said, saying that he had one joking discussion there about how putting “Britney Spears naked” in a story’s URL probably would boost traffic, but wouldn’t be worth it.
“Well, you could do that, and you might get traffic, but you’d be a horrible person and making the world a worse place.”
Leitch said he appreciates that SoE doesn’t tell its writers to be traffic-focused.
“There’s no expectation of ‘Go get hits,'” he said.
Leitch said that doesn’t mean writers should ignore reader feedback about what works and what doesn’t, as that’s still valuable.
“You don’t want to write in a vacuum,” he said.
Leitch said one of the best things about Sports on Earth was the quality and diversity of writing talent it was able to assemble. He said the news of its ownership change and restructuring, and the writers that were lost as a result, was tough to take.
“That was a shock to me,” he said. “That was a major bomb. This was a site that had two huge corporate backers, and one of them dropped out for reasons that had nothing to do with Sports on Earth.”
The site lost a lot of top writers in the changeover to a MLBAM property, but several have already managed to catch on elsewhere, including Tomas Rios and Aaron Gordon at Vice Sports. Leitch said the losses were painful, but seeing SoE alums land promising new gigs shows their talent and what the site was doing well.
“For all the talk about how the industry’s in trouble, when we lost people, they were snatched up right away,” Leitch said. “Those people got picked up because what we were doing was really good and what they were doing was really good.”
Leitch said it won’t be easy to replace them, and SoE’s still establishing its new group of regular contributors.
“We’re still trying to figure out what we’ve got.”
He said the site’s far from dead, though, and in fact, they’re soliciting new pitches (at email@example.com).
“We’re open for business, we’re taking pitches,” Leitch said.
However, he added that he doesn’t feel one criticism levied at the new site by former SoE writer Wendy Thurm, a comment that SoE doesn’t have female writers or diverse perspectives, is going to be accurate going forward.
“One of the things I loved about Sports on Earth was the wide variety of different voices,” Leitch said. “That’s something that was a part of what we were doing and is going to be a big part of what we’re doing.”
He said Sports on Earth plans to continue with its diverse perspectives and its unique angles.
“The same mindset that infused Sports on Earth will continue to infuse Sports on Earth,” Leitch said. “I think it’s inaccurate to say we don’t have female writers.”
Leitch cited Lindsay Gibbs and Alison Footer as female writers currently penning pieces for the site, and said more female and minority writers will be contributing going forward. He said a lack of diversity is something he wants to see SoE avoid.
“The mindset behind that criticism is something I one hundred per cent agree with,” he said. “I don’t want to read another site that’s all just a bunch of white guys.”
One site that’s prominently grown in its diversity recently (following a challenge on that front at Blogs with Balls 4 in 2011) is Leitch’s old one, Deadspin. In particular, they’ve recently run some interesting pieces from Greg Howard on Jason Whitlock’s “Black Grantland” and being black in America, and they’ve started some unusual efforts such as collecting news of police shootings. Deadspin’s still stirring plenty of controversies, from publishing hacked nude photos to compiling videos of people screwing up the Ice Bucket Challenge to making fun of sports teams and their fans, but Leitch said he loves what current editor Tommy Craggs has done with it.
“I hope Tommy Craggs does that job for the next 50 years,” Leitch said. “Deadspin is a better site now than it’s ever been.”
Leitch said Deadspin’s current incarnation works because it’s popular, but not dumb.
“That combination of remaining really relevant to the sports scene but not being stupid is magic,” he said. “They’re doing a lot of awesome stuff.”
Leitch said Deadspin’s success is also encouraging for the state of sportswriting, as it’s becoming a destination in its own right and one more site providing (and paying for) quality work. He said Deadspin used to be seen as a farm team for other sites, but that’s not the case any more.
“They have so many talented writers, and I think they’ll be able to keep them.”
Some may still find it odd that a guy like Leitch with his Deadspin background is now being promoted as the face of a major site like Sports on Earth that many would categorize as mainstream, but he said he doesn’t think that label’s terribly relevant to the current sports landscape.
“At this point, I don’t know what mainstream is,” Leitch said. “I don’t know if my work itself is mainstream. I’m happy to be writing.”
He said he’s thrilled to be at Sports on Earth, and he’s excited about what’s ahead.
“I wrote for years and years for no money with no one reading me,” he said. “For me, it’s amazing. …I get to write, and that’s all I ever wanted.”