Despite having one of his company’s properties to go from a well-read sports site to a no-longer-updated shell over the last two months, and despite his company facing two lawsuits alleging he mistreated female executives, G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller (seen above in a screencap from a 2010 Interactive Advertising Bureau video) is apparently insisting that everything is fine. But the company’s union isn’t happy with that. As per Keith J. Kelly of The New York Post, Spanfeller recently held his first all-hands G/O Media meeting since the mass resignations of the Deadspin staff (which took place in the last week of October), but many weren’t impressed with what he had to say. Before we get there, though, it’s worth a quick review of the timeline of G/O Media this year.
Spanfeller was appointed to the G/O Media CEO role following equity firm Great Hill Partners’ April acquisition of the sites in question (former Gawker Media sites, The Onion and its associated sites, and a couple of others) from Univision, and he’s been cited as a key figure in the controversies that have popped up for those sites (especially around Deadspin) since. Conflict between Spanfeller and the Deadspin staff reportedly started soon after Great Hill Partners’ acquisition of the sites, and it became highly public when Deadspin editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell resigned in August with a “I have been repeatedly undermined, lied to, and gaslit in my job” comment. That also saw G/O Media editorial director Paul Maidment send a “We are laser focused on serving Deadspin readers sports and everything related to sports” memo, illustrating the focus G/O Media was trying to push on the site (which ignored that many of Deadspin’s most successful posts had gone well beyond sports).
Things then really came to a head with the Oct. 28 removal of a Deadspin post about autoplaying ads across the sites and the sending of a “Deadspin will only write about sports” memo around that time, and then with the Oct. 29 firing of deputy editor Barry Petchesky for not sticking to sports (which led to the mass resignations of the rest of the staff). Both one attempted freelancer and Maidment himself didn’t have too much success replacing them, and the site hasn’t seen a new post since November 4, one day before Maidment’s resignation “to leave to pursue an entrepreneurial opportunity.” And, not shockingly, the no-longer-updated site’s traffic has tanked, as per Kevin Draper of The New York Times:
Deadspin dot com had 2.2m unique visitors in November, according to Comscore. It had 19.9m unique visitors in October, its best month in at least 3 years. Looks like the “force all your employees to resign” strategy is going swimmingly.
— Kevin Draper (@kevinmdraper) December 17, 2019
So it’s amidst that background, and with writers at the other G/O sites wondering if they’ll face similar conflicts with management, that Spanfeller decided to hold this meeting. But those key developments with Deadspin took place at the end of October and the start of November, so it’s interesting that this meeting came so much later (although we don’t know the date of it, the union described it as recent). The main G/O Media news since then came from Nadine Jarrard (former G/O vice president of West Coast sales) and Michael McAvoy (former CEO of The Onion) filing lawsuits against the company and Spanfeller, alleging gender and pay discrimination, negligent hiring, mistreatment of female executives, and violation of an employment contract, and those lawsuits were filed in the second week of November; the company responded with a “These are baseless lawsuits” claim at the time.
Meanwhile, Spanfeller recently held this all-hands meeting, but the union was far from happy with what he had to say:
A statement on the current situation at G/O media: pic.twitter.com/4T6bITmbNW
— GMG Union (@gmgunion) December 17, 2019
Of course, many union statements aren’t favorable to their companies’ management. But the language here about “empty platitudes” and “a toxic work environment” certainly is strong, and it illustrates that the conflict between management and staffers may be far from over. A further meeting this week illustrates that the dialogue is at least continuing, though, and the statement the company sent Kelly wasn’t bad compared to some of their past statements.
“We will continue to engage the union in good faith. In that spirit, the union believes that we need to make changes and we have asked the union to provide examples of even more progressive CBAs [collective bargaining agreements] at other media companies that both sides could emulate in order to move forward.”
What’s also interesting here is that, as per Kelly, G/O Media claims “for the second straight quarter, the company is profitable.” We’ll see if that continues in the wake of the Deadspin saga; one month of nothing new at Deadspin would have some impact on the quarter, but the site’s record traffic in October (which may have been partly driven by people looking for updates on the stick-to-sports back-and-forth) would have helped to offset that. A whole quarter of no new posts there would seem much worse for the bottom line, especially as those November numbers appear likely to drop even further; November had some people watching the site for the first week to see what they’d do post-resignations, and there’s also the factor of people just going to Deadspin.com out of habit.
But the 89 percent October to November drop is still massive. For comparison, that’s even above the 88 percent Fox Sports reportedly lost after firing their writers and pivoting to video back in August 2017. It doesn’t seem like Deadspin will be getting that audience back any time soon. We’ll see what that means for G/O Media, and we’ll see how further talks between management and the union go.