When Jim Spanfeller and a private equity firm called Great Hill Partners took over G/O Media—formerly Gizmodo Media Group—in April, their stated goal was to make the company profitable. It was a welcome refrain for employees all too aware of how the company had languished under Univision’s doomed ownership. But as Spanfeller began to implement his vision, that hope was replaced by employee frustration and skepticism over his hiring practices and interference with the company’s journalism.
Spanfeller, a man who is regularly and perhaps euphemistically referred to in press accounts as a digital media “veteran,” has so far hired a slew of his former colleagues at Forbes.com—where he was CEO from 2001 to 2009—and Playboy—where he was a senior vice president from 1989 to 1993. These include a senior vice president of marketing who last week wrote a baffling reader “satisfaction” survey for Deadspin at Spanfeller’s behest; a sales executive who, sources say, appears unable to give an effective sales pitch; and an editorial director who repeatedly attempted to kill the reporting process for this story.
These men, and others who now hold C-suite positions at the company, were each hired without a public recruitment process, and several were installed over high-ranking women who had been successfully performing those jobs at the company for years. In one case, sources say Spanfeller did offer to promote a woman to run human resources, but on the condition she fire another woman at the company as her first order of business. (Spanfeller denies this claim.)
In conversations with Deadspin, more than 20 employees from across the business, tech, and editorial departments of G/O Media expressed frustration with Spanfeller’s approach to hiring and his new executives’ lack of knowledge about the company combined with their seeming unwillingness or inability to get up to speed. The employees, nearly all of whom requested anonymity because of fears of retaliation from company management, are angered by a lack of communication regarding company goals, seeming disregard for promoting diversity within the top ranks of the company, and by repeated and egregious interference with editorial procedures.
These conversations reveal that Spanfeller’s biggest effect on the company since taking over has been a deflation of morale. Several high-ranking employees have left the company over the past three months, departments have been stretched thin, and those who remain say that Spanfeller’s micromanaging and inappropriate interference has hamstrung their ability to effectively do their jobs.
Just two weeks after Spanfeller and Great Hill acquired the company, and less than a week after he said in an interview with Variety that he didn’t expect any layoffs, Spanfeller fired 25 people across the 400-person company, including Susie Banikarim, GMG’s widely respected editorial director, and the only person of color on the executive leadership team at the time. (The other woman on the executive leadership team, general counsel Lynn Oberlander, left the company this week.) In the months that followed, without posting the jobs publicly, Spanfeller, 62, hired a stable of white men to fill executive positions overseeing nearly every facet of the company. Six of these hires were Spanfeller’s colleagues from his previous jobs at Forbes, Playboy, and Ziff Davis. They include:
- Chief financial officer Tom Callahan, who worked at Forbes while Spanfeller worked there. (Spanfeller told Deadspin that he and Callahan had “only been in a single meeting that I recall.”)
- Editorial director Paul Maidment, who worked with Spanfeller at Forbes and The Daily Meal.
- Senior vice president of marketing Bruce Rogers, who worked with Spanfeller at Forbes.
- Vice president for west coast sales Steve Thompson, who worked with Spanfeller at Playboy, Ziff Davis, and The Daily Meal.
- Vice president for east coast sales Sean Flanagan, who worked with Spanfeller at Playboy, Ziff Davis, and The Daily Meal.
- Vice president of sales for the south Lance Johnson, who worked with Spanfeller at Forbes (and most recently worked with Bruce Rogers at a company called SITO Mobile).
(Spanfeller declined to be interviewed in person but answered emailed questions. About their hires, he wrote, “I introduced Steve and Lance to Mike McAvoy, but I did not make the hires. Mike hired Steve, and Steve hired Lance after conducting a process around each hire.” Great Hill Partners vice president Eric Ahlgren and managing partner Chris Gaffney did not respond to Deadspin’s emailed questions.)
The internal reaction to these hires has ranged from confusion to anger. The confusion stems from a lack of communication. For instance, Rogers, who sits in a corner office in New York, still hasn’t been formally announced as a new employee internally or externally, and sources who work in sales say it’s unclear what his job description is, though he evidently has plenty of time to contribute to Forbes, where he posted 14 articles in July. (“The people I work for and the people who report to me know what I do,” Rogers, 63, told Deadspin in an email.)
The anger stems from Spanfeller’s apparent disregard for his own stated company values, which include a commitment to diversity and inclusion. While cleaning house and bringing in some trusted former colleagues is not entirely uncommon in private-equity acquisitions, Spanfeller filled nearly his entire top layer of management without any public recruitment process; the only woman hired as a department head, head of talent Angela Persaud, was also the only person at that level whose job was posted publicly. A source said Spanfeller told editors-in-chief of the company’s websites that he had chosen Maidment, 68, for the job before the sale was completed and did not interview other candidates, including Banikarim. (Spanfeller says this is inaccurate and that he “did consider other candidates for the editorial director role, but Paul quickly rose to the top after he expressed an interest in the position.”) Three of the men Spanfeller hired were installed over successful women who had been at the company for years. In two cases, women asked for and were promised the opportunity to interview for executive-level positions for which they were qualified, only to see Spanfeller hire one of his former colleagues before they were given a chance to interview.
A senior vice president who has worked for what is now G/O Media for four and a half years met with Spanfeller in the company’s Chicago office shortly after he purchased the company in April. (Though the source spoke in great detail about her experience, she requested her name not be used because she didn’t want it to affect her future employment opportunities.) In that 30-minute meeting, the woman told Deadspin, Spanfeller told her that Univision had been a bad owner and that he saw an opportunity to make improvements and turn a profit. The SVP shared her team’s revenue goals and their success in meeting those goals, staying focused on numbers and her team’s value because she knew her work would be key to profit margins. She told Deadspin she was surprised that Spanfeller seemed to know little about her team, which last year won Digiday’s “best content studio award.”
Then, in early June, former Onion CEO Mike McAvoy, who—until he was separated from the company on July 11—had been leading sales across all the sites, told the SVP that Spanfeller had hired two new sales leaders, Flanagan and Thompson. Former SVP of sales and operations Kurt Mueller had left the company, and McAvoy told the woman Spanfeller was hiring his replacement. McAvoy described the SVP of marketing job as a combination of sales strategy, account management, and managing creative teams—all responsibilities that fell under the SVP’s purview. She asked McAvoy, then her immediate supervisor, for the opportunity to interview for the position, citing her leadership of the revenue division, her construction of a diverse team, and her renown in the industry. In an email read to Deadspin, McAvoy agreed that she was qualified for the role and said he would talk with Spanfeller to ensure she was interviewed for the new opportunity, which had not been posted publicly.
Six days after the SVP’s exchange with McAvoy, Spanfeller sent an email to the entire staff announcing G/O Media’s new company values. In addition to clichés like “we are ambitious” and “be passionate and have fun,” the fifth value on the list said, “We will be at our best when we embrace many different perspectives and experiences. DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION are core to our culture, and we expect all staff to advance and promote that.” Heartened, the SVP emailed Spanfeller to remind him of their meeting in April and express her hope that women, people of color, and people who identify as LGBTQ would be considered as he hired his leadership team, and to say that she looked forward to discussing her role in the organization. Spanfeller responded that he would be happy to get together, but did not say anything about open roles. That evening, the woman received an email from McAvoy telling her that the SVP of marketing job had been filled with someone who worked with Spanfeller at Forbes.
The person hired was Bruce Rogers, who most recently ran the “institute” arm of SITO Mobile, a mobile data company. As for why that move was never announced, Spanfeller told Deadspin he believed Mike McAvoy would announce Rogers’ arrival, even though Spanfeller hired Rogers and he has announced other hires across the company since taking over.
When Rogers was hired less than a week after McAvoy told the SVP that she would be able to interview for the job, she said, she realized that he must have been chosen well before. “The role was not posted nor was it communicated to me in time where I would have even been given equal opportunity to be considered,” she said. “And as the only woman on the previous revenue leadership team, I started to wonder if women were being considered for leadership roles.” Indeed, Spanfeller told Deadspin that he first contacted Rogers about the job on June 11.
When asked why he didn’t consider the SVP, Spanfeller told Deadspin, “I was unaware of her interest in the role and that Mike had made that commitment and I’m sorry. If I had known, I would have been happy to interview her and consider her for the role.”
On June 20, the next time Spanfeller was in Chicago, the SVP met with him to ask why she had been overlooked. She said Spanfeller told her that he “was unaware” of what she did at the company, and that she replied: “That doesn’t help, because that says you not only didn’t know what I did, but you also had no interest in meeting the only woman on the revenue leadership team who is an SVP who has been successful, according to meeting her revenue and finance goals.” She said the conversation ended with Spanfeller saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what else you want me to say.”
Spanfeller confirmed the woman’s account to Deadspin. “I was sorry and that is accurate,” he said. “I was unclear about what she did. I’m sorry that Mike didn’t more clearly convey the information to me.”
McAvoy said, “Jim has a different recollection of the facts.”
The SVP said she told Spanfeller that she wasn’t the only person who noticed this pattern of hiring his former colleagues over women at the company, and that he should be prepared to address it. “I hold myself to a high regard and ensuring that I’m respectful to others and create a community of camaraderie, hire for diversity, and that there is a work life balance,” she told Deadspin. “I expect to be treated the way I treat people.”
This pattern played out three more times in Spanfeller’s first few months as CEO. Steve Thompson, 55, was installed over a female vice president who had been running west coast sales for two and a half years. According to his LinkedIn, Thompson is the founder of Mediacentric Inc., a “multi-media representation company.”
“A man was hired with my same title [vice president for west coast sales] to be my boss,” the VP told Deadspin. “My territory has been cut in half. There are regions that were within my scope of responsibilities and within my role that I cannot call on and neither can my team.”
The VP, who said she now reports to Thompson, said all of her previous reviews from her managers have “exceeded expectations,” and that she “was able to more than double revenue for my region” in less than a year. A source at the company familiar with the situation said Thompson’s hire had been “flagged” to upper management as a potential problem.
Spanfeller said no one told him that a female VP was already successfully performing that job before he hired Thompson. He did not answer a question about whether he was aware that a female VP was already leading west coast sales or that he installed a man (who also carries a VP title) above her.
Sean Flanagan, 55, who was hired to lead east coast sales, was also installed over a female senior sales employee, who had been at the company for four years before she left in July. Before he started full time in early June, Flanagan was brought in as a consultant just after Spanfeller took over G/O Media. Sources say he was retained to consult on sales and how the department could work more directly with clients, which the now-former employee says was her job. Shortly after the sale in April, she said, she met briefly with Spanfeller and explained to him her role and responsibilities in the company, which was primarily to work directly with clients to secure partnerships, instead of going through media ad agencies. She said Spanfeller didn’t have many questions for her, describing him as “apathetic.” Spanfeller seemed not to recall this interaction, telling Deadspin that “the sales team was not covering direct clients.”
“The only person that I was aware of that was calling directly on clients was an SVP at The Onion and that was to sell creative services,” he said.
The sales employee (who is not an SVP) wasn’t surprised to hear that Spanfeller didn’t know what she did. “Neither Sean nor Jim ever reached out to ask, ‘Hey, what are you doing, how are you doing it, how is it working?’ There was never a conversation about my role,” she told Deadspin. “And I didn’t know what Sean was doing. It wasn’t collaborative.”
Soon after Flanagan started, other members of the sales team began to question his ability to do the job he was hired for—specifically, his ability to represent the websites and the company mission. During an internal sales summit meeting in New York on June 19, sales execs practiced pitching G/O Media’s “general presentation,” a deck of about 15 slides that tells clients why they should do business with the company. Flanagan volunteered to go first, and what followed “wasn’t overwhelmingly inspiring,” as one sales employee who was at the meeting put it: Flanagan read “word for word” what was on the slides, two people present confirmed.
“I think the general sentiment coming out of that meeting, at least for some of the senior sales people, was like, ‘these guys are going to lead our sales team? They can’t even pitch effectively,’” said another employee who was present.
In an email, Flanagan disagreed with those assessments: “Simply not true. As the former publisher of National Geographic, Men’s Health & Maxim—my successful presentation & leadership skills are evident.”
This response, which Spanfeller emailed out along with the questions to and answers from every other executive to the entire company as an attempt to undermine this story, prompted this response from a third sales employee.
“I’m shocked he would call that a good presentation,” said the employee who was in the meeting. “I think it makes him a bad role model for the rest of his team.”
The fourth known instance of Spanfeller overlooking a woman at the company in favor of a white male former colleague also happened on the sales team. Once it became clear that the sales department was being restructured in Kurt Mueller’s absence, another female vice president, who had been at the company for four years, asked McAvoy in early June for the opportunity to be considered for an expanded sales role, providing examples to show her success at the company. “I told Mike, verbally and in writing, that I would be interested in taking on new responsibilities and opportunities within the organization and I would like to interview for whatever position would be a part of that,” she told Deadspin.
McAvoy told her she would be able to interview for a bigger role, she said, only to follow up a few weeks later and say that Rogers had been hired. The VP had a call with McAvoy and Spanfeller to discuss the process, asking Spanfeller why he hadn’t even reached out to her about the position. “[We] had a phone conversation, kind of confronting Jim about it, and he told Mike, ‘I thought we talked about this.’ It was throwing Mike under the bus, and Mike told Jim that they had not talked about it. Jim characterized that as a misunderstanding,” she said.
“I was going on the input I had been given by Mike McAvoy that he had discussed the position with her and laid out why she was not ready for the larger role. Mr. McAvoy was clear to me on his opinion that he did not think she was the right choice at this time,” Spanfeller said.
“Jim has a different recollection of the facts,” McAvoy reiterated.
In late July, more than a month after the woman’s conversation with Spanfeller (and after the Daily Beast and New York Post published stories about his rocky early days at the company and he became aware of the reporting process for this story about his hiring practices), that same VP was given what management called a promotion, which Spanfeller noted in his responses to Deadspin, saying that she “has been promoted to VP Marketing under Bruce Rogers with wider responsibilities.”
“I am at the same level and performing the same duties now as I was before I got this supposed promotion,” the VP said. “It also wasn’t communicated to me as a promotion until the day it was emailed out to the company.”
While these high-ranking women were being overlooked and bypassed, Spanfeller evidently was concerned about retaining at least one other VP on the sales side. Multiple sources say that Spanfeller reached out to VP of media operations Brad Klancnik to tell him he was a valuable employee and that the new owners would like him to stay at the company, but female VPs say he did not relay such messages to them.
Spanfeller declined to answer a question about whether he expressed these sentiments to Klancnik. “I have definitely given positive feedback to numerous women, including senior executives in edit, sales, and marketing,” he offered instead.
“It definitely feels like it’s the old boys club,” a G/O Media employee told Deadspin. “This guy just seems like he doesn’t like women,” another added.
Asked for a response to the latter allegation, Spanfeller responded, “That is absurd. I am a father of three wonderful woman. Two are now successfully navigating careers in the digital advertising space. The other is still in college.”
“Four of nine major hires have been women,” Spanfeller said. “I’m not building a club, we are working to build a successful company—and that depends on great women and men.”
The four women who Spanfeller counts as “major” hires include two he hired (head of talent and deputy counsel); one he promoted from within to executive managing editor; and a yet-to-be-filled position he says he plans to offer to a woman.
In one instance in which Spanfeller tried to promote a woman within the company, his offer came with strings attached. According to multiple sources familiar with the situation, in April Spanfeller offered the job of head of talent to Katie Pontius, who until recently was the chief of staff for The Onion, Inc. The job, however, came with a condition, they said: Pontius’s first order of business would be to fire newsroom editorial director Susie Banikarim. Multiple sources say Pontius declined to go along with the plan, angering Spanfeller. (Pontius declined to comment.)
Spanfeller described the situation differently. “I hired Katie who accepted the job,” he wrote. “The next day she refused to join me in communicating our plans to Susie. I found this troubling but was okay with it given the circumstances. Katie then refused to assume the HR lead role around other wider layoffs at the company. It became clear that she was not a good fit for this position and we both agreed on this. I was disappointed. I thought she was going to be great, and it didn’t work out by her own assessment.”
In response to follow-up questions, Spanfeller clarified that “there was never a signed offer” between Pontius and the company. When asked if it was inaccurate, then, to say she had accepted the job, Spanfeller did not respond. Spanfeller also said that he “did not ask Katie to fire Susie, only to be in the room while I had the conversation about Susie’s future with the company.”
Spanfeller ended up firing Banikarim himself, and then, months later, hiring Angela Persaud for the chief talent officer job after a public search. (Pontius left the company.) On July 9, he hired Faiza Javaid as deputy general counsel, a position that was posted publicly. Announcing Persaud’s hire on July 10, Spanfeller wrote this of the process: “After a very fulsome search where we interviewed dozens of qualified candidates we identified two finalists. These two highly talented HR executives then met with a number of people around our company including representatives of the unions.”
When asked why Spanfeller didn’t follow this thorough search process before filling seven key positions with his former coworkers, he blamed his hiring practices on the financial shape of the company. “Initially, we had to move fast because the company was losing money at a rapid pace,” he said. “I had experience and confidence in the people who were hired. I was also hiring a good portion of these jobs before I actually took over day to day control of the company. This is normal in situations like these where a new group is coming in and is facing a near term challenge. Now that we are closer to stabilizing the company’s finances, we can take even more time and be more deliberate in our hiring, which the SVP Talent is already doing.”
What Spanfeller says is “normal” is, of course, a reflection of his own values, which evidently rank transparency, diversity, and inclusion as secondary concerns to financial success.
Since Spanfeller took over G/O Media in April, more than a dozen people have left the company voluntarily, in addition to the 25 people who were laid off. Employees across editorial, sales, and tech have left, but many of these positions, even mission-critical ones, have not been filled. Laura M. Browning and Caitlin PenzeyMoog, the A.V. Club’s executive editor and managing editor, respectively, stepped down on July 12. No one has been named interim editor, and there is no succession plan in place. According to sources familiar with the situation, the Onion’s union sent a letter to Spanfeller asking that he help provide a plan for the site and fill the vacuum left by top leadership. He sent a message back about the importance of diversity and inclusion and a full hiring process. When asked by Deadspin why he wouldn’t name an interim editor while that search took place in order to stabilize the site and ensure that the people filling in were properly compensated for their work, Spanfeller said that the Onion union “demanded that we immediately promote two people into those roles. Now that we are closer to stabilizing the company, there can be a more deliberate recruitment and hiring process. It is also worth noting that multiple internal candidates have expressed interest in the position of EIC of the A/V Club.” The Onion union declined to comment, but a source with knowledge of the situation disputed that the union “demanded” promotions, saying its letter demanded “action” and used the words “We ask for the following” when addressing promotions.
Meanwhile, many people who are still at the company feel their work is being hindered by new management. Sources say that on the tech side of the company, Spanfeller has taken to micromanaging various aspects of developers’ work, holding meetings to ask what each one is working on, demanding detailed accounts of how they spend their working days, and mandating various projects based on his work at Forbes in the mid-2000s. Multiple employees on the tech team say the chief technology officer, Jesse Knight, has repeatedly shown himself unable or unwilling to stand up to Spanfeller and advocate for his team and best practice standards.
“I have stood up for and advocated for my team since the day I started at G/O. In all of those cases Jim listened to my arguments and in many cases agreed with me and the issue was settled,” he wrote in response to one question. Answering a similar one, he seemed to contradict himself: “This concern was expressed to me and I take it very seriously. I realized that I wasn’t communicating my advocacy for the department or our initiatives to upper management and other departments back to the team clearly enough. It’s something that I’m working to improve. I am and will continue to be a very strong advocate for my team.”
One major conflict arose over whether the company should build a video player in-house or pay for a third-party platform. In April, the tech team was told to move the company’s video operations off of MCP, which Univision paid for to host video content, and onto JW Player, a cheaper video system. Though neither Spanfeller nor Knight provided the team a hard deadline, they made clear that they wanted the task, which should have taken months, completed in a matter of weeks. The tech team managed to execute the move in about a month, but before they had finished, Spanfeller changed course and decided that the developers should build an entirely new video platform and player from scratch, explaining the decision by saying that “that was what he did at Forbes,” according to employees involved.
“I never changed my mind. The JW Player was an interim step,” Spanfeller said. “[...] While it is what we did at Forbes that has nothing to do with the reason to do it here. Having done it at Forbes, I simply knew it could be done quickly and with incremental value to the company.”
But Spanfeller’s expectation that the process would be done “in the next week or so” shocked the tech team. “That’s not reality,” a tech staffer told Deadspin.
At an all-staff meeting this week, Knight told Spanfeller that August 15 is the target completion date, which Spanfeller told Deadspin he believes is achievable. But after the staff meeting, sources say, members of the tech team held a meeting with Knight to explain why the date was unrealistic. Sources say the meeting concluded with an agreement that the best course of action would be to explain to Spanfeller why the player would not be finished by August 15.
Asked about the meeting, Knight initially didn’t answer. When pressed, Knight admitted the deadline may be unrealistic. “I have communicated our timeline concerns to Jim and he understands that development is not an exact science and that goals may not be hit,” Knight told Deadspin. “At the same time we are still exploring all options to get this work done by August 15th.”
In addition to poor planning and communication around the video player, multiple sources say Spanfeller wouldn’t allow the tech team to implement video tracking analytics on JW Player, so no one had any idea how many views videos were getting. One theory was that Spanfeller thought implementing analytics would take developer resources away from building the new video platform and player, though employees said implementing analytics is a relatively easy fix. Another was more direct: “That’s Jim wanting to be in control. We could have video analytics today. He’s trying to micromanage,” the tech employee said last week.
Spanfeller said that he wasn’t preventing, “just delaying” analytics from being implemented, on the grounds that it’s “not particularly useful information at the moment.” (The day after Deadspin contacted Spanfeller for comment, the tech team was given the green light to roll out video analytics.)
This isn’t the first time Spanfeller has been accused of micromanaging. Multiple people who worked for him at The Daily Meal (part of Spanfeller Media Group) told Deadspin that Spanfeller couldn’t cede any control. (Deadspin reached out to 10 former Spanfeller employees at The Daily Meal; four consented to be interviewed, though all declined to be named because they fear retribution from Spanfeller or their current companies.) “I think the biggest problem was the leadership wouldn’t get out of the way of everyone,” one former employee told Deadspin. “Sole dedication to revenue, getting it the cheapest, quickest way possible. When people came in with good ideas they were rejected.”
A woman who was hired at The Daily Meal after responding to a Craigslist post said she was once asked to write a story about a company’s earnings, which she felt she wasn’t qualified to write and for which she didn’t receive guidance from her editors. In a follow-up meeting with Spanfeller about the story, she suggested that hard financial data might not be their audience’s central interest. “His skin got bright red,” she said. “He started screaming at me, ‘Who told you you were allowed to speak about audience? You’re not qualified. Who even told you you were allowed to think about audience?’”
“My management was straight-up scared of him,” said a staffer who worked at the site for two years and had responsibilities on both the editorial and marketing sides of the company. “I can see why. He would stop into people’s offices with the doors open and scream at them, so everyone knew what was going on.”
A fourth source, a former senior staff member at The Daily Meal who worked with Spanfeller, confirmed his temper issues and the “dysfunctional” nature of the workplace. “From a woman’s perspective, I did feel very belittled. And he made sure to make it clear that I just didn’t get it in his mind ... that I just didn’t get this whole digital thing,” she said. “[He] wasn’t interested in hearing what someone with 20 years of experience would say.”
On Glassdoor, a website where current and former employees can submit anonymous reviews of their workplaces, reviews of The Daily Meal are overwhelmingly negative.
Asked about the former employees’ accounts, Spanfeller said he has “no idea what this refers to and it is not my recollection of working at The Daily Meal,” adding that he doesn’t recall screaming at anyone. “My management style has been widely reported on over the years and the picture you are painting does not comport with that. Additionally, as you are reporting here, there are numerous outstanding people, both men and women who have worked for me on more than one occasion.”
By July, Spanfeller’s third full month at the company, questions about Spanfeller’s commitment to his journalists’ editorial independence began to dominate conversation in the office. On July 25, a pop-up survey appeared on Deadspin asking three questions: How satisfied are you with Deadspin? (10 is very satisfied, 1 is very unsatisfied); What do you like MOST about Deadspin? (check all that apply); and What do you like LEAST about Deadspin? (check all that apply). For the last two questions, the options were the same: “Uncompromising commentary,” “sports stories I can’t find anywhere else,” “knowledgeable writers,” “broad scope of coverage,” “political coverage and strong political point of view,” and “criticism and coverage of other media companies.”
According to sources familiar with the situation, the tech team was instructed by Knight, who was directed by Spanfeller, to push out the survey without consent from anyone in editorial. Spanfeller said he asked for the survey; Rogers said he wrote it; and editorial director Paul Maidment said he didn’t approve it, but he told Deadspin editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell that he did not attempt to stop it from running on the site when he was filled in shortly before it was scheduled to go up.
According to Dave Reibstein, past chairman of the Board of Directors of the American Marketing Association and a professor of marketing at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business (where he teaches a course on market research), there are several problems with the survey.
“I think the thing that’s most strange about it is that they didn’t coordinate with the editorial side of the business. At least have everybody well briefed on ‘this is what we’re doing and this is what we’d like to learn from it,’” Reibstein said. “The appropriate thing to do would be to talk to the editorial side of the business and have a clear objective for the survey.”
As for the content of the survey, Reibstein said it is possible to read it as “innocent,” a way to attempt to gauge “customer satisfaction,” as it’s known in the marketing industry. Combined with more data-driven metrics like unique views, how long a reader spends on a story, and how many times a story is shared, reader feedback can provide useful information. The survey on Deadspin, however, had some serious issues, he said.
“It’s hard to imagine what one would not like on that list of items,” Reibstein said of the third question. “Who doesn’t like uncompromising commentary or sports stories you couldn’t find anywhere else? Or knowledgeable writers?”
Asked about the survey, Rogers said he thinks its responses will accurately and fully reflect Deadspin readers’ opinions of the site. Spanfeller said the goal was to “find out what the key points of attraction are for our visitors.”
The G/O Media union sent the following statement regarding the survey:
The GMG Union has made repeated good-faith efforts to cooperate with management in resolving the many outstanding issues currently facing the company, from workplace accessibility to a video player that lacks viable metrics. Naturally, we were dismayed to discover one more problem—the survey placed on Deadspin. It was placed there without consultation or even simple communication to anyone on Deadspin’s staff. That is clearly evident when you note the poor syntax and galling bias of the questions. It is ridiculous to launch a management survey questioning the editorial value of the site. We sent a request for an explanation and did not receive a response. We have also learned the tech team has been asked to post the survey again.
These actions are clearly management attempting to target, and even intimidate, staff into changing their editorial stance in spite of our contract-protected independence, especially as it comes on the heels of management’s repeated attempts to kill this story as it was being reported about the company. That management did not respond to our request for an explanation is only another of the many ways the workers at GMG have been ignored and put on the back burner in the name of a profitability mirage that is clearly more attractive to the big decision-makers than a functioning workplace. We’ll keep fighting for what’s right.
I first emailed Spanfeller on June 24, early in my reporting process, telling him that I was working on a story about the new hires he’d brought to G/O Media in his first few months. I told him I had a few questions I’d like to ask him, and asked if he had any availability for a meeting the following day. Spanfeller’s executive assistant set up a time for us to meet.
Three and a half hours later, Maidment sent an email to Greenwell and me with the subject line, “Reporting on ourselves.” The body of the message read:
This is a tradition that makes no sense. We have no credibility in writing about ourselves. No media company does. They are parti pris, which is why the overwhelming majority do not do so and many will not even report on rivals for the same reason. So put this piece on ice. We shall have a discussion on the policy at the next EiCs leads meeting.
When I followed up about the meeting the next day with Spanfeller, I was told it was canceled. Greenwell told Maidment she was unwilling to shut down an ongoing reporting process in response to management demands, and Maidment continued to make his argument against the idea of reporting on G/O Media—a hallmark of the company since its earliest days, as well as a tradition at other major publications—in several meetings with the editors and writers he oversees. During those meetings, Maidment’s ideas—which included commissioning an editor outside the company to review and approve stories written by about the company—were met with unanimous opposition.
On July 30, the day after I emailed reporting questions to Spanfeller, Maidment, Rogers, Jesse Knight, and Sean Flanagan, Spanfeller sent a company-wide email under the subject line “Reporting on Ourselves; Deadspin Reporting On The Company and Our Executives.” In the email, excerpts of which were published by media reporters from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, Spanfeller voiced his opinion on how coverage of the company should work:
I believe the solution is to have that reporting reviewed by an impartial outside editor — a Public Editor, if you will [...] and not just for these situations but for any situation where someone within or without the company has issues with our coverage or reporting. In this specific case, I have committed to the current story being fully reported and submitted for external review and, if it passes that review, it will be published.
(G/O Media’s Collective Bargaining Agreement contains a clause that explicitly states that editorial decisions can only be made by editorial staff members, which Spanfeller is not. Asked about the contract, Spanfeller responded, “I firmly believe in editorial integrity. At the same time, working with the EICs to set a general editorial direction is clearly in the purview of any owner.”)
Spanfeller’s all-staff email went on to accuse Deadspin’s staff of bias and cast doubt on the motives behind the story.
That said, I and the management team received a list of questions from the reporter working this story for Deadspin and those questions left me greatly concerned about the objectivity and core intentions of this piece. While we were given a 3pm deadline today to respond to dozens of questions, I understand that the folks at Deadspin have already submitted their story for legal review and plan to publish it on Wednesday – all without ever seeing any of the responses to the questions that they asked. For the life of me, I am not sure how you can have a legal review without a complete story and I cannot imagine how you can consider your work to be objective without reviewing the answers to the questions that you have asked. [...]
That the story has been submitted for legal review without the benefit of our responses leads me to the conclusion that the piece is already fully written and that our responses to questions are mere window dressing.
When one reviews the actual questions one might feel even more uneasy.
Shortly after Spanfeller’s email was made public, Deadspin editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell issued a statement in response to his accusations that the reporting process was unfair:
We are in an ongoing reporting process and planning to publish the story when it is ready. As with any reporting process, we asked questions intending to incorporate the answers. Legal review is often a lengthy process involving multiple reads, so talking to a lawyer is certainly not an indication that we would publish without completing the reporting process. I intend to continue supervising the reporting process, including legal review, and then publish a thorough and fair story, which of course would include responses from people we spoke to.
The rigorous and thorough reporting, editing, and legal review process that Greenwell promised to oversee has since been completed, which is why you are reading this story now.
Over the last few weeks, during their attempts to hinder or prevent the publication of this story, Maidment and Spanfeller invoked concerns about Deadspin’s credibility in covering G/O Media. In his email to the staff, Spanfeller described this story as one that had been “commissioned” by the site, and attempted to paint the reporting process behind it as haphazard and unfair. In reality, this story started with a tip the site received about Spanfeller’s hiring practices, and grew from there thanks to sources’ accounts. Nearly two dozen current G/O Media employees spoke to Deadspin for this story.
Spanfeller admitted he contacted Maidment in June after receiving my initial email requesting an interview. Three and a half hours later, Maidment told us to “put the story on ice,” but both Spanfeller and Maidment maintain that Spanfeller never explicitly or implicitly directed the story to be killed. Maidment never responded to my questions directly; the first time I saw his answers was when they were included in Spanfeller’s company-wide email, but he had this to say about his role in the newsroom:
I have always shielded the editorial teams I have managed from commercial or business-side interference in what they write, which to my mind is the essence of editorial integrity. As you know, one reason that I don’t believe that publications should write about themselves is because I fear it damages perceived external credibility in editorial independence, which, if anything, makes keeping advertisers at bay harder, not easier.
This site’s credibility is not dependent on who and what it reports on, but on its ability to report forcefully and accurately. Its motivation is simply to publish true and interesting stories, and to make sure the things powerful people would rather stay in the dark end up in the light of day.
Additional reporting by Molly Osberg