Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Defector Model Works
A media experiment - and its politics - offers one path forward in an ailing industry
This month, Defector Media celebrated its one-year anniversary. If you aren’t a fan of sports or don’t know or care about the 2000s blogosphere, the previous sentence probably means nothing to you. Websites come and go, and operating for one year is not notable. George made it more than five, after all.
Defector is a sports, humor, and politics media company founded by the alumni of Deadspin, a once-popular and subversive sports blog that thrived in the latter half of the 2000s and into the 2010s. I was a regular Deadspin reader in high school, religiously refreshing the page multiple times a day during tedious internships and school days that gave me too much time in front of a desktop computer. Before novels, before magazine features, before the news generally, it was Deadspin that I read with fervor. Sports, at that time, mattered more to me than it ever would again, the rhythms of seasons and playoff runs entirely defining my waking existence, delineating how I should think and feel. This was the last time I believed I would play in the Major Leagues, when I would go to John Franco’s batting cage in Sunset Park and hit baseballs until my hands bled, until I could make my delusions real. Will Leitch, the journalist and novelist who founded Deadspin, will remain something of a mythic figure to me, even if I’ve managed, in the last year or so, to correspond with him as a peer. This is how it usually goes with those who first matter to you in your youth.
In its heyday, Deadspin was the louche insurgent striking fear into ESPN and the staid sports sections of newspapers, breaking open major stories while ridiculing the sanctimony of the sports world. It was Deadspin that revealed quarterback Brett Favre was sending pictures of his genitalia to a Jets sideline reporter. It was Deadspin that exposed Manti Te’o had a fake girlfriend. Anti-establishment to its core, Deadspin was a cheekier, lower-brow version of what the Chipmunks had been up to in the 1960s and 70s—a band of young writers exposing professional sports for what it really was. There was no hustling for access, no soft-focus features, no myth-making.
Eventually, a private equity company bought Deadspin and demanded the staff stop writing about anything other than sports. The swashbuckling website had been defined by writing about whatever the hell it wanted to, sports included. In 2019, the staff resigned en masse, bringing a definitive end to an era of Deadspin mattering at all. Many of the Deadspin writers who quit in 2019 had not been there in the foundational years, but enough were central to the brand. The private equity vultures had a ghost of a website on their hands. It was the karma they deserved.
Meanwhile, the ex-Deadspin staff came together to launch a new media venture called Defector. Unlike Deadspin and every other 2000s blog and website that attempted to disrupt what media had been, they were not going to pay for staff with online advertisements and outside investors. They were not going to depend on massive traffic spikes that could, in turn, be shown to advertisers as evidence that their media organization was viable. This click-chasing model has been largely discredited—not only because it’s lousy for the product, but because it’s not financially sustainable. Web traffic is a sugar high. Online ads are not profitable. There is no future in behaving like it’s 2011.
Instead, Defector would depend on subscribers paying to read the site. The writers themselves would co-own the company and pay themselves with the subscription revenue generated. No private equity goblins could tell them what to do. In a year, the site now has 23 staffers and brings in more than $3 million, enough to comfortably sustain the project. More than 40,000 subscribe. Absent federal subsidies, this is the future media organizations must pursue. Defector institutes a hard paywall and makes it clear each reader is investing in the future of the company by becoming a subscriber. News organizations can’t keep giving away their product for free, laying off staff, and hoping for the best.
Defector’s growth makes it more likely subscribers will stay. The many newspapers that have been gutted over the last decade cannot turn around and sell themselves to readers. It’s a destructive and self-defeating cycle; a newspaper lays off many staffers and demands readers pay to read or pay more than they did before. In New York, the Daily News continues to bleed staff, refuses to overhaul its website, and hopes somehow to grow its subscriber base enough to survive. These days, as right-wing as it is, I’d rather buy a physical New York Post or read the paper online because the Murdoch empire will pay a sizable number of staff to remain.
All praise to Defector and may they thrive indefinitely. The good news about subscriptions—and I know this because of Substack—is that most people renew without giving it too much thought. If the writing produced is worthy enough, subscribers will stay. Subscription revenue, unlike advertising revenue, is not so bound to market forces. Even in economic downturns, mass cancellations are unlikely. The catch, of course, is that it’s really hard to do what Defector did. Newspapers in small towns and cities can’t find 40,000 people to pay for what they do. This is why public subsidies, long-term, will be required to save them.
In a humorous Q&A about Defector’s one-year anniversary, editor-in-chief Tom Ley answered various hypothetical questions about Defector’s present and future. In his answers, he strained to distinguish Defector from Substack and especially from two of the more notorious and successful writers on the platform, Glenn Greenwald and Bari Weiss.
And it’s good to support a worker-owned co-op, right? Doing so certainly will make me a Good Media Consumer.
I suppose so, yeah, but I must admit that I am increasingly hesitant to frame our value proposition in those terms. While living through this past year of Substack proliferation, I’ve been struck by how much money seems to be getting thrown around for the sake of—and I really do apologize for using this term but it honestly, truly applies here—virtue signaling. How many of the thousands of suburban bullies who are helping Bari Weiss earn $800,000 per year from her newsletter do you think eagerly await her next unverified email from a screeching private-school parent? Do Glenn Greenwald’s subscribers really fork over $5 every month because they can’t wait to read his latest self-victimizing rundown of whatever’s happening on his Twitter feed, or because they like what he represents: a guy who makes all the other guys they don’t like mad online? It seems much more likely to me that people subscribe to these things because doing so is a way of affirming which side they are on.
It is admittedly a little rich for me to be complaining about this dynamic just one year removed from publishing a big honking story about the righteous creation of this website and why it was vitally important for people who hate venture capitalism but love worker solidarity to support it. But since we are friends now I can tell you I wrote that post because I needed to sell you on something, and at that point in time all we had to sell was our story. But now I have a whole website to sell you. I have thoughtful and incisive essays about everything from soccer to politics to Nikola Jokic to drug policy to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to policing to labor to abortion to art to Palestine to tennis to Irish dance, and on and on. I have expertly crafted blogs about wanting to be struck down by a tokamak, what a fraud Elon Musk is, and whatever the hell is going on in Alaska. I have every conceivable variety of the highestqualitysportsblogs. I have book reviews; I have mediacriticism and scoops and plentyofreportedfeatures. I have “Horse Innocent!” I have Why Your Team Sucks and clump dogs. I have Samer recognizing a fart online.
I went back and read Defector’s inaugural post before I wrote this one, and what struck me was how distant it felt, and how little all of it mattered to what the site is now and will be. I think, I hope, that’s because Defector has become bigger than its origin story. How this website was created no longer matters as much as the fact that the website exists and can be judged on its own merits. I want you to subscribe, or continue subscribing, to Defector not just because you believe in our cause or think supporting us is a good thing to do, but because you enjoy the work we produce and want to see us continue producing it. The stakes don’t need to be any higher, or more complicated, than that.
There is a sound argument to make that the downside of Substack is the large number of talented writers going at it alone rather than banding together to start a publication. Having worked in multiple newsrooms, I can tell you there’s a certain magic to that, and big publications with influential, compelling writers will always matter to a degree. Labor solidarity is more possible at organizations; Substack writers are lone rangers, linking to each other occasionally but existing outside of any serious collective framework. I enjoy what I do tremendously—as an only child, relative solitude comes naturally—but I can see how others might struggle with it. Defector is a community in a way this newsletter is not, though I very much relish the emails and comments I receive here.
What I find curious about Ley’s pivot to mocking Greenwald and Weiss is that it describes a phenomenon that does not always exist in the world of subscription newsletters. It also functions, ironically enough, as an example of what he is decrying. Relatively few people pay to read a newsletter to signal their virtue. There is no social reward in media, academic, and literary circles, I can promise you, for reading either Weiss or Greenwald. There are no merit badges handed out for Substack subscriptions, no sweet merch or stickers affixed to laptops. When I pay for a Substack newsletter, I do not get to show up among 10,000 like-minded people, wave signs, and cheer at a rally. There aren’t even any retweets to be had. I pay because I want to read what the person has to say. The “suburban bullies” reading Bari Weiss fork over money to Bari Weiss because they want to read what Bari Weiss writes about cancel culture, critical race theory, and private schools. This might make them, in Ley’s estimation, bad people, but they probably aren’t doing this so they can feel better about joining other “suburban bullies” in a collective enterprise. Paying for a Substack subscription is not usually an act of solidarity. No one high-fives you for clicking on a link. The people who make Greenwald a millionaire and Weiss somewhere close are people who agree with what both writers have to say and are willing to pay for the privilege to hear from them. They want to read more dispatches on “wrongthink.” There is absolutely a market for what Greenwald and Weiss do.
It is here where Defector doesn’t fail, exactly, but most seriously departs from the Deadspin legacy. For a large chunk of the 2000s and even 2010s, Deadspin represented a part of the counterculture. It was genuinely, for a moment, transgressive, and it aimed to subvert establishment institutions. Deadspin was libertine, maybe decadent, and in the spirit of its parent company Gawker, the site threatened to cross many a line. Like Gawker, it probably did. Deadspin’s old editor, A.J. Daulerio, would eventually be the face of Gawker’s destruction, publishing the Hulk Hogan sex tape that sealed the media blog’s fate. Daulerio was quite talented, savvy, and loutish, the type of guy who once joked that he’d publish a child sex tape if it involved celebrities, and he is nowhere near the type of person who would get to run a left-oriented, humorous sports website in 2021.
Defector doesn’t subvert. It is not a website sports media conglomerates fear. It is a sports website that traffics in a politics that is, among urban professionals in media and academia, overwhelmingly popular. Drew Magary, an old Deadspin star who once wrote acidic satire that used vicious anti-gay slurs, is now a Defector heavyweight celebrating the ability to cancel other people who have said and done ugly things in their past. “Objectivity is a Workplace Hazard” is the kind of hot take that would’ve been too-hot-to-handle a decade ago. In an age that allows NPR to behave, at times, like a left-liberal lifestyle blog, this debate is largely being settled. And it’s one I am, for the record, sympathetic to. Ley bemoans the tens of thousands paying money to read Weiss and Greenwald as a form of virtue signaling, but complaining about Weiss and Greenwald is, in Bushwick or Bed-Stuy or Fort Greene or wherever young media types congregate, the definition of virtue signaling. There is no better way to score head nods or retweets from young journalists and pundits than to declare that Greenwald is a Nazi-lover or Weiss is racist. I’m not here to defend either nor do I pay money to read them. What I am here to say is that mocking them is the equivalent of trying to tank a batting practice softball over the fence of a little league field. You can do it but no one is going to be impressed.
It’s not clear, really, what makes subscribing to Defector a genuine act of support but subscribing to a hated Substacker nothing more than empty posture. Defector has more writers? Defector bills itself as a media organization? In 2017, after Donald Trump became president, media organizations secured many thousands of new subscriptions from frightened liberals. Democracy dies in darkness, remember? Strangely, Ley believes people subscribe to Greenwald to affirm “which side they are on” but wouldn’t do the same for Defector. Why? Defector hasn’t picked a side? Sports fans with left-liberal sensibilities don’t feel they belong to a tribe but Bari Weiss readers must? The logic doesn’t quite hold.
Spend enough time on Twitter or at media parties and you’ll hear the term “grifter.” This one is a grifter, that one grifts. Certain words have a way of never being heard for decades and then becoming trite overnight. In media parlance, a grifter is someone who assumes a certain contrarian stance to make money. People like Ley would deem Weiss and Greenwald and Matt Taibbi and Matt Yglesias grifters. The assumption is simple: only someone disingenuous would hold their politics. No one could actually believe Defund the Police is a flawed movement or tech companies wield an inordinate amount of power over speech expressed online. The online left-liberal writer is perpetually aghast anyone anywhere would arrive at a viewpoint that deviates from the principles they hold dear. The contrarian must be a liar, filching $50 Substack subscriptions off suburban bullies and small-town rubes alike.
But let’s be real here: financial pressures impact all of us. If the subscriber has a say, the writer must listen. The threat of a canceled subscription weighs heavy. This is true no matter what you write. In a New York and Washington media environment that prioritizes left-liberal politics, it can be argued that embracing and evincing such views is the epitome of virtue signaling, or even grift. Magary, who I still enjoy at Defector and used to read eagerly at Kissing Suzy Kolber all those years ago, realized in 2017 that he had to publicly account for writing things like “In Defense of Female Objectification” when he was not 17 or 23 but 33. I don’t doubt Magary’s sincerity as much as I know he was self-aware enough to realize that it was no longer a good career move to write like he once did. “In Defense of Female Objectification” or “F--k it. I’m Throwing Downfield” (a classic of internet satire, to be honest) would not allow him to earn a solid living in left-liberal media spaces or even keep book contracts. Appearing to be a good ally of progressive causes and social justice can pay as much dividends, socially and financially, as pounding the keyboards as an anti-woke contrarian. #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and all the rest can be commodified as social capital, wielded by media professionals to protect or expand the careers that they’ve built. Everyone, in some sense, has a hustle.
Good writing is built upon craft and some dollop of originality. Great writing surprises. I’d argue the reviled and extremely popular Substackers are guilty of sounding too many of the same notes and knocking out pieces that bleed into one another. I can predict, with decent accuracy, what Greenwald or Weiss or Sullivan or Taibbi might say about any given issue. I know where they stand on successor ideology, internet privacy, or any other au courant hot button debate. But the same can be said of Defector and their ilk. The targets are obvious enough; the takes are pre-baked. They aren’t ruffling feathers that we don’t expect them to ruffle. They are storming gates already opened for them. I’ll keep reading because there are many talented people there, as there are at other online, left-of-center publications. I’ll keep reading because their business model is admirable. And I’ll keep reading because I hope, someday, to be surprised.