Last night, future Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Brett Favre threw his 500th touchdown. The next closest quarterback is in the low 400s. He threw that touchdown against a team for which he played one year in 2008. Yet, the news surrounding Favre was all about a sports blog's accusations that Favre engaged in sexual harassment while on the New York Jets team. These accusations from Gawker Media's Deadspin blog against the legendary NFL icon raised an interesting questions about legacy and reputation... specifically, Deadspin's.
Launched in September 2005, Deadspin was nearly unique in the field. Deadspin, billed as a sports coverage "without access, favor or discretion." was a home for sports fans to discuss and read about all the stories larger media outlets wouldn't risk their access to cover. Unlike formal, "proper" sports journalism, Deadspin was a place for sports fans that actually looked and acted like sports fans. Deadspin gleefully dove in to cover the kinds of scandals that other outlets like ESPN shied away from. Sometimes, Deadspin's coverage even included the scandals of the sports reporters themselves, earning Deadspin the scorn of many mainstream sports journalists and the loyal readership of thousands.
On October 8, Deadspin recorded its biggest ever day, hitting 600,000. One reason for all the traffic was something Deadsin called the "Duke F**k List," a mocking Powerpoint presentation put together by a Duke University student painstakingly chronicling and rating the sex capabilities of a large number of Duke athletes. All of the information purported to be first-hand.
That traffic record didn't stand long. That same day, Deadspin published a story alleging Favre had, in addition to harassing a Jets sideline reporter, sent lewd text messages to two massage therapists who worked for the team. Deadspin's Favre story included voicemails and cell-phone pics of a man's private parts, both of which Deadspin claimed to be Favre. The site admitted to paying an unnamed third party an undisclosed amount for the audio and the pics. Two days later, on the strength of the Duke list and Brett Favre "dong pics," Deadspin's daily traffic shot to 800,000 viewers. Nick Denton Tweeted, "Favre scoop took Deadspin to 800,000 viewers on Sat -- but [Deadspin Editor] AJ still has to explain to me who he is."
That kind of football locker room humor is the norm for Gawker, where media is a game and pageviews the way of keeping score. Denton certainly is just giving as good as Deadspin editor A.J. gave him in this week's New Yorker profile of the Gawker Media founder. If Denton genuinely is unaware of A.J., he'd soon remember, particularly as the editor's name sits atop Gawker Media's "Big Board," a screen in the headquarters listing the top ten stories across all Gawker properties in terms of web traffic.
Many mainstream media outlets came forward to decry Deadspin's "journalism" (also featured in a recent issue of New York magazine) while probably all secretly wishing for its traffic. Noting the story broke just before Favre played against the Jets, some smelled a conspiracy to get Favre off his game. Others trotted out the common "death of journalism" line. One paper called it "Deadspingate."
But Gawker and its sites know how to do one thing better than almost anyone: story torture.
Story torture is the media strategy of taking a news item and torturing every possible angle out of it. Like real torture, the key is not letting the story die, instead slowly beating it from every last possible angle. Then, cover the coverage (even if it's negative) and become the story yourself. Indeed, when selling advertising, there is no difference between a pageview based on hate and one based on admiration.
While it may seem that this approach would have diminishing returns, with readers tiring of a story, the exact opposite is true. Sure, some readers will give up immediately. But those thousands of readers who have invested themselves in the first few angles will come back for every new detail even if that detail is a report about how other media is reporting on the story. Once invested, readers don't want to feel left out of any details. Gawker as a whole (and Deadspin in this case) has mastered story torture as a means of both creating and owning a particular news event. Gawker site Gizmodo's coverage of the Apple iPhone leak was prototypical story torture. (Buy a story and then work it to death.) So was sister site Jezebel's "Daily Show sexism" story. (Pick a fight with a more public figure than yourself. Cover the fallout as news).
Of course, also just like with real torture, another key to this strategy is a moral vacuum.
Until the Duke list and the Favre accusations, Deadspin most effectively employed the story torture technique last year during the Erin Andrews "peephole" scandal in which the ESPN reporter was filmed naked in her hotel room.
In Deadspin's case, after years of covering Andrews in a manner that often bordered on sexual harassment, Deadspin itself got sanctimonious about Deadspin-like coverage of the scandal by other media outlets including TMZ and CBS. Then, with Deadspin's own long-running Erin Andrews coverage called into question, founding Deadspin editor Will Leitch penned a contrite, meandering essay titled, "Erin Andrews and Guilt, Imagined and Otherwise." The result? To date, the "apology" has 131,934 views. This rhetorical moral mindscrew would again be used in the Favre case, as Deadspin published unconfirmed Favre voicemails and penis photos it had paid for while admonishing professional athletes for immoral off-field behavior.
This moral posturing in the face of questionably moral behavior is a keystone of Gawker's story torture. The Gizmodo iPhone story sermonized about Steve Jobs. Maybe the greatest example of this Gawker tactic is the Jezebel "rape" story stunt of 2007.
Meanwhile, like many trailblazing brands, Deadspin is now threatened by the very imitators it inspired.
Deadspin become so popular that it is now forced to compete against countless similar sports blogs. To better compete, Deadspin is branching out to cover other "manly," non-sports subjects through an extension called "Deadspin XY." In its own words, Deadspin XY exists "to better showcase some stories, you, 96.5% male readership will enjoy. No, they will not necessarily all be fights!and/or boobs! We think you can handle things more substantial than that. Or not." So far, Deadspin XY has been a lot of fights, boobs and poop-related humor. Where the original Deadspin brought intelligence, if some of it crass, to sports journalism, Deadspin XY exists only to further capitalize on the intelligence-free cheap pageviews available to anyone willing to post a video of "four effeminate Filipinos" screaming.
With a focus solely on growing pageviews and a willingness to do anything to get them, Deadspin will do more than survive an increasingly crowded marketplace; it will thrive, especially with Gawker Media's deep pockets.
Ironically, Deadspin and Brett Favre have a lot in common. Both are still patronized by fans who remember them from their glory days while openly admitting those days are long behind them.
Full Disclosure: Abe Sauer grew up a Green Bay Packers fan and has written two pieces for Deadspin.