The media world was abuzz this week after Deadspin’s deputy editor Barry Petchesky said he was fired by G/O Media for refusing to “stick to sports,” then saw the rest of its journalists quit in solidarity.
G/O Media says it made the decision based on audience data.
But I looked at its numbers, and they don’t add up.
“Stick to sports” is, of course, a fault line in 2019’s culture wars. To opponents on the left, including the GMG Union, which represents Deadspin writers, it is a “thinly veiled euphemism for ‘don’t speak truth to power,’” typically directed at black athletes like Colin Kaepernick or reporters like Jemele Hill whenever they dare to stand up to racism.
To supporters on the right, it is simply shorthand for “don’t lecture me during my leisure time.”
Bosses at G/O Media, however, said it was the market, not politics, that was behind their edict to “stick to sports.” They presented themselves as the coolly rational adults in the room on Thursday when they issued a statement claiming that “in September, unsurprisingly, 24 of the top 25 stories on Deadspin were sports related while non-sports content accounted for less than 1% of the page views on the site.”
“Given those facts,” they continued, “we simply believe it makes sense to focus attention and resources on even more sports coverage to serve our readers what they want.”
Painting their staff as hysterical recalcitrants, the bosses added, “Our writers have a free hand to cover the intersection of sports and politics, sports and pop culture, sports and business, or frankly, just about any topic even tangentially related to sports,” a statement that echoed editorial director Paul Maidment’s earlier comment that he was “sorry” his staff “refuse to work within that incredibly broad mandate.”
As a longtime fan of Deadspin (I tweeted my protest over Petchesky’s ouster), and as a former editor and reporter, and newsroom data analyst who spends most of his days going over audience numbers with journalists who are sometimes less than highly-numerate and occasionally obstreperous, I was skeptical of G/O Media’s numbers, and sensitive to the abuse of statistics, a habit which has a sorry history in digital media in particular.
Luckily, Deadspin, like all the former Gawker sites, exhibits radical transparency when it comes to audience numbers, which it publishes, right beneath the headline, on every story on its website. I was therefore able to test G/O Media’s claims that readers did not go to Deadspin for non-sports content in September.
Excluding cross-posted stories from sister sites including Jezebel, Jalopnik, Kotaku, Gizmodo and the recently killed-off Splinter, Deadspin published 514 stories in September, of which 13 were on its non-sports related “The Concourse” sub-site, and five more were unarguably non-sports related (sample headline: “The Deadspin Idiots Identify Yogurt”).
In other words, the staff wasn’t exactly spending most of its time writing about straight politics. Only 3.5% of the stories Deadspin published in September were non-sports stories.
If a hair less than 1 in 25 of the stories Deadspin published in September were non-sports related, and non-sports stories performed as well as sports stories, it follows that the most likely outcome is that only 1 of the top 25 stories by page views in September would be a non-sports story. And ... that’s what happened: David Roth’s column on Donald Trump, “This Guy Truly Has No Idea What He’s Talking About” is the 12th best-performing story Deadspin published that month, with 313,000 page views.
So while G/O Media’s claim that 24 of its top 25 stories were sports stories sounds to an untrained ear like a killer stat, it’s exactly what you’d expect if there was no difference between the performance of sports and non-sports coverage.
Here’s where things get a little complicated. When I shared my analysis with G/O Media, a spokesman told me that G/O Media wasn’t looking only at traffic to posts published in September, but rather all of the traffic Deadspin received in September, a method that tends to punish stories published toward the end of the month. By its method, Roth’s post, published on Sept. 27, wasn’t in the top 25, the spokesman told me.
What’s more, the spokesman said, G/O Media accidentally misidentified a high-performing story about Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson clashing with Fox News personality Laura Ingraham as non-sports related. So by its reckoning, it now says, all of the top 25 stories in September were sports stories.
There is no way to independently verify those numbers, since Deadspin only publishes its total traffic numbers, not traffic by date. But assuming they are correct, there is no way to assess their significance without calculating what proportion of all posts Deadspin had online in September were non-sports related, a Sisyphean task given that the site has been publishing daily since 2005.
And for what it’s worth, the internet archive shows that Roth’s post already had 257,800 page views as of early Sept. 30, enough even by then to place it among the top 25 stories published in September.
What about G/O Media’s claim that less than 1% of Deadspin’s traffic in September came from non-sports stories?
I totaled the traffic to all of the stories Deadspin published in September: 41,404,600 page views. Of those, 1,629,800 were to those 18 non-sports stories.
No need to get the calculators out — that’s 3.9% of their total traffic to stories from 3.5% of their stories. The average non-sports story got 90,500 page views, which is 10,000 more than the average sports story.
If anything, that is a better argument for more non-sports coverage than it is for less.
To be fair, Deadspin does not publicly share how much traffic its homepage got in September, and it’s entirely possible that if that traffic were included, the traffic to non-sports stories would equal less than 1% of all traffic, as G/O Media says.
Any honest accounting, however, would recognize that at least some of the readers going to Deadspin’s homepage were going there in search of non-sports related coverage, which leaves us back where we started.
Whatever reasons G/O Media has for sticking to sports, or a policy that has led to the loss of its entire editorial staff, the data on Deadspin’s own website do not support them.
Data Editor Ben Welsh and reporter Wendy Lee contributed to this report.