Leaning on editors to be nice to advertisers. Asking for sites to quadruple their traffic—with no new resources. Relocating to roach-filled offices. Publicly remarking about ethnic stereotypes.
Since newly created company G/O Media Inc. took over the websites formerly known as Gawker Media, the new leadership has made a series of moves that are at odds with the company’s famously freewheeling corporate culture. Several of those moves have angered high-level staffers at the company.
Earlier this year, investment firm Great Hill partners purchased G/O Media, the company known as Gizmodo Media Group and Gawker Media, and installed former Forbes executive Jim Spanfeller as the company’s CEO. Spanfeller has largely delegated editorial tasks to a deputy, but in his limited interactions with top editorial staff, he’s made a number of suggestions that have raised eyebrows.
As the new chief of G/O Media, Spanfeller has seemingly attempted to diverge from the old Gawker ways of doing business. According to sources inside the company, he has pushed the sites to allow relationships with advertisers to shape their coverage. Two people with knowledge told The Daily Beast that in a private meeting, Spanfeller reviewed the coverage of Lexus with the editor-in-chief of Jalopnik, a car-focused website, to ensure that its stories did not discourage the luxury automaker from advertising with G/O sites. On a separate occasion, sources said, the new CEO suggested that reporters and editors at Kotaku—once a Gawker-owned gaming website—bring a sales representative to interviews with gaming executives.
Turmoil with new ownership is common in the constantly evolving media industry, but such interventions at G/O Media represent a major shift for the former Gawker Media and Gizmodo Media Group, which often took pride in thumbing their nose at brands attempting to quash stories, intimidate news outlets, and influence coverage.
The questionable suggestions, and others like them, have become alarmingly routine to some employees at G/O Media. Many current and former staffers at various levels within the company told The Daily Beast they believe there’s a disconnect between the new leadership and the editorial mission and voice of the various websites that were all previously part of the famed Gawker network.
“Spanfeller’s management style appears to be making insane proclamations divorced from any reality and leaving his handpicked crew of yes men from Forbes to attempt to execute them while the rest of the staff explains why they’re not possible and goes about its normal work,” said one staffer.
"Remember that a man with house slippers and no plan bought a company for more than 50 million dollars," another employee joked in private Slack messages reviewed by The Daily Beast, sent after Spanfeller’s first all-hands meeting.
Spanfeller responded at length in an email to The Daily Beast. Asked about the Kotaku and Jalopnik incidents, Spanfeller said the practice was common in media.
“The sales team raised a concern around editorial coverage about Lexus at Jalopnik,” he said. “I asked to see the coverage, and I determined that it was fair to positive. I asked if the Editor-in-Chief would be up for meeting with senior executives at Lexus and suggested that we would have a sales person there, not to sell but simply to be an observer, and the EIC was fine with that.”
After the publication of this piece, Kotaku’s editor-in-chief, Stephen Totilo, posted a series of tweets saying that on one occasion, Spanfeller proposed that he bring a sales a sales representative to an interview, but that he shut down the idea.
Some employees were initially shocked by the lack of understanding the new CEO appeared to have of many of the one-time Gawker sites—which include Deadspin, Gizmodo, and Jezebel—and their tone or politics.
For example, during an early tour of G/O’s New York offices, Spanfeller had a particularly uncomfortable interaction with staffers at the site Lifehacker. After learning that some staff recently traveled to Japan for a story, Spanfeller made a joke, asking if the Japanese lifehack was “they don’t talk.”
The CEO disputed the Beast’s characterization, saying the quote was “not accurate and devoid of context.”
“I was making small talk and made the observation that, in my experience, it is not unusual for Japanese business people to listen and seldom talk in negotiations,” he said. “I’m sorry that apparently I didn’t say it more clearly.”
And several days after coming aboard, Spanfeller had an idea for a new tagline for the company’s women-focused site Jezebel that he oversaw: “We Champion Women.” According to multiple sources with knowledge, he pitched the idea to the EIC of Jezebel and it was not well received—the site has built a brand differentiating between actual feminism and the corporate, shallower brand of feminism the slogan suggested.
Spanfeller told the Beast he was simply questioning why the current slogan—“A supposedly feminist website”—wasn’t more definitively feminist.
Several staffers also believe the new regime isn’t taking staff diversity seriously. Many top new hires have been white men, which has not gone unnoticed internally. When confronted about diversity issues by a top editor at The Root—a black culture website—during a meeting with the company’s editorial union, Spanfeller instead joked about the number of questions he’d received on the subject.
“It was so clumsy. It was as if he was thinking about these issues for the first time, as if it was 1989 not 2019,” one staffer said.
Spanfeller told The Daily Beast that the company has asked a new human resources exec to address diversity and inclusion “in both written policies and practices. It’s something we take very seriously.”
“As for commenting on the number of questions, I was noting that this was clearly an important issue for the union as it was for me,” he said.
With the drastic shifts in strategy has come a morale dip, sources said, particularly among non-editorial employees. Since taking over, G/O has gone about slashing costs and changing the business significantly.
A longtime digital media veteran, Spanfeller was an unconventional choice to lead the new Gizmodo Media Group sites (The Daily Beast’s CEO, Heather Dietrick, once served as president of the former Gizmodo Media Group). The new G/O head’s claim to fame was primarily growing the digital advertising business at Forbes.com, where he served for years when the company’s website was separate from its print magazine.
After joining G/O, Spanfeller immediately cut 25 non-editorial staff across the company within three weeks, according to an internal memo obtained by The Daily Beast. Sources told The Daily Beast that The Onion, A.V. Club, and Clickhole laid off seven full-time editorial employees, cut a number of freelancers, and reduced rates for others (Spanfeller has said he wants to cut the company’s freelance budget across the organization significantly). Staffers at the comedy and pop culture sites have described feeling uneasy about their future after two top editors at the A.V. Club quit last week, while the president of the company abruptly and unceremoniously departed.
G/O has also discouraged editors from giving employees raises and matching outside offers, and has obsessed over the costs of line items. According to one source, Spanfeller at one point complained how the company was spending too much money on rented chairs at sponsored events, lamenting that they cost much more than the chairs he rented for his wedding.
Spanfeller acknowledged the company was cutting costs and said G/O’s immediate focus was getting to profitability, which he wants to achieve within the next quarter. He also said the cost of the chairs “(and other things) was astronomical.”
The new CEO moved the company into new offices weeks after Great Hill Partners purchased the company. The new office space had several issues, however. Staffers were less than enthused by the location in Times Square, though some liked the privacy provided by the lack of an open office plan. Multiple sources told The Daily Beast that the new location hadn’t been thoroughly cleaned when G/O moved in—despite warnings—and that employees found roaches and stains in the office.
And while the rest of digital media obsess over diversifying revenue through avenues like subscriptions, partnerships, e-commerce, and events, Spanfeller has doubled down on programmatic display ads, the targeted advertisements served to users on many digital media sites.
In his first all-hands meeting, he claimed that programmatic display ads were going to make a huge comeback. On mobile devices, many G/O sites now have a targeted ad after nearly every two paragraphs, despite warnings from at least one staffer that the practice was frowned upon by online advertising groups. The practice may put the company in violation of the Coalition for Better Ads standards for online advertisements, potentially causing issues with the site’s ad performance in Google’s browser.
And seeking to capitalize on a display ad-heavy strategy, Spanfeller has suggested on multiple occasions that the sites need to double, triple, and even quadruple page views. In meetings with top editors, he has suggested implementing traffic-juicing methods including slideshows and listicles, largely outdated strategies that most reputable sites have avoided in 2019.
The new regime has also set the bar extremely high for the current sites and has made business moves at a rapid pace that have angered some staff.
According to multiple sources, Spanfeller has at one point suggested that the company build its own video player, an ask that raised eyebrows among staff. And after signing a new contract with Taboola, the ad company most well-known for “recommended for you” boxes on digital websites, he ordered the company’s product team to roll it out just days later, per one source, and rebuffed their requests to test the product’s effect on page views (Spanfeller said if there had been an adverse effect on traffic, the company would have reverted).
Staff themselves have tried to raise awareness about the internal cultural and business concerns at the company with little success.
The Daily Beast has learned that reporters at G/O have been working on a story about their own company. When management discovered this, the company explicitly forbid employees from writing about itself. Gawker Media and Gizmodo Media Group often covered major internal news at their own company.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Spanfeller said that there was an “ongoing discussion” about internal reporting, but the company was instead looking to hire a public editor.
“We feel it’s hard to have authority when talking about ourselves,” he said.
“We feel a public editor would be best positioned to independently review content about the company that was produced by the company and, as such, give our stories a level of authority that would hopefully equal the other content that we produce.”