Maxwell Tani at The Daily Beast is out with a shocking story detailing the state of G/O Media, the company that formed to manage the former Gawker Media sites after Univision sold them off to private equity firm Great Hills. The staff at these sites (which include Gizmodo, Splinter, Jezebel, Kotaku, and Deadspin) are now a few months into the new regime led by CEO Jim Spanfeuller and, uh, things don’t sound like they are going well:
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.
Among the insane things Spanfeuller is apparently doing at G/O:
- Reviewing editorial content on Japolkin (the network’s car blog) that involves Lexus, an advertiser across G/O’s sites. The goal? “To ensure that its stories did not discourage the luxury automaker from advertising.”
- Doubling down on programmatic display ads, a technique he used to great success at Forbes.com years ago, but has since completely nosedived in terms of sales rates. (He told staff they were about to make a “huge comeback.”
- Suggesting that the reporters at Kotaku bring along sales representatives to interviews.
- Telling a Lifehacker writer that the lifehack for Japan is that no one talks.
- Coming up with a new catchphrase for the famously counter-culture Jezebel: We Champion Women
- When pushed on diversity, giving an answer that “was as if he was thinking about these issues for the first time.”
- Attempting to cut down on costs for rented chairs at events, because they “cost much more than the chairs he rented for his wedding.”
- Seeking to exponentially increase traffic, not but investing in new resources, but by adding listicles and slideshows.
- Suggesting his team build a new video player (in 2019!!!!).
A lot of these decisions make sense if you know Jim Spanfeuller’s background: he’s been floating around digital media for years attempting to chase the success he had building Forbes’s web presence.
At Forbes, he aggressively expanded the magazine’s amount of content and advertising, creating a massive network of low-quality contributors who could post on Forbes with minimal editorial oversight while selling display ads backed by performance guarantees. According to Digiday, this eventually led to display ads with CPMs between $25 and $40, an astronomical sum at the time. This model of endless content backed by traditional advertising seems to be what he’s attempting to build at G/O Media.
Except: it’s not 2009 anymore and G/O Media isn’t Forbes. Remember when I said he’s been trying this for years? Spanfeuller was plucked out of semi-retirement by Great Hills to run G/O Media after his time at The Daily Meal and Active Times, two lifestyle sites he launched in 2011 with massive ambitions and similar strategies to his work at Forbes. Editors were expected to produce eight stories a day, while Spanfeuller hired a massive ad team operating with a similar mandate to what he led at Forbes.
The problem was that these sites didn’t have the name recognition of Forbes and were being built in a fundementially different time for digital media. While the model of scale worked back when Forbes was growing, changes in social media algorithms, more discerning audiences, and the collapse of value in selling display ads meant that The Daily Meal and Active Times limped around for years before being quietly sold to Tribune Publishing in 2016. It wasn’t a complete disaster, but it showed that the Forbes model of expansion was no longer viable.
It would appear that Spanfeuller has not learned many lessons from this experience, however. It’s especially confounding because G/O’s sites already have a defined culture and an obsessive audience. You theoretically wouldn’t need to do much to allow these sites to thrive, and yet Spanfeuller is attempting to force his outdated model of web publishing onto them. It’s hugely disappointing as someone who loves G/O’s trailblazing journalism, and it unfortunately appears doomed to fail.