Deez Interviews: Diana Moskovitz on Defector Media + how it feels to build your own workplace

This week’s interview is with Diana Moskovitz, who’s the investigations editor (and a co-owner — more on that in a sec!) over at the newly launched Defector Media (aka, the new & improved Deadspin). We talked about the outlet’s worker-owned model, the challenges of launching during a pandemic, and what it feels like to build a newsroom from the ground up. 

So after the mass exodus at Deadspin last October, former staff members came together to do a couple of pop-up blogs for the Super Bowl and in April. How soon after that did plans for Defector Media come together? Was that always the ultimate goal since October?

There definitely was a sense early on that we wanted to do something, although we were far from launching Defector. All we knew was that we were unemployed and people were reaching out saying they wanted us to find a way to get back to writing, in a framework that was better than the one everyone had left behind. 

Some of this, OK, most of it, was from readers. But there also were people at various platforms, services, as well as possible investors, reaching out with offers. We weighed all those options, but over time the thinking evolved to us wanting to not just get ourselves back to writing but also building something better, a media company that reflected our values and experiences, which is what led to us creating the Defector you see today. 

I'd love to get more detail on how the worker-owned model works. The NYT piece from July said that everyone has a roughly 5% stake in the venture and will be paid as money comes in. Maybe this is a dumb question, but does that mean everyone is basically splitting the subscription $ as it comes in? 

What about overhead? And if you have this goal to eventually pay everyone competitively, does that mean everyone will be making the same amount?

A thing we've all learned very quickly doing this is that owning a business isn't free. We're still in the process of figuring out all our expenses, as well as which ones are one-time costs and which ones will be recurring, and then seeing what's left to, well, pay ourselves. Right now, the main priorities are the needs of the company and getting its various accoutrements — like the newsletter, the podcast, the merchandise, and all the other stuff readers expect a publication to have in 2020 — up, running, and really good. There's also the services you need to function, even without an office, like Getty Images, Slack, insurance, health insurance. I gotta say, it ads up! 

But Defector was insanely fortunate in that on our very first day [July 28, when the site was announced] our longtime readers came through for us, in a big way, and we got 10,000 paying subscribers in our first 24 hours. I can only speak for myself here but, while I had a feeling that we would do well on our first day, I wouldn't have dared to dream of doing that well. By the time we had our website rollout on Thursday this week, we already hit 22,000 subscribers.

We've got enough money now that we will all pay ourselves some money, all split equally, once we can start recognizing revenue now that the site has launched, and after paying our bills each month and leaving some aside for emergencies. 

Our plan is to eventually have more traditional salaries (so, yes, at some point editor-in-chief Tom Ley will get paid more than me) but starting out, especially as we still figure out what our expenses look like, we all will get paid the same. But, regardless of salaries, we all have equal equity in the company. That was very important to everyone in the group, that we all be equal in equity, and is true for all of us, regardless of job title. 

The staff is composed of 18 former Deadspin writers and editors, plus Jasper Wang on the business side. If Defector is relying primarily on subscription revenue, are there plans to hire for roles for subscriber acquisition (or even plain old sales), or if those roles are being divvied up between existing staff? 

In the beginning, before launch, the entire operation was Jasper with help from everyone on staff. We did it in true co-op style by making a bunch of subcommittees and people signed up for the subcommittees that interested them. So, for example, I'm on the legal committee and the marketing committee. There also were committees for merchandise, social media, HR, newsletters, and other areas. 

The plan always was to eventually have a small, dedicated operations team of Jasper plus a handful of others. Since we launched and got so many subscribers, we've accelerated the process of building out this team. We're definitely keeping an eye out for people who do have experience or even expertise in subscription management or digital marketing or sales, but anyone on the operations team will have to fill a lot of different roles. 

We're probably never going to reach a scale where we'd hire dedicated people for, say, customer service, or HR benefits management, so everyone (both operations and edit) will have to help out. And we've got a network of outside partners and vendors, like our web development shop Alley, who are supporting us as we build everything out.

What has been the biggest challenge of launching Defector during the midst of the pandemic, and presumably doing it all over like, Zoom?

Weirdly, this entire process has not been terribly different from most of my career at Deadspin. I've always worked remotely from Los Angeles since I started there in 2014, and a good chunk of the staff never lived in New York, so collaborating remotely is embedded in our DNA. If any newsroom is ready to work remotely indefinitely, it's ours. 

The challenge, instead, has been all the emotional and physical weight that comes with trying to do anything, let alone launching a new media company, during a global pandemic. Trying to cobble together ways to keep paying your bills, while trying to survive a global pandemic. Trying to not get angry at seeing your roommates or your family all day for countless days, while trying to survive a global pandemic. Oh and also trying to start a worker-owned company and pave a path toward a better future for journalism, while trying to survive a global pandemic. 

Everything is just harder nowadays, right? Two weeks before the July launch, my 14-year-old cat Katharine Graham died very suddenly; that's always hard, but harder when your veterinarian can't give you a hug because of COVID-19, and then harder yet when you're also getting ready for a business launch. 

But this team is so strong I could log off for a few days, be an absolute wreck, and then jump back in and get back to getting Defector ready. At our old shop, I always said there was nothing as powerful as when this staff was united, and I felt the same way about the launch. Everyone wanted it to happen, so it was gonna happen. 

Finally, how does it feel different to work for a worker-owned outlet vs. places you’ve been employed by in the past?

Oh wow, this is a big one. I have to admit, I sometimes feel like I'm from the dinosaur ages in terms of how many cycles of media I've survived, which is insane because I'm still not 40. 

Let me put it this way. There's only two places where I've worked that are still owned by the same company as when I started there: my student newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator (which is owned by a nonprofit, separate from the University of Florida), and NFL Media (because it's owned by the NFL). Everything else has changed hands, changed names, and been through more layoffs and buyouts than anyone can count. 

Early on in my career, working at very traditional newspapers owned by corporate chains with no unions, I was struck by the sense of powerlessness that was drilled into us as cub reporters. We were supposed to be ruthless and fearless, hold the powerful accountable, while quietly sucking up the daily humiliations of our own workplaces. Don't question the cronyism, it happens everywhere. Ignore the outside consultants of questionable caliber whose only "vision" seems to be redesigning the front page, yet again. Don't complain too loudly about being overworked and underpaid, you should be happy to just have a job. 

I have lost count of how many people told me to just be happy to have a job, as if I had won the lottery, ignoring that the lottery prize was working so hard, for so many hours, for so little pay that I was miserable. 

Later on, working at Gawker Media, which unionized while I was there, I definitely felt the difference. Speaking up was practically a way of life at Gawker, but that fearlessness wasn't always met with compassion, action to address grievances, or even reasonable listening. We still did not control our own fates. 

It's too early for us to declare Defector a wild success. But what's been so much fun, at least for me, is realizing what it's like to build a newsroom without having to worry about how much has already been dictated by the whims of others, who probably haven't done any reporting or writing or editing in their lives. 

Our merch store will look the way we want it to look, our website will look the way we want it to look, and our journalism will read the way we want it to read. I'm sure some old newspaper baron from the "good old times" would be horrified at this and proclaim "who will rein in these crazy people?" But I don't think we're crazy at all. What's more American than starting your own small business? 

Don’t forget to follow @dianamoscovitz and have a good weekend!

Deez Links is a dailyish newsletter written by delia cai