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Sept. 10, 2020, 2:40 p.m.
Business Models

Defector’s Kelsey McKinney on how 2020 destroyed the concept of “sticking to sports”

“We can’t cover sports right now, or ever, as an individual and separate thing because sports are the gift we get for making our society as just and fair as possible.”

Walt Hickey runs Numlock News, a daily morning newsletter obsessed with fascinating numbers that are buried in the news. A version of this interview originally ran in Numlock Sunday. Kelsey McKinney is a features writer and co-owner of Defector.

Kelsey McKinney is one of the founders of a new sports site, launched this week by a number of ex-Deadspin writers and editors, called Defector Media. You may know her from stories like The Only All-Girls Tackle Football League in America and What A Foul Ball Can Do, as well as her newsletter Written Out.

We spoke about how the ex-Deadspin crew hatched a plan to start their own media company, how they managed to develop a business model on the fly in the face of a global economic catastrophe, how 2020 destroyed the concept of “sticking to sports” — the day we talked was the day the NBA players got the league to commit to using their arenas as voting sites for the 2020 election — and the advantages of a subscriber-supported platform. This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Walt Hickey: You are an owner and a founding writer behind a new site called Defector, a sports and culture site from a lot of alums from Deadspin. Where did this idea come from?

Kelsey McKinney: We left Deadspin in October of 2019, and almost immediately we were still in conversation with each other. It never really ceased. As anyone who has been laid off from a media company — at this point, most people — will tell you, it’s a fairly traumatic experience. People bond together really quickly. We were all in communication, talking, and the problem with being in communication and talking with a group of people who really loved their job is that they want to do their jobs still.

We were all moping and whining about the fact that we didn’t have a blog, and it sucks that we couldn’t cover the things that we wanted to cover. So, we started having a conversation about like, “Okay, what could it look like?”

Initially we thought that looked like finding a big investor, because there were a lot of us and people need money to survive. We started talking to some major investors trying to find someone that could afford to pay us salaries and healthcare. And then the coronavirus hit and the entire economy fell apart. And those deals seemed stagnant.

Because that had been our default, our first idea, once those deals fell apart, we started having a different conversation: “Okay, if we can do this any way in the whole world, how would we do it? What kind of dream publication would we actually want to work for?” And that’s kind of how we stumbled upon this idea of a cooperative mutually-owned organization, by thinking about, “Okay, what failed us in other media organizations? And how can we set up a company that won’t fail its current and future employees?”

Hickey: It feels very back to basics. It’s a new model, but it’s an old model in a nice way.

McKinney: It’s fundamentally a blog, right? That’s nothing new. People have been writing forever, but we’re hoping that the financial plan and the structure of the organization will work.

Hickey: Deadspin’s ostensible reason for existence was to cover sports. But so much of it was covering all of the stories that circulate around sports. And for a while, a pervasive argument against that kind of coverage was like, “Well, audiences prefer when you stick to sports.” In 2020, that view is fairly antiquated, when ESPN right now is having some of the same coverage as CNN.

McKinney: Deadspin was never particularly good at sticking to sports throughout its history. It always covered politics. For a period of time, it had an entire culture vertical, always focused on how sports fit into the world, which means you can’t ignore the outside world.

In 2020, I’ve been thinking constantly about something Sean Doolittle, a pitcher for the Washington Nationals, said early on. His quote was, “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, about how we can’t cover sports right now, or ever, as an individual and separate thing because sports are the gift we get for making our society as just and fair as possible. Right now, we’re seeing that multiplied a hundred times, because you have athletes who are feeling the urgency and have the power to come out and say what they believe politically. ESPN was saying just a few years ago that they wouldn’t cover politics at all. Now there’s no choice there. It’s been made really clear by the athletes, the people who play the sports, that they don’t want that distinction there themselves. So, who are we to decide that it must be imposed?

Hickey: It’s August 28th when we’re speaking, and the NBA is currently setting up their arenas as places for voting availability in many major cities.

McKinney: It’s not just that, right? It’s where the NBA plays, where their stadiums are built, that affects those cities. Everything from the very beginning of a professional organization has ramifications, politically and personally, on the place where it is. So, you can’t just extract that into a separate little thing where we only cover who has the most dunks a year because there’s more going on there.

Hickey: Yeah, nobody wants to follow a blog about a random number generator.

McKinney: Yeah, exactly.

Hickey: You’ve covered some really outstanding stories. Two of my favorites were about the football league that was built for girls and the one about fans who have been hit by foul balls and oftentimes the serious consequences that live with them. So, you cover a lot about the intersection of sports and culture. What are you looking forward to writing about at Defector when you guys launch?

McKinney: I always found stories by asking myself a question and then Googling it, and if there’s no answer, then I write the answer.

Which is to say that there are a lot of things that my beat has entailed over the years, but something that I’m really interested in looking at and focusing more time on at Defector is how sports function at lower levels than the professionals. Thinking about the interactions of fans to sports, but also thinking about high school and travel soccer. Right? And all of these arenas in which a lot of stories are happening that just aren’t being covered because of the complete destruction of local news. So, I’m hoping to kind of cover some of that. We want the site to be fun. So, I’ll also do some stuff that will just be fun stories.

Hickey: That’s a really fascinating type of story, the amount of investment in even just travel soccer is a huge deal. It completely changes who gets to play and who doesn’t get to play. It changes the economics of these sports entirely. A game that typically should involve just the cost of a ball can now involve hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in transportation alone.

McKinney: Yeah, and you see girls that are on two travel soccer teams and their parents are paying for them to go to Princeton Summer Soccer Camps. And, of course, that ends up affecting whether or not you get recruited onto a college team, which affects whether or not you get recruited into the NWSL, whether you can even pay for college in the first place. All of those things are connected, definitely, and that’s the kind of stories I’m interested in, these stories that affect us on a personal level and not necessarily at the highest echelons of where we’re playing the sport.

Hickey: The overwhelming majority of football that is played in America is not in an NFL stadium.

McKinney: Right. And I grew up in Texas! So to me, high school football is the pinnacle of all sports. But also, I saw a lot of people injured playing high school football. I saw a lot of people bank their entire futures on getting a college football scholarship, and then that fell through. We all know stories of sports at a lower level, high school, middle school even, where those have had massive ramifications on people’s lives.

Hickey: Sports is just a fragment of a lot of bigger issues rolled into one.

McKinney: People like things because of who they are holistically, right? You like the TV shows you like because they relate to you in some way. You like the books you like because of the books you read early on. The same thing is true for sports. We try to talk about it as just this separate, completely independent entity. You lose a lot of why people love the sport. It’s not just about coverage, it’s also about what people get out of it.

Hickey: You’ve been working on this project called Written Out about women who are “written out of the literary canon, written out of history, and written out of contemporary literary coverage.” I would love to hear a little bit more about the conception of that and how that’s going.

McKinney: I was a freelancer before I was at Deadspin, and then after quitting Deadspin was also a freelancer. And if you have worked as a freelancer at all in the last five years consistently, you’ve watched the industry just very quickly deteriorate. There are fewer and fewer places to place stories, there is less and less money in those stories. Because those sites are fewer, there are less places that have the money to accept independent pieces.

Because of that, I found myself sitting on seven stories that I knew that no one wanted, right?

I was like, “Nobody is going to want this story about an early 20th century writer who wrote a book about being an old maid at 25 and living with two cats. No one wants that.”

But the founders of Substack reached out to me actually, and they were like, “Have you considered starting a Substack?” And I was like, “No, I’m not doing that right now.” And then I lost a bunch of freelance assignments and I was like, “You know what? Maybe this is the place where I could put all of these weird stories that I have that no one wants.”

And it worked. It’s just been a great place for me to be able to blog and to write things that I really care about as the rest of the industry has been unstable. But also, I think, it’s easy to lose as a professional writer a sense of wonder in your work. Which sounds corny, but I think working in a space that isn’t edited and isn’t decided on by editors-in-chief, or kind of mediated in that way, gets you into some really interesting places.

I think Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter is super fascinating right now. And I think part of that is just because you can read it and watch the way her mind works, right? The cake isn’t fully formed until you get to the end. And I think that’s been true for me too, in my work and my newsletter, that you’re writing to figure it out, which is, I think, interesting in its own way.

Hickey: I enjoy your newsletter and I think that one reason that I really enjoy it is that lots of freelance stuff comes down to what editors want, but with so much media being ad-supported, it’s not even what the editors want so much, it’s the perception of what a broad audience wants, and sometimes those niche pieces can’t happen. But when you have this niche-specific audience, people who specifically sign up for this kind of stuff, like with an Oscars one I write sometimes, I just want to talk to a couple hundred people who really care about the Academy Awards. I just really love yours for that particular reason.

McKinney: Thank you. Yeah, I feel that way about your newsletter too. I think that it’s kind of a revival in a way of the early 2000s’ blog economy.

I used to look at my Google Reader and be like, “Okay, here’s the blog that I read about wallpaper design.” That’s not a sustainable job. It was just someone who was like, “I love wallpaper design and here are three blogs a day about it.”

And I, being an idiot, was like, “Yes, thank you.” I think that’s kind of how newsletters work too. Right? I say I’m super interested in the way that women write and the way that we forget about women writing. And just a few hundred people are like, “Hey, me too.”

Hickey: I’ve enjoyed your post-Deadspin work, and I am so excited for Defector. Can you tell folks where to find Defector, how to subscribe to Defector, and what the offering is?

McKinney: Our hope is that Defector will be a homepage site, so go to defector.com.

We are subscription-funded at multiple levels, depending on how much you want to give us. There will be podcasts, currently we have one. We’re in some brainstorming phases for some others, and there will be newsletters, all of which we’re hoping will fill different needs.

But the bread and butter is the blog on the site. So: Defector.com.

Walt Hickey runs Numlock News, a daily morning newsletter obsessed with fascinating numbers that are buried in the news. A version of this interview originally ran in Numlock Sunday. Kelsey McKinney is a features writer and co-owner of Defector.

POSTED     Sept. 10, 2020, 2:40 p.m.
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