Deadspin Founder on the Future of Sports, Movies


Arriviste Press

A decade ago, back when blogs were called "weblogs," before the word "blogosphere" had been invented, Will Leitch was a young college graduate who wrote a Web column called "My Life as a Loser." A few years later, he went on to found Gawker's snarky sports blog, Deadspin, after which he was pilloried by Buzz Bissinger as the personification of all the evils of the blogosphere. (The clip is extraordinarily profane and thus NSFW.) Hilarious and lurid, Deadspin became one of the most popular sports blogs on the Internet.

Now, Leitch is 34 and a sports columnist at New York magazine. His fourth book, Are We Winning?: Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball, comes out in May.

You're a print journalist these days, but you took a roundabout way to get there. Like ESPN's Bill Simmons, you built an audience on the Web, then landed a column and blog at a glossy magazine. You started at two different now-defunct blogs, then co-founded and presided over one of the most popular sports blogs on the Internet, Deadspin. Now you're at New York magazine, and you've got a book coming out in May. The small-picture question: what's next for you?

Well, I'll write for whomever will have me. It's amazing that I get to do this for a living: That was the goal all along, long before Deadspin. Working at New York magazine, considered one of the best magazines in the world by people a lot smarter than me, has been a learning experience, as was the plan from the beginning. A good magazine requires you to raise your game. I've become a better journalist and writer just by hanging around and listening to the geniuses who run this place. The ultimate goal is just to get better, as it has always been.

I'm 34 years old, and I'd like to think I have quite a bit of career ahead of me. I just want to keep adding tools to the belt as I get older, and just keep working. I loved doing Deadspin, and it was challenging, exciting, fulfilling work, but I *DO* think, if you're not careful, you can get caught in the trap of just chugging out blog posts and becoming lazy with your audience. Are there more people reading my work now than when I was running Deadspin? Probably not. (Though who knows? Pageview counters terrify me.) But I think I'm a better writer and reporter than I was when I left. The hope is that I eventually come close to figuring it out. I've got a while to go still.

The big-picture question: what's next for journalism? How is sports journalism changing, for better and worse? What will replace the dead-tree business model?

I, like many, am firm in the belief that people will always pay for quality journalism. We haven't figured that out exactly how that works yet, and I certainly wouldn't trust any journalist to figure out how. (Most journalists I know don't even know how overdraft protection on their checking account works.) But it has to be out there. We'll get there. It will all sort itself out. It's just going to take time. I do know this: Great journalism might not be as lucrative as it once was, but there is certainly more of it being produced in this age than at any other time in human history. I'm not sure it's a particularly close race, really.

Among the lessons of baseball's steroid era: baseball journalists totally missed the story. Has the profession made the necessary changes? Are there any stories that are going under the radar that you wish were being better explored?

Well, there are a million stories. I don't understand why more people don't report that baseball is about to pass the NFL in total revenue. This is the exact opposite of what everyone thinks—what infuses every aspect of our sports coverage, really—and no one seems to have noticed. As for the steroid story, I think baseball journalists have more than made up for "missing" the story by conflating non-stories like the Jose Reyes thyroid issue (which has NOTHING to do with HGH, not that anyone told Mike Lupica) into one more symptom of The Steroid Scourge. As bad as they were during the steroid era, I think they're worse now, in the other direction.

Moving along to your other love: movies. You write movie reviews on your blog and you recently wrote a terrific piece on Deadspin about Roger Ebert. Ebert's more fortunate than many, because he's getting to read his own eulogies, but they're tragic all the same: he's the dean of a dying profession, one of the last great professional movie critics. Even more than with sports, the preponderance of blogs has just killed newspaper movie criticism. Does this actually affect the movie industry, or just the peanut gallery? What's your take on the movies?

I've never thought movie criticism moves the dial all that much in the movie industry. Sure, there are the nice stories like Siskel and Ebert saving Hoop Dreams, but on the scale that movie industry works now, it's barely a blip. To me, movie criticism is the ultimate Quality Wins Out practice. At least sports reporters could make an argument that they were more qualified because they interviewed shirtless baseball players.

What exactly is the advantage a newspaper critic has over a Web critic? Earlier screenings? (Well, not anymore.) The best film critics distinguish themselves solely through their work: Look at Dana Stevens and Karina Longworth, two of the best critics working right now. They're simply doing great work, and they have been noticed for it. There's no barrier for entry, but there's a barrier for quality. They both pass it easily. So does Ebert, obviously. I should also point out my friend Tim Grierson, who is the best film critic you might not have read yet. I'm not even close to those guys' level. I just write movie reviews because they're fun. They're a little treat for myself when I'm done with all the work that actually pays me.

You actually had a slight connection to a 2009 documentary, We Live in Public, about an Internet entrepreneur, Josh Harris, who wired every inch of his entire apartment with video cameras and microphones, opening his entire life to a 24/7 chat room of voyeurs who watched every moment he and his girlfriend spent there, from the intimate and mundane. The director argues that Harris's cracked fantasies basically presaged the exhibitionism of the Internet, where everyone has a blog, cam, Twitter account, photo albums, and every moment of every day voluntarily shares more and more of their lives. You actually slept in that loft. First of all: weird, huh? Second: is the director right? Is that what being on the Internet is like?

I think the director is half right. I think that's one way the Web works, sure. But I think this idea that everyone who is a part of the Internet is this helpless, self-obsessed exhibitionist is a crock. The Internet is this amazing place to share information and connect with other people. It's amazing that it exists. What fool would not want to be a part of that? I don't think you have to have this "look at me! look at me!" attitude to want to be a part of it. There are millions upon millions of people who use the Internet without any sort of self-aggrandizing bent. From my viewpoint, the majority of the people who claim the Web is made up of exhibitionists and voyeurs are people who have some sort of personal agenda involving the Web that they're trying to advance. They're trying to marginalize it. They're only looking at the surface. I think they're being willfully ignorant.

That said: I think that Webcam house once captured me urinating. So I wouldn't trust my judgment on this.