Albert Burneko on the rise of Defector Media

After quitting Deadspin en masse, Burneko and 17 of his colleagues reemerged last week as Defector Media, a sports blog with a sharp voice and perfect timing.

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Good morning, readers of the Lyte, and welcome to another edition of the only newsletter that, when printed and folded into a paper airplane, is guaranteed to fly. Let’s get our brains into Having Thoughts mode.

Today’s interview is with Albert Burneko, one of the 18 Deadspin writers who quit the company last year in protest and reemerged, last week, as Defector Media.

Defector is connected, via the media family tree, to Gawker, the infamously acerbic blog that skewered elites into a state of unease so threatening that the site was eventually sued out of existence in a Hulk Hogan sex-tape lawsuit, financed by shadowy tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who had his own ax to grind with Gawker and used the litigation as revenge. It’s a legendary story.

Defector has no writing up yet, but the site tells readers to expect a podcast, called “The Distraction,” this month, and the full website next in September.

Defector, like Discourse Blog, Study Hall, The Dispatch and so many other new media companies, is a subscription-only product, at least for the moment. Though any writing is at least a few weeks away, the site already encourages fans to subscribe.

Defector is an interesting relaunch, because it’s somewhere between the formality of The 19th* and the band of pirates Discourse Blog. Its cast of writers makes it an immediate force to be reckoned with, and the site is collectively owned and free of institutional restraints.

And, of course, what a time to launch a sports blog. In one sense, there is nothing to write about. And yet in another sense, there are so many things to write about.

Check out Defector Media here, and subscribe if you want to support a very promising, very important new enterprise.

THE INTERVIEW

Whomst: Albert Burneko, writer and co-owner of Defector Media

Personal Twitter: @AlbertBurneko

Defector Twitter: @DefectorMedia

For the uninitiated, can you explain what Defector Media is, especially who’s on the team, what you plan to cover, and how you plan to cover it?

Defector is a mostly sports-focused website, owned and founded by 18 of us who all quit working at Deadspin last November. 

We all own it equally, and it's supported by — at least for now — subscriptions only. We’ll be writing the way that people got used to us covering sports at Deadspin, with a critical eye toward labor issues and the social valence of sports, but also just the stuff in sports that we think is fun.

The story of your mass resignation was the talk of the town when it happened. In an industry where jobs are disappearing left and right, more than a dozen writers famously left the company because you were asked by the new management to “stick to sports.” What was the thought process?

We all quit Deadspin because of a sequence of events that were kicked off by the new owners telling us that we had to stick strictly to writing about sports, which we felt was a violation of our editorial independence.

As a result, one thing that readers can expect from Defector is that we're going to be able to write about whatever we want, including things that don't really touch on sports at all. 

A lot of publications have already written about your launch. Any coverage from your old employer?

We have not, as far as I know, heard anything from anybody over there. I guess I don't expect to hear anything from them.

It would be kind of beautiful karma if Defector skyrocketed in popularity and became more popular than Deadspin.

In all honesty, it's not really something we're thinking about. I know I can't speak for everybody, but I just loved working with all of these people. We had a great time together. It was the best job I'd ever had, working with this specific group, and I just wanted another opportunity to do that. 

A year ago everyone quits. Then, out of the blue, everyone is back together and launches this meticulously planned rollout. Clearly, this was something y’all had been planning for a while. Could you give me the chronology of Defector, from quitting Deadspin to now?

Well, there were never really any gaps. 

By the following Monday after we’d quit, we had a Slack channel set up. Nobody had any kind of formal designs about starting a new company together, but we had just gone through something really big and were suddenly not working together anymore. At that point, it was just a way to keep in touch and commiserate.

Pretty quickly, we started talking about it. I think everybody was in agreement that if there was a way for us to get back to working together and doing the work that we had enjoyed, we were going to do it.

Compared to say, Discourse Blog, which is a fellow media startup but one being built on the back of Substack, Defector has a really nice website and is clearly painstakingly designed. Did you work with a third-party to create the site?

We had a lot of help in terms of getting, well, help. 

Megan Greenwell, who was our editor-in chief-at Deadspin — she's at Wired now — left before the rest of us because of how bad the situation was. 

She was a really helpful advisor to us throughout, helping us suss out who might be interested in helping with that kind of thing. None of us could design a website, let alone one with a subscription portal or anything like that.

Okay, the editorial question in the room: You’re nominally a sports blog. There are basically no sports right now. What are you writing about?

This particular group of people, we're uniquely prepared to thrive in this environment, because we were always very strong at covering the off-the-field part of sports: sports as labor, sports as economics, sports as lightning rods of racial and social issues. 

And there have been so many stories lately. Not just the reverberations from the George Floyd protests, but look at COVID: leagues are trying to avoid looking like they’re strong-arming their players into coming back under-less than-favorable conditions.

There has been so much stuff lately that we've been sitting on our hands, saying, “Damn, I wish we could blog this.”

I'm not saying that I'm not waiting for sports to come back. I miss watching sports. I'm glad that there are games on as a fan. But I feel like whether or not sports are able to return to something approaching their normal operations, we're going to have the angles that people want to read. 

As with so many other promising media startups, Defector is built on a subscription model. Does that affect how you think about your writing?

In ad-based media, advertisers are paying and what they're buying is eyeballs.

With subscriptions, you sell your work directly to readers instead of selling readers to advertisers. There are better alternatives to being eyeball salesmen.

Plus, we want to be in conversation with our readers. We’ve been talking about various ways of actively engaging them in dialogue about what they want to see on the site. 

We’re still sussing out the ways that a subscription model changes the incentives a little bit. Now that there's not so much emphasis on raw traffic, it's kind of fun to imagine having — by necessity — that kind of dialogue with the readership.

Rapid Fire

What’s a project of yours that you’re especially proud of?

My tomato plants are doing really well.

What’re you watching right now?

We've been making our way through old stuff, like 1940s ‘50s. The other night we watched “Key Largo.”

What’re you reading right now?

Mostly journalism where I can, but at night I've been falling asleep to John le Carré books. Right now I’m reading “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”


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