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G/O Media Is Fighting Its Staff Over 'Objectively Bad' Autoplay Ads

Deadspin, Gizmodo, and Jezebel have been inundated with sound-on ads that the rest of the internet killed a decade ago.

by Jason Koebler
Oct 29 2019, 6:18pm

Image: Getty Images

It's an Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World is a column exploring how internet advertising, tracking, and adtech affects users. If you want to write a column or have an idea for one, email jason.koebler@vice.com with your idea.

Monday afternoon, every G/O Media site, including Gizmodo, Deadspin, Jezebel, posted a blog called “A Note to Our Readers,” which said that the sites have “received a great deal of feedback from you, our readers, about the sound-on autoplay videos that have been inundating our sites.”

“Editorial staffers at all levels of this company have made our concerns known in various conversations with members of G/O Media’s senior leadership team,” the blog read. “We think it would be good for them to hear from you as well, so we invite you to submit feedback about our site’s current user experience … Please keep your comments respectful.”

Within a few hours, management at G/O Media, which is owned by the private equity firm Great Hill Partners, unilaterally deleted these blog posts soliciting feedback, which could be a violation of Gizmodo Media Group’s union contract that protects editorial independence: "Once a story has been posted it can only be removed by a majority vote of the Executive Editor, the CEO, and the General Counsel, unless required by law." Deadspin deputy editor Barry Petchesky tweeted that the move was "a clear violation of our CBA."

A spokesperson for G/O Media told Motherboard after this blog was originally published that a vote had been taken, and that the vote was 3-0 in favor of removing the posts. The three people in those roles are Great Hill Partners stooges; its CEO is Jim Spanfeller, its executive editor is Paul Maidment, who has worked with Spanfeller for decades, and its general counsel is Kai Falkenberg, who was hired last month.

"Implementing autoplaying video was construed not just as an annoyance, but as objectively bad internet practice"

By deleting these blog posts, G/O Media triggered one of the surest phenomena on the internet: The Streisand Effect. Trying to bury the blog posts only made them spread further on Twitter, and, by morning, more than 1,300 readers had emailed the company with their feedback, according to a source at the company. Tuesday morning, management turned the email address off; the email campaign continued as former staff encouraged readers to email Spanfeller directly.

Besides interfering with the editorial team's independence, G/O Media also demanded in a memo to staff that one of its most successful sites, Deadspin, stop writing about topics that aren’t related to sports. As its former EIC Megan Greenwell pointed out in a blog post when she left the company, posts about politics, culture, and things that go beyond, say, talking about who won or lost a baseball game are read by more people than articles that are specifically about sports only. This is in part because writing game recaps is a very crowded and boring market, but also because Deadspin has cultivated a loyal following specifically because it writes fearlessly and delightfully about a whole host of topics.

Do you work at G/O Media? Get in touch with Jason Koebler on Signal at 202-505-1702

On Tuesday, Deadspin ran a series of blog posts that weren’t about sports, such as “Three Good Dogs I Met” and “Check Out the Wheels on This Pumpkin Thief.” G/O Media then fired Petchesky, who tweeted Tuesday that he was fired “for not sticking to sports." The GMG Union tweeted that his firing "will not stand. We will have updates soon."

A lot has happened in the last 24 hours, but the one constant is that a series of well-liked and much-read websites is being actively antagonized by its ownership, which insists on employing a business model that was soundly rejected by internet users more than a decade ago.

Paula Harper, a historical musicologist at Columbia University who wrote her PhD dissertation on autoplaying videos, said that people hated autoplay ads a decade ago and that they still hate them now. “Implementing autoplaying video was construed not just as an annoyance, but as objectively bad internet practice,” she wrote in her dissertation.

As early as 2008, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, created by the World Wide Web Consortium, noted that autoplay is bad for web accessibility: “Playing audio automatically when landing on a page may affect a screen reader user’s ability to find the mechanism to stop it because they navigate by listening and automatically started sounds might interfere with that navigation,” it noted.

“Certainly people were turned off by [autoplay ads],” Harper said in an interview. “I would assume that at this point people would know it’s a turnoff factor. But maybe because we haven’t had popup sound on ads for a while, some ad companies are trying it again to see.”

The internet largely evolved past autoplaying video with sound years ago when Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram implemented silently playing videos on their platforms, which in turn led to the rise of hard-coded subtitles included in autoplaying videos. Users could then decide whether a video was worth unmuting, which is a much more respectful way of treating readers, she said. We hate autoplay ads with sound for a different reason today than we did in the past, where the risk was having sound come from your computer in class or at the office when you weren't expecting it.

"If you’re loading a webpage and an autoplaying sound pops up, it’s not disrupting your office mates but it’s disrupting whatever other listening you’re doing," Harper said. "Now it’s different because we live in a media ecosystem that’s much more about personal sound space. You’re almost constantly wearing headphones and listening to something else, so it's a personal disruption."

Harper suggested that using autoplay ads with sound in 2019 seems to be a shortsighted move that may work in the short term but that may lead readers to stop visiting G/O Media sites.

“The cynical interpretation of this strategy is that even if you have to interact with an ad in a mode of annoyance to find wherever the ad is and click away with it, you’re still kind of proactively, attentively interacting with this ad experience,” she said. “I don’t know how successful the model will be, but it’s certainly a model. It’s meaningful interaction even if it’s coming from a negatively emotionally charged place.”

G/O Media bought a series of beloved websites with dedicated readers and a strong staff with a coherent voice and worldview. It has now alienated its staff and its readers with an outdated business model that has been tried and has failed many times before. The endgame here isn't obvious, but there's no reason to expect that deploying one of the most-hated monetization schemes is going to work this time.

In a statement sent after this blog was originally published, Maidment said "we believe that Deadspin reporters and editors should go after every conceivable story, as long as it has something to do with sports. We are sorry that some on the Deadspin staff don’t agree with that editorial direction and refuse to work within that incredibly broad mandate."

The GMG Union did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Update: This post has been updated with comment from G/O Media.

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