Life On Earth, Or Goodbye

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I looked at the front page of Sports On Earth at 12:30am last Wednesday, about 12 hours after it was announced that the website would, if not quite disappear, at least no longer exist as it had for the previous two years. I saw 42 articles visible between the rotating deck, the header, and the list of links visible upon scrolling down the page.

It was, as usual for that site, an eclectic and intelligent mix of columns and analysis and reported features on various sports/sporps topics. An even 20 of those pieces were written by people who have also written for The Classical; many of those (Colin McGowan, Aaron Gordon, Michael Pina, Sean Highkin, Noah Davis, Jack Moore, Jonathan Bernhardt) wrote for us before joining up with SoE and some others (Wendy Thurm, Matthew Kory) came over here to do a piece or two after having done more work for SoE.

Not visible on that front page are the many other Classical alums that have contributed regularly to SoE. Tomas Rios wrote and edited there and Jeb Lund was a regular columnist; both have been down with us since our earliest days. Mike Piellucci and B. David Zarley and Evan Hall and Lindsay Gibbs have all written at Sports on Earth recently, and each has written for us multiple times. There are others, and also in the interest of disclosure and completeness, there is me. I wrote for SoE for nearly a year, and was never anything less than delighted to be doing it.

This connection is not necessarily causal, I should note. These writers earned those bylines and paychecks from SoE by writing as well as they do, and we were lucky to have had some of those words on this site. I steered a number of those writers to my editors at SoE both because they were so good at writing and because Sports On Earth was the website that paid for the type of writing that Classical Fam people tend to do best.

I was multiply biased, because I liked my editors at SoE and because I liked the writers I was recommending, but I was never quite wrong about it. Not because I'm so smart -- although, again in the interest of disclosure, I should mention that I'm both very smart and shockingly handsome -- but because it was right there to see. Sports On Earth was naturally the site to which Classical writers would graduate, because it was the sort of site that we try to be. "What I thought was so cool about it is that the default audience for sports seems, by internet attitudes, to be perpetually aggrieved, entitled, and largely conservative white middle class men," Jeb Lund told me. "And it was refreshing that SoE seemed to challenge those attitudes on matters of sex, race and labor rights almost as a standard policy." It is one thing for us to try to do that here, in our lower-key, lower-wattage way; it is a different thing entirely for a site funded by MLB Advanced Media and the definitionally middlebrow Gannett newspapers to do it.

So Sports On Earth, which announced a week ago that it was laying off almost all of its staff and kinda-sorta announced that it would be freezing out its many freelance contributors for at least some while, was Our Kind Of Site. It was, to the extent that its big-ticket corporate ownership allowed and down to its colorway and editorial outlook, the grown-up, for-profit version of The Classical, and something like what The Classical would be if we'd had budget enough and pull enough to pay writers we believe in -- not just the aforementioned, but world-beating SoE stalwarts like Patrick Hruby and Mike Tanier and Will Leitch and Jorge Arangure, Jr. and Howard Megdal and others -- to do what we do here at a larger scale.

So of course I liked it. Not only did it publish and pay so many of the writers I like the most, and give them a chance to reach readers that we can't reach, but it let them do the sort of work that only they could do, in the way only they could do it.

And it fit so well, and worked so well, that it only periodically seemed as strange as it was that a site so big and so rich was also so political, and so determinedly weird. "I always think of Tomas’ hilarious, lunatic piece in which he has a fever dream notion of what it would be like to be in Russia for the Sochi madness," Will Leitch said. "The whole article is made up. It is one of the craziest things you will ever read, and it was on a site funded by Bud Selig and USA Today." It was flattering, if admittedly from the perspective of a fan, and someone who is always ready to be flattered, that it was so often our type of weird. Mostly, Sports On Earth was just fun to read, surprising and fun and smart and in the end not really much like our site, or any other.

***

This was not how Sports On Earth was conceived -- it was initially designed as a sort of platform for Joe Posnanski and a broader, artfully and empathetically establishmentarian Posnanskian vision, and then hastily remade after Posnanski bailed on the site after a few months, by Larry Burke and Steve Madden and Emma Span and Matt Brown and all the writers they brought in and turned loose, into the stranger and much more interesting and vital thing that it became. This is also sort of true of The Classical, which is now something much different, and if not better than at least differently beneficial, than the nascent thing I talked about on the phone with Shoals back in 2011.

It has little to do with what we are doing or trying to do, and has not for most of our existence, but it bears mentioning: The Classical is not a moneymaking enterprise, for anyone. You can pay for a subscription to the magazine, and know that the writers for those issues will be paid some insufficient amount, and know that you will get your dollar's worth for it. But, for various reasons, our original business model -- such as it was; there was always a strong "+ ? = profit" aspect to it, even before its effective nonexistence became an internal punchline -- has been by the boards for a long time.

We do this because it's fun to do, and because we believe in the work we run and the writers that write it, and we run what we run because we like it and think you might enjoy reading it; that is, at this point, the biggest consideration behind it. But we do it, too, because we want to help those writers show that they can do the sort of work that your better sports websites would be willing to pay for, and get the attention and compensation they deserve from sites bigger than ours

The work is the work, and of course the work is important, even and especially when it is silliest. But also every writer is trying to make a living, and as someone who has pushed that same boulder up the same hill, it is important to me -- and the we/us, but also the first-person singular me -- to make that possible. We run stories here that -- for various reasons, some more flattering than others -- would not run at other sites, but to write a story like that for us is also to audition for sites like Sports On Earth.

While I'm personally past the point of interrogating the reasons for The Classical's existence, the collapse of Sports On Earth -- even when considered alongside the arrival of the supremely promising and similarly Classical-ish VICE Sports -- gouges a pretty big hole in our self-concept, or at least my concept of that self-concept. The way I justify our otherwise unjustifiable and shameful inability to pay our writers is that working with those writers can help them improve, and that by then putting them in touch with editors with those clips in hand, we can provide a way for those writers to work their way up. The idea is that they can start here and move up into sportswriting's middle class, which is unlike our notional national middle class in that the wages on offer are still pretty appallingly low, but is like our actual middle class in that it is pinched and shrinking and inconvenient to the larger interests that might otherwise sustain it.

***

I am not going to speak on the business aspects of Sports On Earth's collapse, because I don't know much about it beyond what you've just read, and also because I do not know myself, after nearly three years of helping to run this website, how any website would ever make money, ever. I am not the person to ask about how to build a successful website, which is good because no one ever asks me about any of that. Will Leitch, who built a successful site with Deadspin, has a more informed perspectibe, but also winds up in about the same place. "[SoE] required constant plate-spinning by the editorial and management staff -- pleasing two corporate masters, at once -- and, I’m sad to say, the freedom was more a result of [the editors'] devotion and creativity than it was of any fundamental alteration of the sports media business plan," Leitch told me. "It really is sort of a miracle it lasted two years as it did."

The only thing I can speak on where this is concerned, honestly, is how it feels. That is, the multiple shittinesses of the way it was handled and the way everything was communicated (or, more to the point, not communicated) to those who wound up on the receiving end, and also the general bleakness of losing one of the better and smarter sports related sites on the internet. There is also the general macro-suck of knowing that one of the few sites that paid a reasonable rate for good work -- one that was willing to read and run off-angle and unusually written writing, and writing about sports that were not usually written about, and pieces of a length that fell tonally and conceptually and stylistically between the pondero-grandiose Esquire-ian For Your Consideration longform prestige-bait and the banged-out news-cyclical take -- is no longer around to do that.

None of that is good. None of that feels good. Of course it doesn't. These are our friends, and this is their livelihood, but also these are things we care about, and this is the narrowing of the conversation we have about them -- of the way we experience and understand these things that matter to us -- because various large corporate entities were not seeing a sufficiently robust return on investment. That they were so crude and callous in their handling of this particular unwinding is distasteful, but it's less surprising given that the people cutting these cords were not in this conversation, had never read any of this writing, and neither cared about nor understood it. (It appears that one of the Big New Ideas on the part of MLBAM, now the site's sole owners, is to use their excellent roster of baseball beat writers to write about other things, in the understanding that, say, Anthony Castrovince's sourcing and credibility in the Cleveland Indians front office and among that team's fans will instantly and ziplessly transfer to those of the Browns and Cavaliers. There's little to say about this, besides that it is pretty insulting to all involved, if also mostly to the suite-bound goofs who believe it.)

And more's the pity on that, obviously, but also that's not management's job. To them, Sports On Earth was not a part of anything bigger or a source of anything great. It was a line item, and a red and ugly one; they responded to that as they had been conditioned and incented to respond. It was more than that to us, of course. But we are here for pleasure, and they are here for an entirely different reason.

This in no way excuses the wild and willful dickishness with which this all went down -- the writers finding out about their terminations on Twitter, or via form-email days after the fact; terminated editors like Larry Burke and Matt Brown and Steve Madden locked out of the email accounts in which "WTF Am I Fired" emails were piling up, unanswered and unanswerable. There is no excusing that. But it is, perhaps, an explanation. The people that did that were the people who'd do something like that, and they were, as it turned out, the people in charge all along.

It is possible to end there, with the re-realization that bosses are turds and that the aims of your larger corporations do not always align with those of people who like to read for pleasure. But if the end of Sports On Earth doesn't exactly contradict any of that, it also is not necessarily an ending, as Howard Megdal wrote at VICE. You don't need me to tell you to support the scene, or whatever, just as no one who wants to write for this site needs to be told to write as hard and as well as they can about the things they care about most.

The good news, which is good news, is that the extinguishing of a website is not the end of anything but that website, and that this goofy conversation we're all in is not any less compelling than it was when we all first joined it. The important thing in the face of this sort of disappointment is also the last and most important thing in general. I think the thing to do, the only thing to do, is to work and create and make things as well as we can, with love and anger as needed and in balance. That won't solve any of the problems that SoE's end revealed, and will not necessarily solve any other problems, either. But it's the best possible answer to this sort of void that I can come up with, and it's the best tribute I can imagine to a site dedicated to making just that sort of noise.

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