We’re wrapping up our interview series with one I’m personally very excited by: Defector, a worker-owned journalism cooperative. After the sports journalism website Deadspin was taken over and made a series of disastrous decisions that led to their entire staff quitting, many of those staffers formed Defector together. I had the great pleasure of speaking with Jasper Wang from Defector. Here’s what we discussed.
Jasper Wang from Defector will be participating in our Creative Co-Op Roundtable today, so be sure to check that out!
C.N. Josephs (Maximum Fun): Defector emerged, phoenix-like, from the ashes of Deadspin after new private ownership took the site over, tried to stamp out everything that made it special, and fired the deputy editor. Can you tell me more about the decision to structure Defector as a worker-owned cooperative and how that protects the staff at Defector?
Jasper Wang (Defector): I myself was not employed or affiliated with Deadspin or its private equity ownership. By the time I was formally offered the job running the business side in Spring 2020, the rest of the team—18 writers and editors who were previously at Deadspin—had already decided that the organization would be a worker-owned cooperative.
There were previous moments when that would not necessarily have been the outcome—we spent some time talking to traditional investors over the previous winter, and taking traditional outside investing would’ve required a more orthodox corporate structure. But once that promise of funding dried up in the early months of the pandemic, the team decided, if they were going to strike out on their own, it would be on their own terms. In terms of how it protects the staff, our company operating agreement requires a super majority to make big moves, e.g., raising outside debt/equity, selling/liquidating the company, firing/hiring executives (the EIC and myself).
C.N.: What does Defector’s internal structure look like? Who makes the big and small decisions?
Jasper: The editorial side is structured as a traditional newsroom hierarchy. The operational side is run largely by committees. Major, existential company decisions would require a staff-wide vote, but we’ve otherwise assigned decision rights clearly to specific committees or people (e.g., I can unilaterally approve new expenses up to a couple thousand dollars but then have to bring any larger budgeting questions than that to the Manager Board.)
C.N.: One of the things that really impresses me about Defector is the extremely transparent annual report that you release detailing the site’s revenue, expenses, and strategy. Can you tell me about what led to the decision to release this report?
Jasper: As we approached Defector’s first birthday, I took on a side-project of writing a summary of the year. My original intentions were to have it serve as an internal-facing document where staffers could (a) read and reflect and say “wow, look at all we accomplished this year,” and (b) people could refer to and pinch certain language in case they were doing press hits related to our first anniversary. At some point people asked the question of, “Should we just tidy this up and publish it for public consumption?”
It was not actually unanimous that first year that we should publish a public report like this (our accountants in particular were very against the idea) but after seeing the reception the document received, I think everyone was proud and felt good about doing it going forward. For me, coming from a much more traditional business background where I was used to a monthly/quarterly schedule of presenting to stakeholders/executives/investors, it sometimes feels weird that we don’t have much of a reporting cadence except to ourselves internally. So the annual report for our business team also serves as an important accountability checkpoint of, “What are the commitments we made publicly, did we meet them, what will we commit to going forward?”
C.N.: Has Defector faced any unique challenges due to being an employee-owned cooperative?
Jasper: All the challenges are features, not bugs, of being employee-owned. Everyone has full information, transparency rights, and the right to ask questions and share their thoughts. That means we have to be very deliberate in our decision-making and leave space and time for people to weigh in—one person can’t really change the trajectory of the business. So I’m sure an outsider would look at us and say, “Why did it take so long to change this policy or implement this process?” or whatever, and the answer is, that’s just how it was meant to be.
C.N.: Defector doesn’t have outside investors; instead, you’re funded almost entirely by your readers, with 95% of your $3.8 million revenue in 2021-22 coming from subscriptions. We know now that your subscription model has been very successful, but when the website was first launched, was there any fear that it wouldn’t work—or was everyone confident from the beginning that it would go well?
Jasper: I’m sure there were varying levels of real underlying confidence across the staff. We were prepared for the worst-case scenario. The talk track was, “we’re holding hands and jumping in, we’re committed to doing this, but we may not put any money back into our own pockets for months and months.” The night before we announced Defector, my wife—who works in a subscription business herself—tried to keep my expectations low, and said that if we sold even a couple dozen subscriptions that first day, it would already be such an accomplishment. But within 24 hours, we had sold 10,000 subscriptions, and it immediately became clear that we would have a functioning small business.
C.N.: What does it mean to you to be part of a worker-owned cooperative?
Jasper: I’m incredibly proud to be a part of Defector and to be a part of a worker-owned cooperative. I come from a very traditional business background, with a decade at Bain and a Wharton MBA, and you’d imagine that most people from my background would find such an unorthodox structure to be completely bewildering. But you might be surprised by the percentage of people of my background who are also ambivalent—if not outright disillusioned—with the model of business that is, however you’d want to describe it, shareholder-centric/financially-engineered/hostile to labor. It’s certainly been an adventure to get to this point, and we have to stay ever vigilant to keep our worker cooperative functioning, but I’ve loved the journey and I’m proud that we serve as an example of an alternative path for running a business.
C.N.: What are your hopes for the future of art and media as a field? Do you think that more people will embrace the cooperative model?
Jasper: Honestly, I stay pretty focused on our little corner of the media world. My only hope is that, as people continue to look for sustainable models for funding and creating art and media, that they think about trying new things in both the revenue model (which people always are), but also the operating model of how an organization works together and takes care of each other.
C.N.: Do you have any advice for other people who are considering forming a co-op?
Jasper: Very few things about running a business are set in stone as, like, legal requirements. Almost everything is just convention and inertia. Don’t be afraid to be creative about what you want your company to be and how you want it to function.