Inside the Turmoil at Jezebel
Nine people have left the website since March. Those we spoke to cited executive overreach and dwindling resources
In March, G/O Media — the parent company of several former Gawker Media websites including the feminist blog Jezebel — hired former Forbes and Marie Claire editor, Lea Goldman, as their Deputy Editorial Director. On LinkedIn, Goldman describes herself as “a maestro at converting ideas into sellable franchises” who makes “killer content.” She also notes that she’s “a talent spotter who loves mentoring.”
Since Goldman joined the company, nine of the website’s employees have quit — about 75 percent of its editorial staff. Those employees include the editor-in-chief, deputy editor, features editor, and six full-time writers. When Gawker asked them about the departures, several sources pointed to Goldman. “I don't have much to say about Jezebel at the moment,” former features editor Stassa Edwards told Gawker in an email, “but I do think it's worth pointing out that nine people have left the site since G/O Media hired Lea Goldman.”
G/O Media has seen its share of turnover in the three years since private equity firm Great Hill Partners bought the group of websites from Univision for an undisclosed sum (“much less” than the $135 million Univision paid in 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported). The company has been plagued by stories about its unhappy staff — usually related to its CEO, former Forbes executive Jim Spanfeller. Just months after the acquisition, G/O shuttered the politics website Splinter; the next month, the entire editorial staff of the marquee sports site Deadspin resigned over an order from the company’s leadership that they “stick to sports,” though the website regularly and successfully covered other topics.
The resignations at Jezebel, however, have trickled out over the course of this year; unlike the nuclear fallout at Deadspin, staff members have departed without fanfare. There have been resignation letters, but few public statements about the rationale or overt references to involvement from G/O Media’s leadership. But the executives nevertheless played a critical role in Jezebel’s turnover, seven sources confirmed to Gawker. “Jezebel has been the victim of the media’s worst impulses, both in how it was sold and managed financially,” Edwards told Gawker.
Further, sources claimed that Spanfeller’s installation of Goldman produced a hostile work environment, in which staff were expected to meet increasingly high demands in terms of workload and traffic in the face of rapidly dwindling resources. It seemed to some that G/O’s management was starving the old Jezebel to create a new one, a nicer, “more basic” publication, as one source put it, with less in-depth reporting, more SEO-friendly celebrity content, and a whiter approach to feminism. The impression was, one ex-employee said, that “Jezebel should be more of a starfucking publication that courted celebrities and that it was important to not be mean.”
“Jezebel has been the victim of the media’s worst impulses, both in how it was sold and managed financially.”
Staffers recalled how Goldman offered a diagnosis for the site’s shortcomings in a meeting shortly after she joined the company. Jezebel used to be about feminism, one source paraphrased her as saying, but like, what is feminism? Do people need it anymore? Is it even good? What if feminism is bad? Part of their problem, she had intimated, stemmed from not really knowing what feminism was. “It kind of became a joke between us,” they said, “like, ‘Hey, guys, what is feminism? Is it bad?’”
While the site had prided itself on its intersectional approach to feminism, Goldman seemed to come at it with a whiter frame of reference. One editor recalled that Goldman had complained that it was hard for white women in contemporary media. This remark seemed all the more galling in light of how former editor-in-chief Julianne Escobedo Shepherd was treated by the company. “What I saw was them forcing a woman of color out of her job and replacing her with a white woman,” one person said. “I don't have anything bad to say about [Jezebel’s new editor-in-chief Laura Bassett], but that's what it looked like to me.”
The complaints, a G/O Media spokesperson told Gawker, “are specious and categorically false made by former employees who voluntarily left the company.” Goldman did not respond to Gawker’s request for comment. Bassett, whose hire was announced in August, declined to comment, as did Escobedo Shepherd, who departed the site that month. The G/O spokesperson also sent a statement and requested that we print it in full:
We couldn’t be more pleased about the direction and momentum of Jezebel under the strong leadership of Editor in Chief Laura Bassett and Deputy Editorial Director Lea Goldman. Over the past few months Jezebel has bolstered its editorial staff with eight all-star hires and columnists: Susan Rinkunas, Caitlin Cruz, Jenna Amatulli, Zeba Blay, Danielle Tcholakian, Kylie Cheung, Gabrielle Bruney, and Emily Leibert. We've dialed up original reporting and political coverage with sharp, fresh stories that are resonating with our readers. In the coming months, we plan to announce some important partnerships and initiatives that will reinforce Jezebel's storied legacy as an urgent site for women. These moves underscore G/O Media's firm commitment to editorial excellence and independence for not only Jezebel, but all of its digital publications.
The former staff members Gawker spoke with described a much different environment. “It felt like we were living through a farce of Shakespearian levels,” one source said, “that a petulant, sexist tyrant had hired a girlboss to ruin the site that pioneered discourse about girlbosses.”
When Spanfeller first took over G/O Media, one Jezebel writer — who had worked for him before at a different company — predicted what would come. According to a colleague, she warned that he would “come in, try to push out every good person that they pay a lot and bring in a lot of people that they can pay less who will just write SEO content. Because that is his M.O. That's what he does.”
But for a time, it seemed like Jezebel was somewhat sheltered. “I think [Spanfeller] barely even knew we were there,” one former employee said. “It seemed to me like he bought the company for The Onion and Deadspin.” That changed after the Deadspin staff walked. Then Spanfeller “just kind of systematically set his sights on destroying everything else that he paid a lot of money for.”
First came the executive turnover — Paul Maidment, the editorial director who’d sent the instigating “stick to sports” memo, resigned in November 2019 (he was also a former Forbes person). He was replaced by former New York Daily News Editor-in-Chief Jim Rich, whose approach to management included occasionally publishing his own pieces on G/O’s websites (one such article, a bizarrely vague blog about an illicit ESPN recording that would lead to a massive scandal a year later when the New York Times reported on it in full, may have led to his resignation last summer).
Around the same time, some of Jezebel’s key staff resigned, but G/O’s management declined to fill their roles until the site increased its traffic. With a shrinking staff, that proved nearly impossible to achieve. After the departure of politics editor Katie McDonough for the New Republic in 2019, for instance, the company refused to backfill the position, and the staff had no politics editor throughout the 2020 presidential election. The pop culture editor left to freelance, leaving one of the site’s most popular sections without oversight, and the managing editor transitioned into a staff writing job. Without replacements, other editors had to absorb the workload.
“The impression was, one ex-employee said, that ‘Jezebel should be more of a starfucking publication that courted celebrities and that it was important to not be mean.’”
By the time Spanfeller brought in Goldman, one source said, Jezebel’s staff had whiplash from “a lot of [executive] turnover and a lot of craziness.” Everyone who spoke to Gawker said that it seemed Goldman had come “with an agenda,” but had also “never read the site.” She seemed to want to “make Jezebel 2016 again” — or at least, return to the golden time when traffic was high and the website had not been sold in bankruptcy court.
Goldman would pop into Slack and pitch meetings, offering ideas they had either covered in depth or were impossible to execute. One source recalled that she’d complained about the blog’s traffic numbers, then said they should be interviewing Rihanna (“Yes, we should be,” the source said, “but she won't talk to us.”) or sending Meghan Markle swag (“If Meghan reached out… we wouldn’t say no,” one person said. “But the glossy celebrity profile is not Jezebel’s wheelhouse.”) Two sources said she’d once recommended writing about how Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton used to be enemies. (“Well, yeah, we thought that was funny — eight, maybe ten years ago.”) In one Slack channel, she asked why they hadn’t covered trans athletes; over the past year, ex-staff writer Esther Wang had written about the subject extensively.
For all her pitches, Goldman could be harsh about others’ ideas. Sources said their work was routinely disparaged and that they were blamed for bad traffic. But sometimes good traffic was ignored if it clashed with G/O’s new editorial vision. Story length was a repeated concern; there was talk of limiting pieces to around 2,000 words or less. For example: when the site recirculated a longform piece on the Free Britney movement — one of the early in-depth investigations on the subject — Goldman reportedly scolded an editor. The piece was “too long,” one source recalled her saying. It was also one of their most-read stories of the year.
A source familiar with the matter contested the ex-staffers’ framing of Goldman’s involvement. “Goldman’s mandate from top G/O Media executives was to make Jezebel more culturally relevant and topically serious,” they said. “She requested that the editorial team increase coverage of race and reproductive rights, while decreasing fluffier celebrity-themed topics. Change can be hard in the media industry, but if you are not urgent and relevant, you are not in the game. That is the standard Lea is trying to achieve with Jezebel.”
Three people told Gawker that an H.R. complaint had been filed against Goldman this fall alleging bullying behavior, as well as some journalistic missteps in which she had overridden the editorial chain of command. Two sources recalled Goldman advising a young reporter to lie to a source; another claimed she had meddled with a draft of their story to the point that the writer had legal concerns. “Her advice was so bad it was, like, actionable in court,” one ex-staffer said. “She would rush into DMs and then the editors were left fixing the problems.” A G/O Media source said of the complaint: “After an internal investigation, the claim was found to be baseless and the case was dismissed.” Several employees were interviewed as part of the internal review, but once the case was dismissed they said that nothing changed.
Sources who spoke to Gawker said staff were discouraged from writing in the blog’s signature style. They were told that stories should be shorter, less reported, and a bit less critical — of celebrities, of police, of parents frustrated by school closures. One person said that it felt like management was “creating a problem,” for which “firing us all [was] the solution.” To escape her input, the staff participated in two Slack channels: one with Goldman; and a private one without her (two sources suggested that, in addition to her other transgressions, Goldman approached her job as if she was starring in The Newsroom). During much of the pandemic, one source said “there were 11 of us just trying to bail water out of this sinking ship that was being completely starved for resources.”
One person said that it felt like management was “creating a problem,” for which “firing us all [was] the solution.”
“‘Morale’ is just a word that these people have never heard before,” one source said. “They don't care about it as a concept. It seems like, if anything, they want to foster a negative morale… It's just satirical, like, why do you all suck so much? You seem to only want to suck and get off on sucking.”
Meanwhile, the site hadn’t had a managing editor in a year, along with politics and pop culture editors. In June, deputy editor Alexis Sobel Fitts left for a job at the Washington Post; a week later, staff writer Esther Wang announced she was leaving. In August, writer Joan Summers quit. The next week, editor-in-chief Julianne Escobedo Shepherd stepped down. Several sources who spoke to Gawker relayed the suspicion that Escobedo Shepherd had been forced out of her role — stonewalled by a shrinking staff in the face of increasingly high traffic demands. “We just kept absorbing this work as people left,” one ex-staffer said. “It became clear that it was really about pushing Julianne out.” (Others hedged that Escobedo Shepherd had also left to write a book).
The hemorrhaging continued. In September and October, two more people quit — staff writers Hazel Cills and Molly Osberg, respectively. On Nov. 2 and 3, features editor Stassa Edwards and senior writer Tracy Clark-Flory followed suit. The ninth resignation, staff writer Emily Alford, became public last week.
It seems that, for now, the gutting of Jezebel has reached an end point. It did not go without notice to the former staffer that, upon Laura Bassett’s hiring, the website was finally allowed to hire new people. “Suddenly they hire a new editor-in-chief and there’s five, six lines to hire?” one person said. (Notably, none of the sources for this story attributed any wrongdoing to Bassett. “Bless her,” one said.) Likewise, few put the blame squarely on Goldman. If she left, the consensus was, Spanfeller would merely find someone else. As one source said, she was “one of a whole cast of clowns.”