Published on September 10th, 2014 | by Justice Feelgood Marshall3
A Few Words on Derby News Network
As some of you may have seen, the website I started way back in 2007 and edited for five years, Derby News Network, announced today that it was ceasing operations. Although I stepped down from editing duties at the end of the 2012 WFTDA Championships in Atlanta, I remained good friends with my site partner Hurt Reynolds and the new managing editor Lex Talionis, and continued to write for the site during the 2013 playoffs (and the 2014 playoff so far).
I only found out two days ago that they’d decided to plug the plug on the site. I was somewhat taken back by the abruptness and timing of the decision, but through having stayed in contact with them during my two year semi-retirement — and through experiencing the five years previous — I certainly can’t say I’m shocked by the move.
I am really sad about it, though, really really sad. I’m not angry, and I’m not bitter. Not *that* bitter, anyway. I know I’m going to get a billion questions on why this happened, and I don’t want to tell the story a billion times, so I’m going to try and write down a short version here. Yeah, this is the SHORT version. The full version would literally be a book. Maybe it will be someday.
First of all, a little bit of necessary background and context; some of you may know this part of the story, but it’s impossible to explain why the site died today without starting from the very beginning.
The growth of DNN was pretty much exactly like the growth of modern derby –unexpected, sudden and huge. I started it as a personal blog in the summer of 2007, just before the first WFTDA Nationals in Austin, to start collecting all the recaps I’d been writing for Charm City Roller Girls and the mid-Atlantic leagues I reffed for during the time. They’d usually end up getting posted to Yahoo groups or in league newsletters, and once I started building up a solid library of them I thought it’d be cool to have them all in the same place.
At the time, there was almost nobody covering derby as a sport as opposed to a hipster fad, and it was probably the uniqueness of that approach that made the site start gaining popularity. The same year it launched, I joined up with two other dudes who were doing derby blogs — Hurt Reynolds from havederbywilltravel.com and Gnosis from leadjammer.com — and we relaunched my shitty WordPress blog as a much more robust and much less shitty-looking Actual Website right before the second East Coast Derby Extravaganza in 2008.
That fall, during the 2008 playoff season, Hurt, Gnosis and I traveled to Houston, Madison and Portland to do liveblogs of the games; in Houston, we found that a Houston volunteer had had the bright idea of pointing a webcam at the track and doing a web stream of the action, and then suddenly the incredibly tiny world of derby coverage had irrevocably changed.
Hurt, Gnosis and I had very complementary skill sets. Hurt handled business operations and tech support for leagues figuring out how to set up their live streaming, Gnosis handled site design, and I edited submissions, chose photos and wrote the majority of the words on the site. SO MANY WORDS.
During the five years I was Managing Editor, I wrote words and words and words and words, in recaps, in previews, in textcasts, in Power Rankings, in comments, in tweets, in Facebook posts, in whatever. I traveled to more cities in those five years than I’d been to in the previous 30 years of my life combined. I saw easily over a thousand games in person. Over that time the site’s focus grew from local derby to regional derby to national derby to international derby to worldwide derby at a pace we never expected and in many ways weren’t prepared for. Hurt often used to compare it to “drinking from a firehose,” which was a pretty good analogy.
It was pretty early on in this ride when I started noticing that people I didn’t know at all were treating me like I was a celebrity, which never once stopped being super weird and disconcerting to me.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of positive things about being Derby Famous. I got opportunities that I never would have had otherwise, whether it was traveling to events, playing in all-star games, getting coaching opportunities, receiving free gear, doing interviews with Actual Media (getting a call from a New York Times reporter for some fact-checking once was one of the most surreal experiences of my life), etc. Because I edited this site, people thought I was Important. I guess that objectively, they were right, in that there was an Important Thing happening, and we were documenting every second of it we could. But I never ever felt as important as people seemed to think I was.
The flip side to that, though, was that I started finding that there were more and more people who automatically disliked, mistrusted or outright hated us based solely on what their impression of DNN was. Some thought that it was inherently offensive that a group of three dudes were considered the primary media authorities on a female-dominated sport. Some thought any dude who was willing to dedicate that amount of time to a women’s sport had to automatically have ulterior motives (read: had to be a creeper). Some thought that DNN was a sort of power grab on our part, an attempt to gain top-down control of a grass-roots phenomenon. Some people just thought we were inherently biased against their team (frankly, I considered it something of a compliment that over the course of my involvement with DNN, there was at least one skater from each top-25 team that at some point accused us of hating them).
Personally, though, I found the most frustrating misconception was that DNN was making a significant amount of money off our coverage of derby, money that should have rightfully been going to the skaters playing the sport we were highlighting. Here’s a little secret: derby is not lucrative. DNN was never, not for one second, about money, because doing it for the money would have been hopelessly dumb. It was about the fact that we’d all collectively found something that we thought was the coolest thing in the world and we wanted to make sure the widest possible amount of people could become aware of it and join us in this incredible experience. It was also about the future, and trying to make sure that that was a history that the people who came after us could refer to to learn about what had happened before.
Being able to do the amount of work required to make that happen without becoming completely destitute necessarily required money, so we sold site ads, did fundraisers and solicited sponsorships and donations. And still ended up completely destitute anyway. I lived out of my car for awhile and I would have been completely homeless on two separate occasions if not for friends taking me in. At no point were we even remotely within shouting distance of making a living wage off of the money DNN was making, even at the peak of the site’s popularity and influence. Even though many, many people suggested it at the time, we never ever required payment for one iota of DNN content, because that was at odds with the goal of spreading the derby gospel as far as it could go.
However, encouraging the misconception that DNN was some sort of cash cow served the agenda of people who disliked, mistrusted or hated us for whatever reason and wanted us out of the scene. As people who spent years sleeping on friends’ couches, in our cars and occasionally in the very venues we were reporting from, that misconception seemed so absurd to us that we rarely bothered responding to it other than to laugh it off. That was probably the single biggest mistake we made in running the site. As I’ve said before, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its custom Antiks on.
By around 2010 or so, there were more sites and Internet forums covering derby, and in reading them I’d occasionally run across jaw-droppingly false accusations about DNN’s business practices. According to The Internet, we were threatening leagues with coverage blackouts if they didn’t pay us to come to their events. We were claiming to own the rights to video that was produced by host leagues. We were selling sponsorships that we *didn’t* have rights to. All sorts of things that — in addition to being borderline libelous — furthered the impression that DNN’s reason for existence was to exploit derby, rather than to raise its profile.
We shot down these misconceptions and lies whenever we saw them, but the more I saw of this kind of thing, the more I realized that what people were saying in private was likely even more slanderous than what they actually willing to put their names to online. But how do you even push back against that kind of talk when you don’t know who is saying it, who they’re saying it to or even what they’re saying?
You can’t, really. Haters gonna hate, right? And generally speaking, it’s very hard to engage with people who are stirring up drama without looking like you’re the one starting the drama. Our philosophy was to basically ignore them, keep doing the work we believed in and hope that work spoke for itself. Again, that was a error. We should have spent more time positively defining ourselves before we got negatively defined by people who were really dedicated to doing so.
At some point — I think it started around playoff time in 2010, but dramatically gained momentum after the 2010 Championships in Chicago — it became pretty clear that some of the people who did not like our position in the scene had gotten traction with decision-makers in the WFTDA. For the years previous, we’d considered the WFTDA a partner. We wanted to grow derby and raise its profile. They wanted to grow derby and raise its profile. We had a shared interest and complementary strengths — the absolute opposite of conflict, from our point of view. But that began to change before we realized it was happening. Slowly but surely, the WFTDA began placing more restrictions on our ability to cover their major events; at first those restrictions were confusing, then mildly problematic, then severely damaging, and then nearly intolerable.
The first move was barring us from embedding any video from major events like ECDX and playoffs; that was disappointing, and their decision to do so was extremely poorly communicated, but from a strictly business perspective that move was somewhat understandable from their point of view, given their desire to start driving traffic to their own website. We still thought that having video freely available on as many sites as were willing to host it was a better plan for growing interest in the game, but it was at least logically defensible.
After that, they barred us from doing live play-by-play via textcasts at major events, which was hugely frustrating because the text casts were a major part of what created a community when live video was either extremely rare or extremely unreliable. That didn’t make much sense to us at all. Why cut off a communication method for people who either didn’t want to pay for or couldn’t access a live stream, but still wanted to know what was going on? Why squash an online community that had organically grown since literally the first time anybody had pointed a webcam at a playoff game?
After that, we started running into major pushback on our attempts to publish photographs to accompany our recaps of major events. The media contracts we had to sign included effective embargoes on posting photographs from games that were in progress, and we started getting reports from our credentialed photographers that they were told they’d lose their media passes if their photographs appeared on DNN during in-progress games. This, in turn, led to some of our best photographers deciding not to send us any pictures during tournaments because they did not want to risk losing their passes. This was more baffling than the previous issues — many of those images were absolutely stunning and could do nothing but drive traffic to a site that had the live stream. Why try to shut those down? How did that help derby at all?
By 2012, I found that battling those restrictions had made working for DNN considerably less of a labor of love than before; instead of spending my time working on finding ways to get the most robust coverage out to the largest amount of people, we were usually spending more time on trying to figure out what amount of coverage we were allowed to provide under WFTDA’s increasingly strict media restrictions. It is not fun trying to promote an event when the event’s organizers seem to consider you an enemy rather than an ally. By the end of the Atlanta Championships, I was somewhat relieved when one of our most dedicated contributors, Lex Talionis, seemed willing to take the day-to-day editorial reins off my hands.
I missed DNN a lot in my first months away, but on the other hand, it was nice to be just a fan for the first time ever in derby, to watch a game without worrying about documenting it, to be able to cheer for an underdog without worrying that the game outcome was going to make our Power Rankings look stupid. I traveled with Lex to cover four of the playoff tournaments in 2013 to do recaps, and that was exactly enough journalism for me. At the beginning of 2014, Windy City asked me to come on as a bench coach, and I’ve found that dedicating my derby time and effort to a small group of people I personally know and trust is more emotionally satisfying for me than dedicating my time to an enormous group of people who don’t necessarily know or trust me. And after years of trying to know a little bit about every single derby team to ever play a public game, it’s been refreshing and educational to narrow my focus to just one team and its immediate opposition.
But, of course, the increasing restrictions on our coverage hadn’t stopped just because I’d left, and now it was Lex dealing with those frustrations. Earlier this year, at a Division II tournament, DNN had contacted a couple of volunteers at the event and asked them to take cell phone pictures of the penalty boards between halves so the site could provide at least some visual content for readers. The WFTDA cracked down on this, too, threatening to revoke the volunteers’ passes if they continued to do so.
Finally, on the day before last weekend’s playoffs in Sacramento, DNN got a notice from the organizers informing them that there would not be access to power, Internet or table space for DNN writers at the tournament. If you’ve ever put on an event of any nature, you know that providing that is quite literally the *absolute least* you can do for a media outlet covering your event. Sometimes you can do a lot more, if you have the space, money and inclination, but a place to work is the bare minimum.
With that move, they’d essentially completed their years-long squeezing-out of DNN from the coverage of their major events, and I imagine that the fact that things had gotten this bad was what finally inspired Lex and Hurt to end the site. Without the context of the years that had come before, I can absolutely understand why it would look like ending the site was a rash overreaction to a minor slight, but as someone who has had a front-row seat to this story slowly playing out for the better part of a decade, I’m here to tell you it was not.
I said this was the short version, so I’m leaving a whole lot out. I originally actually wanted to make this post more about how the loss of DNN makes me feel, but I know people are more interested in why it’s gone than how I feel about it, so I focused on the former.
In the interest of avoiding getting too emo, all I’ll say about the latter is this: of all the things I have ever done in my entire life, DNN is the single thing I’m the most proud of. For a few years there, I got to work with people I loved, doing something I loved and was good at, for a cause I believed in with all of my heart. A lot of people never get that once their whole lives, so I’m thankful for that. But seeing the site go is still very, very hard for me; I’d hoped it would continue on long past my direct involvement with it. Super sincere thanks to everybody who has had a nice thing to say about DNN today. It helps.
Finally — the site might be gone, but I’M not going anywhere. Be seeing you.
Editor’s Note: This post has been edited to correct an incorrect fact.