Drew Magary

Year of Graduation: 
Drew Magary

"I think that good writing and reporting are really welcome to people."

You could rightly categorize Drew Magary ’94’s writing career as extremely successful. The acclaimed author, columnist and co-founder of Defector, a media startup, writes columns beloved by sports fans across the country, including his “Why Your Team Sucks” NFL preview and weekly “Funbag” Q&A. His writing is irreverent yet relatable, 100 percent authentic and unapologetic.

But behind the highlights of Magary’s résumé is a compelling story of innovation, against long odds, in today’s digital media landscape. It began at the Academy in 1993. “When I was a student at Exeter, I became a smart person,” Magary says, self-effacingly. “I wouldn’t be a smart person without Exeter. It’s also where I discovered that I wanted to become a writer.”

In fact, Magary’s first column, Couch’s Corner, appeared in The Exonian. Emulating the sardonic style of his favorite sportswriters and comedians, he wrote caustic takedowns of campus life that once earned reproach from Kendra Stearns O’Donnell, the principal at the time, during a morning assembly.

In class with English Instructor Harvard Knowles, Magary found his career inspiration. The “stand out moment” happened while reading Joseph Heller’s satirical Catch-22. “I thought, ‘Hey, wait, I’m laughing.’ Thanks to Knowles’ class, I learned assigned reading could be fun,” Magary says. “Then I thought, OK, well, there’s something I’d like to do.”

"I thought, ‘Hey, wait, I’m laughing' ... I learned assigned reading could be fun."

Of course, the path to becoming a successful writer is not so simple — or linear. After graduating from Colby College in 1998 with a degree in journalism, Magary moved to New York City and began a career in copywriting. In 2006, he tried his hand at blogging, and two years later joined the sports website Deadspin as a columnist. Magary’s piercing commentary on sports, culture and politics helped the site establish a fiercely loyal following.

In the ensuing years, in addition to his Deadspin columns, Magary published a satirical sports handbook, three novels and a memoir, all highly praised. Then in 2018, his life changed radically in an instant when he had a massive brain hemorrhage. He was in a medically induced coma for two weeks, followed by a lengthy recovery, an experience he later chronicled in his 2021 memoir, The Night the Lights Went Out.

Magary returned to writing, but in mid-2019 he faced a setback of a different kind. Deadspin’s new parent company began making serious changes, firing the acting editor-in-chief and prompting a high-profile showdown with the editorial staff. Within days they all resigned.

What now? They knew they wanted to write as they had for so long at Deadspin, for a media outlet that prioritized editorial integrity over advertising dollars. The group came to the conclusion that the only way to do it was on their own. They resolved to try something revolutionary: form a worker cooperative, owned completely by the staff, and test what was then a largely unproven paid-subscription model. In July 2020, the team officially announced the new company, Defector Media. Within 24 hours, its eponymous website had 10,000 paid subscribers.

The response shocked the media world, including Magary. The gamble had paid off. With a lean staff, Defector is profitable. The site generated about $3.8 million in revenue in its second year — a remarkable 95 % from its roughly 38,000 subscriptions. “I came from a background, that background being ‘America,’” Magary jokes, “where I thought an employee-owned company wouldn’t work because no one could make a decision. But we run the company together, efficiently and equally.”

Is Defector’s model the way of the future for serious journalists? “I think that good writing and reporting are really welcome to people,” he says. “Because — once again, I learned this at Exeter —really important subjects can also be thoroughly engrossing and entertaining.

— Danielle Cantor

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.