DNN Retrospective, 2007: Genesis

DNN Retrospective, 2007: Genesis The state of derby journalism circa summer 2007. In the stands at the first Eastern Regionals tournament in Columbus, Ohio. Photo: Glenn Fitzpatrick.

For 5 years, we have generally assiduously avoided using first-person in DNN articles. There are plenty of derby sites with a viewpoint out there and we’ve always tried to nurture a reputation for detached objectivity; DNN has never been a personal blog or an opinion site (yes, yes, Power Rankings aside). As we approach our 5th birthday this weekend, though, we’re breaking character for just a week to tell you a little bit of the background story of how DNN principals Justice Feelgood Marshall, Hurt Reynolds, Gnosis and Mercy Less got from 2007 to 2012, and what we saw and learned along the way.

I did not actually mean to launch this site. Sorry. It was just one of those hobbies that got a little bit out of control. Maybe you’ve had one of those once.

I originally got into roller derby as a referee for Charm City; I joined up in summer 2005, almost a full year before CCRG’s first bout, so I was very involved in early promotion and PR. Once we started actually having bouts, that grew to include doing recaps for bout programs and our website. After our first home season ended in September 2006, I traveled around the region watching and reffing some interleague bouts. For most of those, I posted recaps to the Yahoo roller_girls group and later on to Hurt Reynolds’ blog Have Derby, Will Travel. (We’d first met at Rollercon in 2006, where I was trying to get an audio file off a digital voice recorder for use in a Charm City podcast I was doing at the time. Four days, multiple connection cords and many driver downloads later, we were comprehensively defeated by a basic piece of technology, but became friends in the process.)

I was lucky enough to be present and writing for what turned out to be some historically important bouts very early in interleague play, and those recaps are scattered around various places on the Internet — the first-ever Philly bout at the Sportsplex, the first-ever Western Regionals in February 2007, and what was, at the time, the biggest blowout ever in flat-track derby — a 289-16 win for Charm City over Long Island. (Remember when 289-16 was an incomprehensibly large margin, old-timers? Now we just call that “the quarterfinals.”)

After about a year, I started realizing two things: 1) I was starting to develop a pretty large body of content that was creating a real historical record, and 2) when it comes to discussion organization, thread readability and search functions, Yahoo! Groups are straight from f—ing hell. I was kicking around the idea of starting a dedicated blog by the summer.

I had seen a massive amount of memorable derby by that time, and found myself increasingly frustrated by the the level of coverage I found available. As I started to play on a men’s team myself and became more aware of the skill disparities and strategy differences between teams, I found myself wanting to know more details about what had happened in games, but finding details online was pretty much impossible. Most league websites focused on promoting the next bout and rarely, if ever, had the final score from the previous one — an actual summary of game events was nearly unheard of. Mainstream coverage was even less useful: this very early DNN post pretty much summarizes it.

Ironically, it was Hurt himself who was accidentally the final impetus for launching a blog of my own; Have Derby Will Travel was, at the time, the only blog that kept a national score repository, and I’d often send him scores to post whenever I caught a game. In September 2007, my men’s team, Harm City Homicide, had our debut bout against Pioneer Valley Dirty Dozen, which to me was a huge deal; it was only the second men’s flat-track bout and represented the culmination of a fantasy I’d had since I first saw Gotham play their own debut bout back in November 2004. If you’ve ever gone from watching roller derby and thinking “I wish I could do that but I know I never could” to learning to skate and playing in your first game and not dying, you know exactly the emotional state I’m talking about.

So I sent Hurt the Homicide / Dirty Dozen score and the score of the other half of that doubleheader, which was a mashup of area women’s leagues against the Pioneer Valley women’s side, the Western Mass Destruction. He posted the women’s score, but not the men’s score, and I inquired as to why. Thus began a very long philosophical argument over whether or not it was a good or bad thing for modern derby to promote men’s play (guess which side I was on). After we went back and forth on that for awhile, he politely but rather firmly said “Well, if you don’t like my position, it’s a big Internet. There’s no reason you can’t start your own site.”

So I did.

The name itself came from a total misunderstanding. Earlier that year I was emailing with Gotham ref Hambone about something or another, and mentioned in passing that I’d read on the derby news network that a college friend of mine, Gotham skater Lil Red Terror, had been injured at practice, and asked how serious it was. By “derby news network” I actually meant “Livejournal” because in 2007, that was pretty much as close to a news source as there was for derby. But Hambone misunderstood me and thought there actually was a site called Derby News Network and started looking for it. It occurred to me then that maybe it WOULD be nice if there was a site called Derby News Network.

At first, the original WordPress version of DNN was just Charm City and Harm City stuff; a couple of weeks after its early September launch, I got to ref the 2007 WFTDA Nationals and did recaps from there as well. This led directly to the first time I found myself awkwardly pinned in between the sport and culture of derby; a few weeks after Nationals, one of the participating leagues surprised the hell out of me by filing an official complaint with the WFTDA, claiming that I’d had an untenable conflict of interest by writing about games in which I was reffing.

Back in those halcyon days, there was no such thing as an official’s code of conduct, nor any restrictions on what officials could say publicly, so the complaint was eventually thrown out on the basis that there was nothing to violate, but in retrospect that was the first moment where it was obvious that I’d eventually have to make a choice about how much I was willing to let the site define my role in the sport. Cause like I said at the beginning, I was never really doing DNN because I personally wanted to do it, I was doing it because somebody had to objectively document what was happening, I believed I could do a good job of it and I believed that doing so would help the sport grow long-term. It had never really occurred to me until that moment that not everybody agreed with me and that there would be blowback. I ascribe my lack of foresight on this to the fact that I’m kind of an idiot sometimes.

Not too long after that happened, in early November 2007, I sent out an email to some writer friends I’d made through derby, looking to expand the content base for DNN. I’d forgotten about this email until this year, when one of the recipients, Gnosis, found it buried in an old Yahoo account (f—ing Yahoo!) and sent it back, remarking that over five years, we’ve done a pretty good job of sticking to the plan originally outlined in the opening three paragraphs:

Hey friends, it’s your pal Justice Feelgood Marshall. Most of you have probably seen the recap website I launched around the time of Nationals, derbynewsnetwork.com. It’s had a pretty good first month, averaging about 2,000 hits a week and getting a lot of positive feedback. Up till very recently I have been writing all of the content, but I’m at the point now where I’d like to expand the range of bout coverage. I can only be in so many places in a given weekend, after all. If you’re getting this, it’s because I’ve seen you write good, insightful, detailed bout recaps in the past and I’d like to ask you to become a contributor to my site. Before I get into the details of what that entails, though, I’d like to tell you exactly what I’m trying to accomplish with the thing so you know where I’m coming from.

I started the site with two major goals in mind. First, to provide a quick & easy resource for the existing derby community to find information on recent & upcoming WFTDA-style bouts. Up till now, keeping updated on that has been kind of a scattershot affair that required hitting a hundred-plus Yahoo groups, fan blogs, league sites and Myspace pages, all of which are updated at wildly varying intervals — goal one is to change that and position DNN as a stable, reliable reference point in the online chaos (well, as stable as this sport can ever be.) This goal is pretty straightforward — it’s a shitload of information gathering, but it’s also a clearly defined mission.

The second goal is actually more ambitious and potentially more controversial. I want DNN to help move the popular conception of derby from “amusing fad” to “genuine sport.” As such, the words and images I use in writeups and previews are chosen with an eye to presenting the sport & athleticism of derby over the show and spectacle of it. I want to be very clear about this point: this DOES NOT mean I want the show and spectacle to go away. It’s just that the great majority of media coverage of derby focuses on the fishnets, the names, the miniskirts, and I want DNN to present derby as if all of that was already a given. Because if derby is mostly about the style, it is a fad that will eventually lose the greater public’s interest. If it’s mostly about the sport, there’s no expiration date on how long we can all enjoy this. I know I’m not the first to say or think this, of course, but I did want to put it out there so you understand my angle…

Hope to build something totally awesome with you.

Cheers,

Justice Feelgood Marshall

Soon afterwards, Hurt Reynolds got a hold of me, and my memory isn’t good enough to tell you exactly what he told me, but it was a variation on “We should talk.”

So we got to talking.

Tomorrow: Hurt Reynolds on 2008.