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Nick Denton, Arianna Huffington and Joe Evangelisti at a 2011 party.
Financial Times/Grace Villamil/CC BY 2.0
Gawker owner Nick Denton jokes with fellow media mogul Arianna Huffington in 2011.
THEIR BRAND IS CRISIS

An interview with Gawker’s top executives hours before their site blew itself up

Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

I accidentally had a seat at the table when Gawker Media, the internet’s own left-wing tabloid, entered its latest phase of anguished growing-pains.

Last week, Gawker Media’s public-relations firm invited me to meet owner Nick Denton and executive editor Tommy Craggs. Days after the two joked about how the boss should write up his obsession with The Good Wife, Craggs and another top editor resigned in a battle over journalistic integrity at the publication.

The latest drama at Gawker shows a media company yet to find a balance between its brash outsider aesthetic and its desire to grow into a real power in the media business.

When Gawker approached me, it wanted publicity for a series the site’s sports vertical, Deadspin, had published. It exposed the allegedly extra-legal shenanigans of former-basketball-star-turned-Sacramento-mayor Kevin Johnson, and is authored by the veteran sports journalist Dave McKenna. (I encourage you to go read it, especially if you don’t care about controversy in the media industry.)

Why would a publication that regularly mocks the conventions of PR firms and that once referred to Quartz as a site as “for assholes, by assholes,” hire a PR firm to pitch a story about its investigative journalism to Quartz? I had a theory: Because it was facing an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit from Hulk Hogan (more on that below) that could put it out of business, and the company needs to bolster its serious journalism bona fides.

Before I could even write that story, Gawker published text and photographic correspondence between a media executive and a gay porn-star-turned-prostitute who sought to fulfill his blackmail threat of outing the married executive.

The post came in for social-media criticism from a dozen angles, starting with the fraught politics of sexual identity and ending with the question of what standard of newsworthiness the post could possibly meet. Eventually, the site’s business executives overrode the editorial department and took down the post. Craggs and Gawker’s editor, Max Read, resigned in protest.

Cue the media-crit takes, with the consensus being that Gawker, which has earned its reputation churning out similar posts, was reaping what it sowed; the violation of editorial independence was an associated but more venal sin. Meanwhile, the site’s remaining staff complained publicly about the direction Denton was setting for his company. Gawker became part of the establishment some time prior, but it appeared that no one bothered to inform the site’s writers.

“As a collection of properties, we have a larger audience now than most newspapers,” Denton, whose company earned $44.4 million in 2014, told me. ”Even though we sometimes think of ourselves as being cute and scrappy, that isn’t necessarily how the outside world sees us.”

But, compared to Vice Media, another publication with a risqué brand that cleaned up for mainstream money, Gawker is positively unreconstructed. The mortal lawsuit it currently faces was filed by Hogan after it posted a video clip of the former pro-wrestler having sex with another man’s wife; Gawker says it’s newsworthy because Hogan claimed publicly in the past that he hadn’t done such things.

Gawker has done plenty of prurient reporting that sometimes pushed the limits of the public interest. At its best, it helped reveal the crack-smoking antics of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, revealed emails that Hillary Clinton attempted to hide from the public while Secretary of State, and played a role in kick-starting the reevaluation of sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby. More questionably, Deadspin posted pictures of NFL star Brett Favre’s penis that he had sent to a female team employee—apparently, over that employee’s objections. In 2010, it settled a lawsuit brought after it posted a homemade celebrity sex tape.

Denton, a former Financial Times reporter, founded Gawker in 2002 with the idea of telling the story that the mainstream press wouldn’t report, and accidentally created a digital media pioneer. Gawker’s record of separating bad reasons for skipping a story (taste, corruption) from good ones (lack of public interest, cruelty) can be hit-and-miss, but it was undoubtedly influential must-reading for media types.

As the site evolved, it became a click-vortex of gossip, tabloid reporting, internet culture coverage and left-leaning polemic. But it has had trouble matching the traffic gains posted by newer competitors, and, more recently, it has tried to shift its editorial balance further from aggregation and fast snark and toward original reporting and essays.

Deadspin, the sports vertical Craggs previously ran, in particular carved out a spot as a respected voice in the sports journalism world. It combined short blog takes with in-depth reporting—like the revelation that star college football player Manti Te’o had fooled the sports media with tales of a fake girlfriend and critical investigation of ESPN’s racially-charged expansion plans—that seemed to hit a sweet spot between boldness and credibility.

“My experience at Deadspin was that the site’s growth was predicated entirely on the big stories,” Craggs said. “The Manti Te’o story is the best possible marketing for Deadspin. That said everything about Deadspin’s posture towards sports and sports media. Anyone who read that knew exactly what the site was about and what they would be getting if they hung around.”

Craggs was then asked to develop that sensibility across the company’s multiple verticals.

“Maybe in the past a seller would go into an advertiser, maybe with Gizmodo and Kotaku, and they wouldn’t talk about Gawker,” Denton told me. ”[But] especially since Tommy has brought the editors and the sites closer together, there is enough of a common theme that is established around this idea of the real story that it is easier for us to kind of go in as a group.”

At an all-staff meeting this week, Denton was reportedly blunter, saying that “the fact of the matter is that it is really hard to sell Gawker, Gawker.com in particular, because Gawker.com likes to pick fights with pretty much everybody.”

But packaging the rambunctious Gawker verticals as a coherent media property doesn’t sit well with Gawker’s newly-unionized writers, who mocked plans to “Vox-ify” the site—references to the venture-funded media property that owns verticals like technology-focused The Verge and news site Vox, as well as a real-estate blog, Curbed, which was founded, by—yup—former Gawker editor Lockhart Steele. (The Verge recently profiled the Awl, a blog for complaining about the internet founded by two former Gawker editors.)

As usual, Gawker is fulfilling its long-established role as a generator as well as chronicler of New York media news. Denton and Craggs joked with me about whether the Hogan suit was simply an excuse to generate the perfect Gawker story—sex, media scandal, and celebrity, all on trial. The Gawker editor’s memoir is already an established literary genre, and no doubt this episode will produce its own roman-a-clefs.

Denton will no doubt produce new editors for his website, as he has done so many times in the past. But—assuming they survive their legal peril—it’s not clear if the new editors will do a better job than the previous regime at toeing the fine line between attracting gobs of readers without repelling advertisers.

Craggs, talking about the kind of reporters that thrive at Gawker, mentioned that veterans of “alt-weeklies”—a financially troubled genre of magazine that exists as a feisty counterpoint to a city’s major daily—fit in the best at Gawker, “a well-stocked pirate ship” compared to underfunded alt-weeklies.

“You know what it’s like to work with a place where you’re ordered to use both sides of a notebook,” he explained. ”To know what privation is like….”

Denton interjected, thinking of the company’s recently-signed 15-year lease for a swank new office space worth $75 million.

“The privation that we’re going to suffer going into 2 West 17th Street?”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

– If the alleged porn-star-turned-prostitute had posted his story on social media, would any digital media outlet not have covered it?

– Can the web traffic generated by stories about the New York media business possibly result in a profit for news outlets?

– WWWRHD? (What would William Randolph Hearst do?)

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