I worked for Gawker in 2004, back when the entire editorial team could fit together in an elevator and still leave room for a bike messenger. (And his bike.)
I’d come up through Time, Inc., News Corp, Viacom and Village Voice Media and freelanced for Wired, Esquire and The New York Times and had never experienced working for a media organization where the mandate was simply Go for it. This was before Gawker’s traffic numbers were touted on an office flat-screen. In fact, at the time there was no office. Our only goal was to spare no one, pull no punches and give zero fucks. Usually we punched up at politicians, executives, celebrities and Tina Brown. Sometimes we punched laterally at freelance writers and Internet “celebrities.” And, yes, occasionally, we punched down at reality show stars and Tina Brown.
As one of my colleagues used to say at the time: You can ruin someone’s day, but don’t ruin their life.
Were we mean? Often! Were we mean-spirited? I know I tried not to be. As one of my colleagues used to say at the time: You can ruin someone’s day, but don’t ruin their life. The money was awful, and writing 12 posts a day was a grind, but we had a blast.
In the decade since I left Gawker I haven’t always been proud to list it on my resume, but I respected the place it held in the media ecology. Even as it stumbled, Gawker remained, in the words of Wonkette founding editor Ana Marie Cox, “the cracked mirror by which much of the media views its navel,” an important function as news blurred with hype blurred with e-commerce blurred with sponsored content blurred with pablum. I might not have read Gawker daily or stood by its every post, but there was comfort in knowing that it was out there, its employees still empowered to take a piss on anyone or anything they want as others were offering watered-down hot takes.
Whatever side you take in Hulk Hogan v. Gawker Media, one thing is clear: The suit’s $140 million judgment and Gawker’s subsequent filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy marks the end of an era. No matter what happens to Gawker’s individual sites (which include the flagship as well as Deadspin, Jezebel, Gizmodo, Kotaku, Lifehacker and Jalopnik), the sale or dismantling of Nick Denton’s blog empire represents the end of a certain style of freewheeling independent publishing on the internet. Individual bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and micro-networks like Pitchfork have been absorbed into corporate sites so gradually over the last decade that you’d be forgiven for not noticing that there are hardly any sites going it alone anymore. The ones that do, like The Awl, are run more like Etsy shops than like fully-fledged businesses, their writers paid little more than babysitters, their owners eking by on Amazon affiliate revenue and stubbornness.
Sure, Gawker has hundreds of employees and generates millions of dollars in revenue, but at its core it’s still a scrappy indie birthed from the capacious head of its founder, a journalist with Fleet Street sense and Wall Street sensibility. Unlike so many of its competitors, Gawker was not conceived in the skunkworks of a corporation or midwifed by venture capitalists who see content as indistinguishable from widgets. You can argue with its output, but Gawker was never the product of a cynic. Its raison d'être has always had more to do with faith in free speech than the free market. That it’s earned millions for its founder and may yet earn him more when he sells it for parts is incidental: Free speech is priceless. Anyone who thinks otherwise ought to check their own values.
If you cheer the demise of Gawker, in some sense you’re cheering the end of unfettered, unfiltered news that bows to no one, least of all advertisers.
Thanks to Hulk Hogan, with a generous assist from Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, Gawker finds itself on the brink. This has been met with glee in some quarters, especially The New York Post, which put a doctored image of a bloodied Denton being pummeled in the ring by Hogan alongside the headline ‘Let’s Get Ready To Crumble.’ (That Gawker has delighted in the Post’s many, many errors of fact and judgment and referred to former editor Col Allan as a ‘Pigfucking Alcoholic Incompetent Racist’ probably didn’t endear the tabloid much.) But if you cheer the demise of Gawker, in some sense you’re cheering the end of unfettered, unfiltered news that bows to no one, least of all advertisers. I’m hard-pressed to think of any media executive besides Denton who has been willing to lose money to ensure his writers say whatever they want however they want.
This is no small thing. When websites like Buzzfeed and Vice remove posts critical of advertisers and legacy news organizations like The Atlantic leverage their, well, legacies, to poorly-labeled sponsored content, rude, crude Gawker starts to look like the keeper of journalism’s flame. Not so incidentally, Gawker helped alert readers to those journalistic misdemeanors, writing regularly about Buzzfeed’s and Vice’s deletion policies and The Atlantic’s foray into Scientology promotion. It also doesn’t forget, looping back to these lapses and holding media organizations accountable as the rest of the Web operates with the memory of goldfish.
And while it’s true that Denton himself deleted an infamous post about a media executive’s attempt to hire a sex worker, he did so with utter transparency, saying in a statement posted on his own site, that it “does not rise to the level that our flagship site should be publishing.” (He also lost several high-level editors over it.)
Try picturing for one second an executive at Vice, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Vox or any other media company being that direct and risking that level of schadenfreude from his peers. By contrast, The Atlantic addressed its Scientology sponsored content deletion by blandly stating: “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.” While many of its individual writers addressed the imbroglio, the official post has subsequently been scrubbed from its site, the matter now lost to the endlessly refreshing RSS feed of time. (Disclosure: I also worked for a time for The Atlantic, though not during the Scientology kerfuffle.)
Whatever happens to Gawker next, it’s hard to imagine that whoever buys it (Ziff Davis, publisher of PC Magazine has been floated as a buyer) will allow its writers to be so unbound and unvarnished—or address those writers’ lapses in judgment so unselfconsciously. When I think of Gawker, a line from Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” often comes to mind: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” What media company is willing to be that honest anymore? Especially when doing so may cost you $140 million.