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Media Notes: Howard Kurtz on Nick Denton, Founder of Gawker
"It can be brilliant, groundbreaking journalism, but if no one's reading it, it's irrelevant," Cook says.
Denton reinforced the message by paying fat bonuses for items that drew far more than the usual 4,000 hits -- an incentive that allowed some writers to double their base pay. "A lot of journalism-school purists were horrified by the notion," he boasts. Denton suspended the payments this year for financial reasons but plans to restore them.
The cutback amounted to a big pay cut for some writers. Sicha calls Gawker "an unhappy group of media people writing about the unhappy media. It's gotten a little weird."
Denton delights in needling the mainstream media, which, of course, brings him more media attention. He says Gawker filled a vacuum left by "lazy" newspapers whose monopoly status gave them "the luxury of competing for Pulitzer Prizes instead of readers." At the same time, Denton says: "I don't want to fall into the trap that Arianna Huffington has fallen into, which is to proclaim oneself the savior of journalism. Then people are going to judge you by an impossible standard."
Denton used his personal Web site to sneer at the New York magazine piece for its supposed revelations -- "Nick Denton is gay! Some of the writers have sex, occasionally with each other, and do drugs!" he wrote -- and defended his "nasty, brutish and short" brand of journalism. Gawker, he said, "covers the death agonies of Manhattan's old-line media industry, without much respect for the club's cozy rules."
While Gawker.com may be Denton's most buzzworthy site, it accounts for just 7 percent of the traffic in his online empire. The most popular is Gizmodo, which deals with gadgets, followed by Lifehacker (software) and Kotaku (video games). Not every outpost is thriving; Valleywag, which serves up Silicon Valley gossip, laid off 19 of its 133-person staff last fall.
The flagship Gawker site, by contrast, has exploded from 8 million page views in December 2007 to 22 million last month, according to the online measurement service Quantcast. It's hard to argue with that kind of success, especially in an era of newspaper shutdowns and bankruptcies. But some of Gawker's early fans say the site, which caters to a younger, Net-savvy crowd, has lost its original flavor.
Rachel Sklar, a blogger who will be editor at large of the forthcoming site Mediaite.com, says Gawker now lacks a female voice and has become something of a factory. "They're pumping out 50 posts a day," she says. "It feels slightly less personal."
But Gawker can still draw blood, and even the boss is not immune to its sting. Consider this headline on the site: "The Writer Nick Denton Couldn't Let Go (And Then Secretly Smeared)."
The item, picking up on a Vanity Fair story, involved former Gawker editor Emily Gould. She famously wrote about her breakup with a boyfriend while at the site and then reprised the experience for the New York Times Magazine, proving again that Manhattan is a small, backbiting town. Gawker trumpeted the news that Denton last spring leaked "an embarrassing video of Gould that was shot at a Gawker Media event while she worked at the company," in which the blogger performed a mock sex act with a plastic tube. Gould was quoted as saying of Denton, "This was him having an agenda, and to watch people fall in line with it, it's very creepy."
Offered a chance to deny the particulars, Denton claims not to have read the item.
Oh, come on. Really?
"If I read it, I'd get annoyed," he says. "How could I do what I do if I squash stories about myself and my friends?"
Holding forth on the couch, Denton sounds tired of the whole enterprise. "It's an exhausting business, running a blog," he admits.
Perhaps Gawker the successful company is less challenging than Gawker the bawdy upstart. "He's insanely bored right now," Sicha says. "He wants to know who's sleeping with whom. He doesn't care about any of the stuff they write now."