Gawking at the Media World
Monday, June 22, 2009; 9:30 AM
NEW YORK -- Nick Denton is sitting amid the rows of screen-staring digital workers in the fourth-floor walkup that serves as Gawker headquarters, having neglected to build himself a private office.
"I would do it, but I don't want to be mocked by the blogs," says the company's founder, retreating to the loft's only semiprivate space -- a pair of old couches next to a table with boxes of canned soda piled underneath.
This is rather amusing: Gawker became a strangely addictive force on the Internet by ridiculing all manner of media people, often in bitingly harsh terms. But the site has evolved into a broader, less Manhattan-obsessed gossip emporium that now includes original reporting -- prompting a quick disclaimer from the sharp-tongued Brit.
"We don't seek to do good," says Denton, wearing a purplish shirt, jeans and a beard that resembles a three-day growth. "We may inadvertently do good. We may inadvertently commit journalism. That is not the institutional intention."
Gawker hasn't exactly mellowed, not with such headlines as "Bill Gates in Cambridge Slob Shocker" and "Moronic Conservative Visits Williamsburg, Loses His Mind." New York magazine's Vanessa Grigoriadis began a 2007 story by recalling how the Web site mocked her wedding announcement and made her look "idiotic." But the site is increasingly strafing bigger national targets, rather than sliming minor functionaries in the Apple's incestuous media industry.
"It seemed really mean when you wrote about an assistant editor at a publishing company," says Choire Sicha, a former top Gawker editor. "They're not accustomed to being on Page Six," the New York Post gossip page. "When you write about someone on a reality show, everyone's mean to them."
The culture has also shifted. When Denton, a former Financial Times reporter, launched Gawker.com in 2002, there was no other outfit quite like it. But such Gawker spinoffs as Wonkette (sold last year) and Jezebel, along with TMZ, Perez Hilton, the Huffington Post and countless other sites, have made sneering criticism a defining feature of the blogosphere. "Even the mainstream media now knows that if it allows pompous or meaningless or bogus pronouncements, it will be ridiculed by us or 'The Daily Show,' " Denton says.
The 42-year-old publisher goes so far as to declare himself bored with snark and appreciative of, yes, positive items. He has even created a new Gawker category, Things We Actually Like.
Gawker recently hired former Chicago Tribune reporter John Cook, who has scored several scoops through old-fashioned legwork. Cook unearthed an embarrassing memo from a publicist for radio host Erich "Mancow" Muller, saying that his plan to undergo an on-air waterboarding was a "hoax." (Mancow insisted the stunt was real and amounted to torture.)
After Freddie Mac's acting chief financial officer committed suicide, in April, Cook obtained evidence through the Freedom of Information Act that investigators were looking into whether agency officials had concealed or misrepresented information related to the banking bailout. (The probe apparently went nowhere.)
Cook says he is still feeling his way: "In my previous life, I could spend a week doing nothing but putting out calls and e-mails and tracking the right people down. . . . But Gawker's just not set up to work that way," he says, because of "the velocity and pressures to keep posting" and the "need to feed the beast. . . . There's much less of a filter imposed on you, but it's easy to get carried away, just run and gun, and write something you might regret later."
Denton's greatest innovation, in his view, is publicly posting the page views alongside each item. This serves as a neon popularity meter, reminding writers what sells and what, uh, doesn't.