Gawker Media Group, the parent of the news and gossip site Gawker, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Friday and put itself up for sale, two moves designed to limit the financial fallout since losing a $140.1 million privacy-invasion lawsuit to professional wrestler Hulk Hogan in March.
Gawker has appealed the judgment against the company, its chief executive, Nick Denton, and its former editor, A.J. Daulerio, and had asked that it be reduced or stayed while its appeal is pending.
But on Friday, the judge in the case, Pamela Campbell, denied Gawker’s request for a stay, triggering Gawker’s bankruptcy-protection filing and its auction plans. It has no plans to cease operations while it appeals.
In addition to Gawker, Gawker Media owns six other Web brands, including the sports site Deadspin and the tech blog Gizmodo. It was founded in 2002 by Denton, a former staffer at the Financial Times.
Gawker identified Ziff Davis, an all- digital media company, as the first bidder for its assets; people close to the company said Ziff has offered $90 million. But Ziff Davis’s bid isn’t final: Under a court-supervised auction, Gawker would be free to accept higher offers.
Like all publishers, Ziff Davis, perhaps best known as the publisher of PC Magazine, has been hurt by the decline in print advertising, and it has attempted to recast itself on the Web through such sites as AskMen.com, Computer Shopper and ExtremeTech.
“We are encouraged by the agreement with Ziff Davis, one of the most rigorously managed and profitable companies in digital media,” Denton said, in a statement. “A combination would marry Ziff Davis’ strength in e-commerce, licensing and video with [Gawker Media’s] premium media brands.”
A Chapter 11 filing, which requires the approval of a bankruptcy court, protects a company’s assets from creditors and enables it to reorganize its finances under the court’s supervision. Many companies, including General Motors, have survived after filing under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code.
Gawker’s largest unsecured creditor is Hogan.
Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, sued Gawker in 2012 after it posted excerpts of a sex tape featuring him and Heather Clem, the wife of a friend. After a two-week trial, a Tampa jury awarded Hogan a total of $140.1 million in general and punitive damages.
The legal dispute took on a new coloration last month when billionaire technology investor Peter Thiel — a target of Gawker stories — revealed that he had bankrolled Hogan’s suit. The revelation suggested that Thiel was intent on financially crippling the company as payback for its reporting on him.
Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and a Facebook board member, has long been upset with the site’s coverage of him, particularly a 2007 story by a now-defunct Gawker-owned site that disclosed he is gay.
Thiel said he has spent as much as $10 million to secretly support Hogan’s lawsuit. In an interview with the New York Times, he said Gawker published articles that were “very painful and paralyzing for people who were targeted,” adding: “I thought it was worth fighting back.”
The bankruptcy filing won’t prevent Gawker from appealing the Hogan verdict, said Christopher Ward, vice chairman of the bankruptcy practice at the Polsinelli law firm in Wilmington, Del. However, the filing will give Gawker the opportunity to argue that it isn’t required to post the $50 million bond that Campbell, the judge, ordered while Gawker’s appeal moves forward, he said. Gawker’s attorneys have already sought relief from the bond from an appeals court.
Ward also said the bankruptcy code allows Gawker to change course and forgo a sale if “circumstances warranted,” such as winning the Hogan case on appeal.
As a practical matter for the news media, the bankruptcy filing “intensifies what’s been the message of the Hogan case all along — that in this day and age, the media can’t necessarily be as confident as they once were that they can publish with impunity,” said Samantha Barbas, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo’s law school.
Over the past four decades, she said, the Supreme Court has gradually extended greater liability protection to media organizations. But Gawker’s legal ordeals suggest that “freedom of the press and the First Amendment may no longer be near-absolute shields for the media. . . . The Hogan episode indicates that the tide may be beginning to turn” in law and public opinion.