Former Gawker Editor-in-Chief Max Read suggests one of five entities killed Gawker, which stops publishing today: himself; Gawker founder Nick Denton; his Gawker-outed arch enemy Peter Thiel; or wrestling legend Hulk Hogan, whose sex tape Gawker published and the court case over which was supported by Thiel and bankrupted the company; or, more generally, the internet. Read is in partial below, or in full via New York Magazine.
It feels a bit strange to say this now, but in the spring of 2014 there was no better place to work than Gawker. For a certain kind of person, at any rate — ambitious, rebellious, and eager for attention, all of which I was. Just over a decade old, Gawker still thought of itself as a pirate ship, but a very big pirate ship, ballasted by semi-respectable journalism, and much less prone to setting itself on fire than in its early days, when its writers had a tendency to make loud and famous enemies and when its staff was subjected to near-annual purges — unless they were able to dramatically quit first. It managed to be, in a way it never had been, the kind of place about which you could say, “I could see myself being here in ten years.” Which I did often enough for it to seem funny now, since I myself would end up dramatically quitting in the summer of 2015, a little more than a year after being promoted to editor-in-chief and a little less than a year before the company would declare bankruptcy and auction itself off to the highest bidder.
What Gawker was depends a lot on whom you ask, but at the start it was a media-gossip blog; Elizabeth Spiers, its first editor, covered the people and politics of the still-powerful institutions of New York media — Condé Nast and the Times in particular — with equal parts obsession and skepticism. But the “media” qualifier was always secondary to the gossip core. The noblest version of Gawker’s premise was — as its founder, Nick Denton, repeated many times — that the version of a story journalists would tell each other over drinks was always more interesting than whatever was actually in the paper.
Gawker wasn’t the first publication to treat gossip as an intellectual pursuit. But it was the first to do so in the format that now seems completely natural for it: an endlessly scrolling, eternally accessible record of prattle and wit and venom that felt less like a publication than like a place. In this sense, the hook of Nick’s “barroom story” elevator pitch wasn’t the story but the barroom: a loud, sociable space for people to gossip, argue, joke, and whisper, a place where decorum and politeness were not only unnecessary but actively objectionable.
To what Vanessa Grigoriadis called in New York Magazine, in 2007, “the creative underclass,” this was a revelation. Gawker was as obsessed with, and scornful of, the powerful as the editorial assistants, interns, freelancers, and other young and precariously employed people at the bottom of a rapidly deteriorating ladder were. As an intern at the Daily Beast in 2009, I read Gawker precisely because it had such gleeful disdain for the social rituals (“kindness”) that propped up the lame, the stupid, and the fraudulent. When I was given the opportunity to “audition” for a blogging job in 2010, the only thing that gave me pause was fear of Gawker’s reputation for instability and pressure.
That pressure had, however, produced a phenomenally successful publication: By 2014, Gawker was the anchor site of Gawker Media, a blog network with eight publications, some 300 employees, millions of readers, and countless imitators. I was told, my first week as editor-in-chief, to increase the size of the staff from 13 to 25; at the same time, the endless hunt for a new office was ending with a Fifth Avenue building in our sights. (It violated the primary edict of being in walking distance from Nick’s apartment, but we’d been rejected from the Puck Building, we were told, after Oscar Health founder and Ivanka Trump brother-in-law Josh Kushner, who held offices there, learned we were interested.)
Gawker, and its seven sister sites, had been so successful that we were even looking beyond the blog and into the future with a project Nick had dubbed Kinja. Practically, Kinja was just the proprietary publishing software and commenting system that had been introduced on the blogs in early 2013. But Nick had Facebook-size aspirations for it. In the future, it would be a public platform, designed to give anyone the ability to publish useful information — gossip, news, context — in an infinitely modular format: a stand-alone piece of writing that might also be a comment on another stand-alone post or embedded in a third. Over emails, Nick imagined “at least a decade” of building Kinja — at the end of which, if done right, “we’ll be the ones doing the acquiring.”
In August 2014, the editors-in-chief of Gawker Media’s sites and their deputies were flown to Budapest with the entire tech department and top advertising and operations employees for a lavish off-site meeting. Nick rented out the newly constructed Budapest Music Center, where the tech and product teams spent their days working out Kinja’s kinks while the editorial staff met to vision-board the future of Gawker Media’s editorial properties. The whole trip had the air of a coming-out party: a moment to recognize that a company launched in an apartment with no outside funding was now a sustainable, cash-rich institution. We were meant to revel in Gawker’s success — to go out drinking, to eat roast pig, to gamble at low-rent casinos, to retire to nice hotels in a European capital.
Within two years, Kinja would be abandoned, along with Nick’s world-conquering ambitions, and ultimately the entire company would declare bankruptcy and be sold at auction to the media conglomerate Univision for $135 million. Gawker Media will likely turn out to be a good investment. Its six other sites — Gizmodo (tech), Jezebel (women), Deadspin (sports), Lifehacker (life-hacking), Kotaku (video games), and Jalopnik (cars) — are large and widely popular. (An eighth site, io9, covering “the future,” had already been folded into Gizmodo.) The parent company is on pace to earn more than $50 million in revenue this year. As much as a third of that revenue comes from the lucrative e-commerce department, which makes money from links to Amazon and other retailers.
But Gawker itself was deemed too toxic to keep open. Within days of the sale, Univision announced it would shut down the site. It makes sense; no sane corporate owner would ever give Gawker the same kind of long leash that it had under Nick. And without that absolute editorial freedom —especially the freedom to shoot itself in the foot, while its foot is in its mouth — there is no Gawker. Gawker had “died” a dozen times before. But it’s never died like this.
The question remains, who killed it?