Who gawks at the Gawkers?

Paul Constant

July 27, 2015

For anyone who’s ever started a publication of any sort — from a magazine to a blog to a newspaper — this scene from Citizen Kane should be required viewing:

Charles Foster Kane’s promise to his readers, his “Declaration of Principles,” is something every publisher should emulate. They shouldn’t copy Kane’s declaration (“I will provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. I will also provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and as human beings.”) word-for-word, but they should be clear about the who, what, and why of the publication. It should be short, to the point, and available for everyone — readers and writers alike — to see at any time.

The reason for this is simple: mission creep. A publication is more than one person; note the word “public” right up at the front of the word “publication” and you start to get the idea of the problem. Between the varied needs and wants of a publisher, an editor, a writing staff, an advertising department, and an army of passionate readers, a publication can easily lose direction. A Declaration of Principles serves as a compass against which incoming staff and increasingly jaded contributors can orient themselves.

A publication that has no Declaration of Principles is easy to spot — it jackknifes and meanders, often loudly arguing with itself all the while. Rather than aiming at a particular target, it fires blindly. The walls between advertising and legal and editorial become porous, or crumble entirely. Nothing is sadder than a publication that has lost its ambition, because it becomes (at best) a parody of itself or (at worst) a zombie.

So. Let’s talk about Gawker.

Today, Gawker is supposedly relaunching itself after a terrible couple of weeks. First, they published a salacious story about a private citizen that never should’ve been published. Then, Gawker publisher Nick Denton pulled the story, allegedly because it wasn’t “interesting” enough. Then, management resigned in response to Denton’s pulling the story. And now Gawker will supposedly be twenty percent less mean, as Denton told the staff in a meeting last week, and Denton is offering full severance pay to any employees who wish to quit. (Surely, Denton’s move to change the idea behind Gawker has nothing to do with the fact that his staff voted to unionize back in June?) This is a moment that will either destroy the company or transform it into the next Vice or BuzzFeed or Vox or whatever it is publishers aspire to these days.

“I wish I still lived in a world where it was Emily Gould’s job to narrate the Internet every day.”

So it’s an ideal moment to look back on what Gawker was and how it came to be. On Friday, Brian Abrams published a Kindle Single titled Gawker: An Oral History. Abrams edited dozens of first-hand accounts, from Denton to site writers Choire Sicha and Emily Gould, into a narrative documenting the rise (or at least growth) and fall (or at least deflation) of the most influential (or at least very widely feared) gossip blog of the early 21st century.

Gawker is crammed full of the sort of insider-y media chit-chat that appeals to industry wonks, and it really only works if you can already claim some familiarity with the history of Gawker Media. The only player here who gets an honest-to-goodness introduction is Denton, a former journalist who covered the end of the Cold War and the rise of Silicon Valley before switching over to the conceptual side of the masthead. The oral history format works well with the subject matter — you really can’t document a gossip site any other way, really — but it’s not the best way to supply narration and explain who everyone is and why, really, we should care.

The dawn of Gawker came as the internet is still falling into place, when names like MetaFilter and Blogger were prime movers on the landscape. The old media was still complacent and staid and lumbering around with a giant target on its back. Denton’s business partner David Galbraith recalls the way they used to laugh at print media’s staid lack of self-consciousness: “The New York Times ran a story, ‘No anthrax found in pond.’ Nick and I would laugh about that. It was like a case study in bad headlines.”

Denton’s idea was to monetize blogging, to make a media empire off of it. And to do that, you have to get people’s attention. Someone observes in the beginning of Gawker that “Nick had the brilliant insight that if you want to get people to read something, the easiest way is to write about them.” And so Gawker began as a media and publishing gossip rag, the people who write about the people who write about things.

Aileen Gallagher, a former senior editor at New York Magazine, lays out how bleak the online publishing landscape was when Gawker burst onto the scene:

There was nothing to read online at that time. And I think that’s a really important point. There were newspapers online. Magazine websites, you could just go and subscribe. Meanwhile people were just sitting at their desks, as they have always done, and they would have computers that mostly had connections to the Internet.

This is what blogging is all about: giving office workers something to look at while they’re supposed to be working. On this, Denton built his empire.

Unlike most oral histories, Gawker, at least, keeps its perspective. People do not hyperbolically identify Gawker as the punk rock of journalism, say, or the crest of a cultural wave. Everyone involved understands that Gawker, at its best, has always been a place for bored New Yorkers to write about bored New Yorkers. This is not journalism, or the future of journalism.

The truth is, it’s Nick Denton’s story, and everybody else is just a bit player. Every time a specific blog post is mentioned, Abrams cleverly reflects Denton’s ruthless hunger for clicks by listing how many pageviews it earned: “[“A Long, Dark Early Evening Of The Soul With Keith Gessen,” November 30, 2007, 1:34pm; 65,105 views].” People argue over how intelligent Denton is — whether he’s a mad scientist who thinks six steps ahead of everyone else, or if he’s just the first lucky dunderhead to get in line at the open bar — but nobody argues that he’s hands-off. Gawker Media writer Lux Alptraum shares a telling anecdote:

We would have The Big Board where the popular stories were, and one of the headlines was [“LeBron James Is A Cocksucker,” July 7, 2010, 10:05pm; 354,539 views]. It was a Deadspin story, and I complained. “This is supposed to be a gay-friendly, woman- friendly company, and you have this homophobic, misogynistic headline blasted on the wall. I don’t feel comfortable with that.” And Nick’s like, “But you can’t use another word. Nothing has the cut like ‘cocksucker.’” He thrives on being edgy and sensationalistic. He wants to throw a bomb in the room.

Just about everyone agrees that Gawker’s high point — or at least one of its high points — came when Emily Gould became editor. “I wish I still lived in a world where it was Emily’s job to narrate the Internet every day,” Peter Feld says, and the sentiment is so sweet that it makes you long for the more innocent internet of 2007, before the internet was narrated by annotated lists of animated .gifs.

Gould’s confessional style was a perfect fit for Gawker. A woman in her mid-twenties is exactly who should run the site, because that’s the demographic who keeps the New York City media machine running — the interns, the PR people, the temp workers. Those lives, those aspirations, are what keeps the city interesting. When Gould left, Gawker never again found the right mix of earnestness and possibility and self-loathing and moral outrage.

Abrams smartly doesn’t try to pinpoint an exact Behind the Music-style moment when everything went wrong. Maybe Gawker became too big. Or maybe too many people took it too seriously. Or maybe nothing else rose up to take its place at the right moment. Whatever the case, the problem with Gawker is definitely one of too-muchness. Too many posts, too many clicks, too many attempts to push the line a little too far.

It’s probably fitting for an ebook about an ongoing situation that Gawker doesn’t really find a satisfying end, though Abrams definitely puts a punctuation mark on the story with Denton’s most recent remarks about Gawker. And it’s not Abrams’s place to theorize about what Gawker will become. Instead, he just publishes the gossip about the gossip mongers, and lets Denton hang himself with his own rope. Which, as any yellow journalist will tell you, is exactly the right thing to do.

Books in this review:
  • Gawker: An Oral History
    by Brian Abrams

    July 20, 2015
    136 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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