Home / Technology / State of the Art: Gawker’s Gone. Long Live Gawker.

State of the Art: Gawker’s Gone. Long Live Gawker.

This sounds like a basic realization, but it wasn’t obvious to most online publishers. I know this firsthand. In the 2000s, I worked at three different magazines that were based entirely online — Wired News (the online arm of Wired Magazine), Salon and Slate. Looking back now, I can tell that even though we were doing good work, we weren’t doing much that was really different from what came before. A typical Salon or Slate article was 600 to 1,500 words long. Generally, a writer wrote a few times a week. We took the weekends off. Though we wrote online, in most ways we were really putting out a relatively fast paced magazine, just without ink and paper.

Gawker did not invent blogging, but Nick Denton, its founder, was among the first to recognize that blogs were a transformational technical innovation. They offered a template for blowing up everything about how news was created and delivered. This was most obvious in Gawker’s tone — it was conversational, written in the manner of your supersmart, kind of funny, foul-mouthed friend, rather than the newspeak that pervaded much of the industry.

Blogging liberated journalism in other ways, too. In the print era, writers were always constrained by a lack of space and audience. There were lots of potential stories to tell, but they could work only on the ones that commanded enough of an audience to justify the physical space they were devoting to it.


PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel may have exacted his revenge against Gawker, but the media company’s influence can be seen across the rest of the news business. Credit Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The revolutionary idea was that the format could be plastic and fluid — if something justified a small post then a small post would suffice, and if it needed a feature, then we could do that, too,” said Joel Johnson, an early editor of Gizmodo who later worked as Gawker Media’s editorial director.

The flexibility allowed for an expansion of coverage. Writers published half a dozen items per day. Instead of selectivity, Gawker emphasized volume. An early style guide by Choire Sicha, Gawker.com’s second editor, offers this deliciously expansive view of what made for a Gawker post: “Posts can be anything — inspired by a flickr photo, a blog post, news story, something you overheard, something you’ve always wondered.” It adds: “A good post is almost always a short post” and “get right to the point” and “tell the story in the first sentence.”

Gawker’s second innovation was to cultivate niches. Mr. Denton recognized that the internet was so huge that you could find gold by focusing on specific underserved communities through Gawker’s various brands. That’s why Gizmodo catered to gadget lovers, Gawker to entry-level New York professionals who grumbled about their media-titan overlords, and Jezebel to feminists who withered under the 1950s sensibility of moldering women’s magazines.

Gawker didn’t just publish stories to satisfy these audiences, it also brought readers in to its coverage — mining their thoughts and feelings for comments, tips, clicks and insights into what to cover next. Some of Gawker Media’s biggest stories — Deadspin’s scoop that the college football star Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was fake, or Gizmodo’s acquisition of the iPhone 4 weeks before Apple planned to release it — came from reader tips.

Gawker’s formula worked. Its sites found lots of traffic, and until recently it often minted profits. More than that, it played an outsize part in online culture just as that culture was becoming the center of society. No wonder, then, that the rest of the media began to ape its style and format.

“Just for one example, the relentless assault we made on traditional women’s media had an effect,” said Anna Holmes, Jezebel’s founding editor. “There was a gradual process, but it was undeniable after a while that they were responding to and really mimicking what we were doing.”

Yet in thinking about Gawker’s influence, I’ve struggled to arrive at some definitive moral conclusion: If it’s true that Gawker shaped much of online news, was its influence good or bad for the world?

On the one hand, it’s obvious that Gawker inculcated a more antagonistic, more suspicious tendency in the press, especially toward the most powerful people in politics, business and the media (see how Gawker pushed open the Bill Cosby story, for instance).

“You can’t pretend there weren’t things on there that were bad, but they created a tone of voice and mentality that was much needed,” Kara Swisher, the co-founder of Recode, a technology site, told me. “As reporters, while we try to be fair and ethical, I think we err on the side of not calling things out for what they were. They did that beautifully — and it sort of emboldened the rest of us.”

But Gawker opened a Pandora’s box, too. It sped media up to an insane pace. After Gawker, you didn’t take nights and weekends off. You couldn’t publish once a week. The internet was a beast that always needed feeding, and it demanded ever-hotter, ever-more-outrageous takes.

Some of Gawker’s worst practices — reflexively criticizing people without giving them the benefit of the doubt, weaponizing internet outrage against ordinary people who didn’t merit it — have now become de rigueur online.

So I end with a sort of equivocation, one that might have made for a good Gawker post: A lot of the internet is wonderful. A lot of the internet is terrible. For both, blame Gawker.

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