This sounds like a basic realization, but it wasnât obvious to most online publishers. I know this firsthand. In the 2000s, I worked at three different magazines that were based entirely online â 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 werenât 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 Gawkerâs tone â 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.
Credit Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse â Getty Images
âThe revolutionary idea was that the format could be plastic and fluid â if something justified a small post then a small post would suffice, and if it needed a feature, then we could do that, too,â said Joel Johnson, an early editor of Gizmodo who later worked as Gawker Mediaâs 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.comâs second editor, offers this deliciously expansive view of what made for a Gawker post: âPosts can be anything â inspired by a flickr photo, a blog post, news story, something you overheard, something youâve always wondered.â It adds: âA good post is almost always a short postâ and âget right to the pointâ and âtell the story in the first sentence.â
Gawkerâs 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 Gawkerâs various brands. Thatâs 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 womenâs magazines.
Gawker didnât just publish stories to satisfy these audiences, it also brought readers in to its coverage â mining their thoughts and feelings for comments, tips, clicks and insights into what to cover next. Some of Gawker Mediaâs biggest stories â Deadspinâs scoop that the college football star Manti Teâoâs girlfriend was fake, or Gizmodoâs acquisition of the iPhone 4 weeks before Apple planned to release it â came from reader tips.
Gawkerâs 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.
âJust for one example, the relentless assault we made on traditional womenâs media had an effect,â said Anna Holmes, Jezebelâs founding editor. âThere was a gradual process, but it was undeniable after a while that they were responding to and really mimicking what we were doing.â
Yet in thinking about Gawkerâs influence, Iâve struggled to arrive at some definitive moral conclusion: If itâs true that Gawker shaped much of online news, was its influence good or bad for the world?
On the one hand, itâs 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).
âYou canât pretend there werenât things on there that were bad, but they created a tone of voice and mentality that was much needed,â Kara Swisher, the co-founder of Recode, a technology site, told me. âAs 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 â and it sort of emboldened the rest of us.â
But Gawker opened a Pandoraâs box, too. It sped media up to an insane pace. After Gawker, you didnât take nights and weekends off. You couldnât publish once a week. The internet was a beast that always needed feeding, and it demanded ever-hotter, ever-more-outrageous takes.
Some of Gawkerâs worst practices â reflexively criticizing people without giving them the benefit of the doubt, weaponizing internet outrage against ordinary people who didnât merit it â 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.