In 2002, former British newspaper journalist Nick Denton started a gossip blog called Gawker that has become the cornerstone of a vast new-media empire. Now, with a diverse stable of popular blogs covering everything from gadgets to sports, Denton even seems to be creeping toward mainstream respectability, says Ben McGrath in a lengthy New Yorker profile. Even if none of Denton's sites "float your boat," says Reason's Matt Welch, Denton and Gawker are still fascinating to anyone interested in entrepreneurialism, characters, and the "fundamental pathologies" of mainstream journalism. Here are five takeaways from the article:
Denton's insight: Give readers what they want
When Denton started Gawker from his apartment, his goals included sending up The New York Times, making money, and "pandering," McGrath says. At the time, it was "a supreme journalistic taboo" to let writers know how many times their stories were read — yet Denton told not only his bloggers but his readers as well. "Measurability" is the internet's big innovation, Denton says, and it is "actually terrifying if you’re a traditional journalist, and used to pushing what people ought to like, or what you think they ought to like." Gawker took off, says Matt Welch, because mainstream journalism was "deathly boring," and it offered a robustly entertaining alternative.
Gawker's "geek" sites are more popular than its "gossip" sites
Combined, the Gawker sites get more than 450 million page views a month, but Denton says "neither the stories that I like nor the writers that I like" get the big hits. While he favors the gossipy, media-centric stories, the "geek" sites get twice as many hits as the "gossip" ones — tech-centric Gizmodo is the biggest draw, followed by Gawker, Lifehacker, Kotaku (video games), Deadspin (sports), Jezebel, io9 (science fiction), Jalopnik (cars), and Fleshbot (porn). Take Denton's stated favorites with a grain of salt, says Anthony Ha at VentureBeat, since he carefully "cultivates a specific image of himself." He is, in fact, a "gadget fetishist" and onetime sci-fi novelist, McGrath notes.
Denton values Gawker at $30 million — others figure much more
"Denton's cultural impact greatly exceeds his revenues," McGrath writes, citing unofficial revenue of $15 million to $20 million a year. And when he periodically tries to buy back shares of Gawker from employees (Denton owns 60 percent to 70 percent), he values his empire at around $30 million. "All of these numbers are lower than I would have expected," says Felix Salmon at Reuters. In fact, a "minority strategic investor," if Denton ever let one in, would probably value Gawker at $100 million, so employees might want to hold out on his "lowball" offer.
"You're ugly" is more hurtful than "you're a thief"
"Denton is a staunch believer in the primacy of vanity," McGrath says, "and holds that calling someone ugly will always trump calling him incompetent or a thief." And that conviction comes from personal experience. Denton, who has "a famously large head that sits precariously on a thin neck and narrow shoulders," had his "own first internet humbling" in 2003, when somebody blogged about the size of his noggin. "I was cut to my core," he says.
Gawker's blog days are numbered
Denton's "steady march toward mainstream respectability" will accelerate when Gawker ditches its trademark reverse-chronology blog format for "a more conventional front page that is dominated by images and headlines," McGrath says. (You can see the beta version here.) The blog format "no longer makes sense," he adds, when you are "publishing some stories that are two thousand times as important as others." And the redesign fits Denton's no-nostalgia personality: To the annoyance of early readers, McGrath says, "Gawker is one of those things which, like neighborhoods, are never as good as when you first discovered them."