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Why the world needed Gawker (and still does)

The grand irony of the Gawker­-Hogan­-Thiel­ bankruptcy episode is that it demonstrates just how difficult it can be to be both independent and viable. 

Images from the Gawker home page.

Even if Gawker wasn’t on your regular round of news sites, there’s reason to be dismayed both at the fact that it is shutting down this week and the way it has been forced out of business.

As you may be aware, the site, part of 14-year-­old Gawker Media, lost a legal battle to wrestler Hulk Hogan over a sex tape it linked to involving Hogan and the wife of a notorious Florida DJ. The suit, it was eventually revealed, was bankrolled by libertarian Trump supporter/tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who Gawker had outed some time earlier​ as being gay. If all that sounds National Enquirer­-level sleazy and cheesy, it pretty much was, which is why a prevailing reaction by many journalism traditionalists is a shrug. Live by snark and sleaze, die by snark and sleaze. (Here is the Forbes story​ on Thiel.)

Gawker Media, launched and led by Nick Denton, has been sold to Univision for a sum that doesn’t cover the $140 million judgment against it in the Hogan case, much less its legal expenses. Some of Gawker’s sister sites, like the no less snarky female­-oriented Jezebel, the very often outrageous and hilarious sports site Deadspin, the car nut site Jalopnik, Gizmodo (gadgets), Lifehacker (life efficiency tips), etc. may live on under Univision’s corporate oversight. But Gawker, the primary platform — not long ago re­formatted (post­-Hogan) into an almost entirely political news/gossip/opinion site — is done.

Lamentations for the demise of a popular, independent entity like Gawker center around two specific and related issues.

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First, the fact that it regularly, reliably dared to say true things about powerful people (tech billionaires, celebrities) and institutions (political parties, media conglomerates, the NFL) more conservative, mainstream news outlets would not.

Second, it is dying for precisely the reason many mainstream news organizations go out of their way to avoid so much as annoying wealthy, influential characters: Namely, because such people tend to have money that buys lawyers, which quickly leads to crippling legal expenses if not massive court judgments.

One of the people most prominently expressing dismay over the demise of Gawker is Josh Marshall, founder of the popular, (also) independent, liberal political site, Talking Points Memo. Along with reiterating the influence the highly-­controlling tech world has over journalism in general, Marshall makes the very salient argument that — the breadth and cacophony of the internet withstanding — the prevailing model for a “news” site’s financial stability is to provide coverage of and service to a very specific market, from which it then derives both access and advertising revenue.

Says Marshall:

There are a million dimensions to the advertising economy, just as many ways of describing it. But you can understand a whole lot about how the whole thing works by thinking in terms of three factors: 1) endemic sales proposition, 2) controversy and 3) influence. … aside from people being really into tech, why do you think there are so many tech sites? Right, because there’s a ton of money in video games, devices, computers, everything under the sun. People also tend to buy those things online. Again, we’re not just talking about impulse buying. It can be more nuanced and less direct. But if you stand up a site about tech, gaming, computers, etc. and it does well, you have a ready-made channel for ad sales. And in the case of tech an extremely lucrative one. 

Sometimes it’s a little more amorphous but no less ad driven. Why so many ‘lifestyle’ publications? Well, we all need a lifestyle, of course. And general interest magazines cover many interesting topics. But by and large that’s because you’re aiming for an audience of people who are affluent and want to read about cool things affluent people do: travel, toys, aspirational personal development. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as they used to say on Seinfeld. But that’s what it’s about.

Next, controversy. This largely speaks for itself. Advertisers don’t want to be around things that upset people or divide people. They want to be everyone’s friend. They don’t want negative ideas or stories to rub off on them.

He goes on to make the case that political sites like his and Gawker don’t have an “endemic sales proposition” and their indifference to cozy access to revenue-­delivering key players on their beats makes them uncontrollable.

He also argues, in another post, that the American news eco­system very much needs the regular infusion of the kind of work/tone that only comes from an independent media, which is to say a media operation not beholden to a specific/endemic market. 

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One more time for emphasis: this ain’t no knock on corporate media. It just shouldn’t be all media. Just as a biological ecosystems requires a certain amount of diversity to be healthy and durable, media ecosystems do too. For all its sins and faults (and there were a lot), Gawker won’t be the same with a corporate parent, even the best corporate parent. We tend to talk about Gawker. But Gawker wasn’t and isn’t just Gawker. It’s also Jezebel, Gizmodo, Kotaku, (until recently) io9. These were each vital, smart and novel venues ­ sometimes a bit crazy. But that’s the point too. Independent publications sometimes do crazy things. And that’s good. Because corporate media don’t and won’t. Sometimes crazy genius, sometimes crazy righteous, sometimes crazy stupid. But someone’s gotta do it.

But the likelihood of someone doing it … really doing it … at any scale larger than a blog in today’s media environment is remarkably limited. To some degree it always has been. In the so­-called “alternative” news environment — where I started my career, along with other familiar local names like David Brauer, Britt Robson, Jon Tevlin, Jim Walsh, Colin Covert and David Carr — publications like the Twin Cities Reader and City Pages operated with very clear “endemic sales propositions,” namely bars, restaurants and (for a time) raunchy classified ads. You could make fun of politicians all you wanted. But you did not mess with people who bought ads. 

Gawker Media’s business genius was in using its other irreverent-­but-­focused sites to support Gawker, allowing it to gleefully lacerate high profile hypocrisy wherever it saw it, not just in politicians. (The outing of Thiel came via the Gawker Media’s short­-lived Silicon Valley-­focused site, Valleywag, and justified itself on the grounds that Thiel chose to remain in the closet ­­ despite everyone he did business in the Valley with knowing full well he was gay, so as not to sour his chances with conservative investors like the Saudis, etc.)

The grand irony of the Gawker­-Hogan-­Thiel-­bankruptcy episode is that it demonstrates how little — even in the much-ballyhooed anything-goes, Wild West of the internet — can be both independent and viable.