A true trendsetter in online news

A true trendsetter in online news

Nine years ago, Peter Thiel, a wealthy and secretive Silicon Valley investor, read something about himself online that he didn’t appreciate. He apparently vowed revenge, eventually carrying out a plan to fund lawsuits against Gawker Media, the publisher that upset him, culminating this week with the shuttering of the flagship Gawker.com.

But Thiel’s victory was a hollow one — you might even say he lost. While he may have killed Gawker, its sensibility and influence on the rest of the news business survive. Just about everywhere in media today, for better and worse, Gawkerism is thriving.

Created in 2002 after the dot-com bubble, Gawker was far from the first online news site; it wasn’t the first blog or the first network of blogs, either. But in many ways, Gawker Media — which included Gizmodo, Deadspin, Jezebel, Lifehacker and several other sites in addition to Gawker.com —was the first real digital media company. It was the first publisher that understood the pace, culture and possibilities of online news. And it used that understanding to unleash a set of technical, business and journalistic innovations on the news industry that have altered how we produce, consume and react to media today.

Lots of people aren’t fans of Gawker, for understandable reasons. The internet is the Wild West of publishing, and like many of Silicon Valley’s most celebrated startups, Gawker pushed the frontiers, sometimes in ways that made you cringe.

One of its stated goals was to “afflict the comfortable,” which it usually did, except when it was punching down at anonymous midlevel executives, at political enemies and sometimes at children. Even its defenders strain to explain why the world would have been worse off if Gawker hadn’t posted one of Hulk Hogan’s sex tapes, the post that led to the fatal legal judgment against Gawker. Though I will mourn its loss, I can understand those who won’t. If you never willingly read Gawker, I can’t say I blame you.

But even if you avoided Gawker, you can’t escape its influence. Elements of its tone, style, sensibility, essential business model and its work flow have colonised just about every other media company, from upstarts like BuzzFeed and Vox to incumbents such as CNN, The New Yorker and The New York Times.

The most important innovation Gawker brought to news was its sense that the internet allowed it to do anything. It was one of the first web publications to understand that the message was the medium — that the internet wasn’t just a new way to distribute words, but that it also offered the potential for creating a completely new kind of publication, one that had no analogue in the legacy era of print.

This sounds like a basic realisation, 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. 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.

Gawker did not invent blogging, but Nick Denton, its founder, was among the first to recognise 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.

“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 emphasised 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.”

Gawker’s second innovation was to cultivate niches. Denton recognised 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 mouldering 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 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 centre of society. No wonder, then, that the rest of the media began to ape its style and format.

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.

“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 criticising people without giving them the benefit of the doubt, weaponising 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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