A web site that is not afraid to pick a fight

Last Updated 13 July 2010, 15:13 IST

When Jon Stewart announced on the June 29 episode of “The Daily Show” that “Jezebel thinks I’m a sexist,” some viewers may have been wondering: who exactly is Jezebel?

At least a million and a half people can answer that question; that’s how many visited the site, a women’s interest blog, last month. Stewart’s comment was a response to Jezebel’s recent report on claims by women who say they faced a sexist environment when they were “Daily Show” writers and correspondents. The post garnered more than 211,000 page views, over 1,000 comments and a sharp retort from 32 female employees currently with “The Daily Show.”

Jezebel began in 2007 as a postfeminist companion to Gawker.com, the New York media insider blog, and in some ways has eclipsed its sibling, capturing an impassioned female audience and recently surpassing Gawker in monthly page views.

And Stewart is hardly the first media heavyweight the site has taken to task. Jezebel also weighs in on the sexually predatory nature of the fashion business, skewers celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Elle MacPherson, and chronicles the doctored photographs in fashion magazines in a regular feature called Photoshop of Horrors. Jezebel’s audience is 97 per cent female, and the site says it gets more than 37 million page views a month and about 200,000 unique visitors each day.

“In media, men are not a coherent sect,” said Nick Denton, owner of Gawker Media, the parent company of Jezebel and Gawker. “You go into a magazine store and see rows upon rows of women’s magazines,” but only a few men’s magazines. With women, he said, “there’s a much clearer collective.”

Advertisers’ view

Jezebel’s approach seems to be paying off. Advertising Age has called the blog “one of the few genuinely intelligent repositories of media/marketing/fashion commentary/celebrity deflation.” The site’s advertisers, which typically pay $8 to $12 per 1,000 impressions, include The New York Times, American Apparel, Dentyne, Skyy vodka, Clairol, Starbucks, and premium and basic cable channels. (In contrast to magazines like InStyle and Vogue, which push expensive handbags, designer clothes, slimming undergarments and long-lasting lipstick.)

Those advertisers are appearing on a site that is certainly cutting, and frequently incendiary. Jezebel did not become one of the fastest-growing sites in the Gawker family without making a few enemies. “In its lifetime, Jezebel has received more complaints per year than any other site,” said Gaby Darbyshire, Gawker Media’s chief operating officer, adding that the posts “that discuss subjects with critical commentary usually draw the hottest fire.”

Jessica Coen, the site’s editor in chief, said that forthrightness is not a ploy to attract advertisers, but part of the Jezebel attitude.

“We’re absolutely not afraid to take on the things that need to be taken on, and we’re not afraid to say things that need to be said,” Coen said at Gawker Media’s Manhattan offices on Friday, where two dozen writers, producers and technicians design, update and moderate content for seven of the network’s 10 sites. “That’s the whole point.”

Indeed, the morning after Stewart’s on-air rebuke, Irin Carmon, the staff writer who contributed the original post, continued to hammer the show. And after 32 women who work for the show wrote an open letter in response to Jezebel’s allegations of sexism — they addressed it “Dear People Who Don’t Work Here” and signed off with an expletive-laced suggestion —  Carmon defended herself in a follow-up post by pointing out that the show did not answer questions or make anyone available for comment when she approached Comedy Central before the original critique was published.

Coen continues to stand by the post. Steve Albani, a spokesman for Comedy Central, said on Friday, “The open letter posted earlier this week speaks for itself, and the show will have no further comment.”

Impartial review

With 50 to 60 posts published daily, Jezebel offsets weighty topics with lighter fare. One popular feature, Midweek Madness, is a tongue-in-cheek dissection of the week’s glossy tabloids; with all the chatter about celebrity pregnancies, the Jezebel staff sometimes refers to it as “Unsolicited Uterus Update Weekly.” Dress Code is a question-and-answer feature that functions as a sartorial Miss Manners; Beauty 101 provides inexpensive and practical alternatives to the cosmetic tips espoused by Vogue and Allure.

Jezebel’s founding editor, Anna Holmes, 37, worked at some of the very magazines Denton scorned, including both Glamour and Star under Bonnie Fuller. Charged with creating “the Girly Gawker,”

“I felt disillusioned by magazines to a certain degree,” said Holmes, who recently left Jezebel, “because they perpetuate this insecurity factory and present solutions to the insecurities they just created.”

A month after the blog’s inception, Holmes struck gold when someone involved with the production of Redbook sent Jezebel the July 2007 cover image of Faith Hill before the airbrush was applied. The difference between the raw photo and the final cover is jarring: Hill’s silhouette has been redrawn, under-eye lines have been smoothed out and one of her arms has been halved in size — all unnecessary alterations, Holmes said.

“Look at the picture above, and tell us that Faith Hill is not gorgeous and vibrant just the way God — not Photoshop — made her,” she wrote on the site. The ensuing controversy received national attention, officially putting Jezebel on the map and attracting a devoted fan base, one that is not shy about posting comments about past traumas like rape and drug abuse.

Because readers are actively engaged with the content, “Jezebel shows that not only are thousands of eyeballs viewing the site, but they are doing something,” said Kelli Matthews, an instructor of public relations at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. “They’re leaving comments. They’re interacting with each other.

“This helps people feel like part of the Jezebel ‘community,’ which only adds to the loyalty that the site enjoys,” she said. Last week, Emily Gould, herself a Gawker alumna, wrote a highly critical piece on Slate saying that Jezebel’s criticism of pop culture and “righteously indignant rage” are really just “petty jealousy, cleverly marketed as feminism.”

“The easiest way for Jezebel writers to be provocative is to stoke readers’ insecurities — just in a different way,” she wrote.

But Coen says that Jezebel’s audience is so loyal because its readers are not condescended to, but levelled with. “It’s great to see such a devoted audience,” she said. “You see that your work matters to people.”

With Jezebel breaking more stories and garnering more unique visitors than ever before, “Advertisers are no longer treating it as a cute new entrant,” Denton said. “This is Jezebel’s moment.”

(Published 13 July 2010, 15:13 IST)

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