I’ve said my piece on more than one occasion on the demise of Gawker (most recently here), but Farhad Manjoo has an interesting take in his latest New York Times “State of the Art” column, arguing that the spirit and style of Nick Denton’s former flagship has so infused the media landscape that Peter Thiel’s petty revenge failed even if it seemed to succeed. In a sense, he won a battle after the war had already been decided.
That’s probably true to a good extent, but I wonder if the most key ingredient, the thing that made Gawker sometimes so good and at other moments so bad, survives the site. That was its very raffishness, the dicey and daring spirit that always made it a place people could go to afflict the comfortable. Admittedly, such important scoops rarely materialized on the site, with reflexive dart throwing more the reality, but the possibility existed. Manjoo lists a raft of legacy publications influenced by Gawker, but none of them have adopted this aspect of the ethos. That will usually be for the best but occasionally not.
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 colonized 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 realization, 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 (the online arm of Wired Magazine), 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. 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.•