Nick Denton

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What perplexed me about Gawker during the last few years of existence and throughout its holy-shit Hulk Hogan trial was that the principals on the inside of the company seemed tone-deaf at best and oblivious at worst. That allowed an emotional homunculus like Peter Thiel to use a short stack from his billions to drive the media company into bankruptcy.

In Matthew Garrahan’s Financial Times interview with Nick Denton, the former owner discusses why Thiel and others in Silicon Valley were so angered about darts thrown at them by Gawker, stressing insulation from criticism on the outside can be vital when building a corporation. Perhaps the same is true of those running an independent media empire?

An excerpt:

The appeal is likely to take at least a year to get to court, which means Denton and Thiel will not be burying the hatchet soon. And yet they have much in common. They are of similar age: Denton turned 50 last month, while Thiel will be 49 in October. They are both gay, tech-obsessed European émigrés (Thiel is from Germany; Denton from the UK) and they are both libertarians.

There the similarities end, Denton suggests. “Thiel’s idea of freedom is that you can create a society that is insulated from mainstream society … and imagine your own world in which none of the old rules apply.” He is alluding to Thiel’s interest in seasteading — the largely theoretical creation of autonomous societies beyond the reach of meddling national governments. “My idea of free society always had more of an anarcho-syndicalist bent,” he says. “If I was in Barcelona during the Spanish civil war [an anarcho-syndicalist] is probably what I would have been.”

Still, he says he understands the desire to operate beyond the restrictions of normal society, saying that such thinking is common in start-up culture. He points to Uber, the ride-sharing app, to underline the point. When its founders set out to launch a product that would up-end the personal transportation industry, they had to protect their vision from external doubters or naysayers. “You need to be insulated from the critics if you’re going to persuade people to join you, believe in you, invest in you.” Great companies are often based on a single idea, he continues. “And if someone questions that idea, it can undermine the support within the organisation for that idea.”

This, he says, explains Thiel’s animosity towards Gawker. Valleywag, a Denton-owned tech site that was eventually folded into, used to cover Silicon Valley with a critical eye and was a constant thorn in the side of its community of companies and investors — including Thiel.•

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TORONTO, ON - JUNE 21: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford held a press conference at City Hall Friday afternoon in response to possible provincial funding cuts to the city. (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

It was better to have Gawker than not have it.

The flagship site of Nick Denton’s former media empire often operated under a fog of institutional delusion the last few years, outing a Condé Nast media exec who wasn’t bothering anyone, and treating a Hulk Hogan sex tape as if its exposure was vital to the survival of the country. These were true believers who began believing the wrong things. Even at its recent Irish wake of a farewell party, one of the top editors actually invoked the name of Capt. Humayun Khan when speaking of sacrifices made by the blog’s young staffers. Seeming to realize the wrong-mindedness of the notion mid-paragraph, he pivoted, saying: “Not that the sacrifices here come close to losing a loved one, but it is a sacrifice to be a 23-year-old kid and to find your name on a complaint from Hulk Hogan.” Oy gevalt.

That being said, if you go through site’s fourteen year’s worth of posts one by one and delete the many frivolous entries, the majority were on the right side of history and politics, targeting abuses of power. The platform also served as an amazing training ground for young writers and editors who gradually fanned across the media landscape, many of them wonderfully talented. In the big picture, Gawker was always better than no Gawker.

In any picture, Peter Thiel does not emerge from this episode looking good. You don’t get to claim the moral high ground when you’re an advocate for–a delegate of!–a bigoted buffoon like Donald Trump, who’s mocked the disabled and POWs, slandered Mexicans and threatened to ban Muslims. Rationalizing that you’re doing so because “we need to solve real problems instead of fighting fake culture wars” is just so much nonsense, even if Thiel is too buried under his horseshit theories to realize it. Trump is himself trying to rise to power by virtue of fighting a fake culture war in which he’s demonized and disqualified anyone who’s not white, a process the GOP nominee began in earnest five years ago with his Birther bullshit. Was there ever a faker culture war than that? 

By bankrolling Hogan’s lawsuit, Thiel scored the most dubious of victories, shuttering one company and sending a chill wind blowing across an already embattled independent media landscape. He may have prevented some from making unkind or unnecessary remarks, but he also provided comfort to those abusing power, safe in the knowledge that there will be fewer voices willing to question them. 

From Jane B. Singer at The Conversation:

The obvious implication for entrepreneurial news organisations is that they must do their utmost to adhere to both ethical responsibilities and legal requirements – not just because it’s the right thing to do but also because their own future depends on it. That is emphatically not to say they should be timid nor that they should pull their punches. It is to say that they should be exceptionally careful to get the story right – and to get it in the right way.

But there is a clear implication for “legacy” news outlets, as well. Despite the proliferation of competition right across the media spectrum, they remain the ones best able to withstand the pressures of those who would prefer they curtail their reporting or, better still, go away altogether. As always, power is needed in order to hold the powerful to account – and to ensure that such accounting reaches public attention.

Staff cutbacks and financial pressures, along with other factors, have meant a well-documented decline in in-depth journalism by legacy outlets in recent years. Some of that gap is indeed being filled by passionate journalists at digitally savvy start-ups, and their work benefits us all.

But as the demise of Gawker reminds us, few if any start-ups – even those that are profitable, with a well-established reputation and following – rest on reliably solid economic ground. In an age of welcome journalistic flowering, the expertise, influence and still relatively rich resources of the mainstream media remain vital social assets that must not be squandered.•

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There’s almost no publication I’d like to see go out of business, apart from anything resembling Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic trash of a bygone era. Even when it’s seemingly hopeless that today’s dubious properties will improve, I still hope. The worst of them present some useful news and contribute to the dialogue to a degree.

Gawker is far from hopeless or the worst. It has presented lots of useful information and opinions along with some glaringly reckless stupidity. Hopefully, the Peter Thiel-backed Hulk Hogan lawsuit won’t a be a fatal error for it and its many sister sites. Of course, it won’t really matter in the long run if no lessons have been absorbed on the inside of the independent institution.

In a Time Q&A conducted by Belinda Luscombe, Gawker founder Nick Denton speaks candidly about his trial and finances. Denton makes two comments I disagree with:

1) He says he admires Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes because they put out “good, true, provocative stories.” For the most part, the two men have enriched themselves by delivering distortions of the truth under the guise of news.

2) On Thiel stealthily funding the Hogan lawsuit, Denton says, “I doubt that any billionaire will be pursuing precisely this template again, having seen how strong the backlash is.” If no other billionaires fund a similar suit, I doubt it will be because of any backlash. If someone is that petty and that rich, popular opinion probably doesn’t mean a whole lot. If another such case fails to materialize, it would be because there aren’t too many people with Thiel’s wherewithal that also have his many personality quirks.

In one exchange, the embattled publisher reveals his thoughts on the near-term reality of the media business. God help us if Facebook, a non-news company, is the only general-news brand in a few years. The excerpt:


What will the media landscape look like five years down the road?

Nick Denton:

First of all, I think that properties like Gizmodo and Lifehacker and Deadspin and Jezebel have a much better chance of prospering in this new world than general news brands, news and media brands. Facebook will be the only general news brand, and maybe another social network or two. The more specialized, more focused publications will be the ones that prosper. I think that’s one thing that’s going to happen. And my personal interest is to find a way online to allow writers and readers and subjects and sources to debate and develop a story together. Not necessarily through conflict and trollery, but through civil disagreements online which further everybody’s understanding of an issue.•

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Gawker Media thinks it can reach 80-million unique visitors a month by the end of 2014, while the New York Times currently boasts 31 million. Gawker clearly doesn’t turn out better content nor does it traffic in eyeball-grabbing gossip nearly as much as it used to. If you want blind items and reveals, you go elsewhere. Those running Gawker are simply better at understanding the new normal (including viral bullshit) and exploiting this knowledge, which is easier for them in many ways because they’re not hidebound to traditional journalistic ethics. The New York Times is certainly doing better, more important and more challenging work, but it’s not doing as well. Here’s my question: Is that because those in charge of the Times don’t understand the terrain, or is it because doing the kind of work the Times does can’t find traction in 2014? I would say the former, but it’s not like any other traditional newspaper company has managed the feat, either. From Peter Sterne at Capital

“Gawker has never made a secret of its ambitions as it has risen from Manhattan media troublemaker to a network of niche-focused sites that apply its roguish sensibility to topics ranging from sports to women’s issues. Founder Nick Denton spent the first part of 2014 positioning his company as a sort of anti-Buzzfeed, and there’s his Kinja commenting platform that he hopes will do nothing short of reshape the very nature of online discussion. And while Denton has always seemed to take a particular glee in publicly critiquing and encouraging his own operation (and tweaking the competition) along the way, concrete growth plans at Gawker have been harder to come by.

In order to achieve its goals, [editorial director Joel] Johnson announced plans for the company to increase its editorial staff by the end of the year from 120 full-time staffers to 150 full-time staffers and 24 active members of its ‘recruits’ farm system. A slide accompanying Johnson’s presentation declared that hiring is the site’s number one priority, and he told his staff that they had an effectively unlimited hiring budget.

‘If things go right, we could double our editorial staff by the end of 2015,’ he said.”


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I don’t read Gawker much anymore even though the site has some very talented writers and editors. I don’t look down on it–just elsewhere. Gossip has value for a society; it just doesn’t interest me very much. Viral videos and stories aren’t what I find appealing. And posts that often seem to view the world as black or white, with no gray, aren’t convincing to me.

But that doesn’t mean I’m right. In all fairness, why would company founder Nick Denton want to attract my eyeballs? I’m not going to make him any money with my interests in obscure and offbeat stuff. Getting traffic makes money, so why trash someone who’s playing by the rules of engagement? Unless, of course, an organization is outright lying and manipulating like Fox News. But I don’t think Gawker does that. I think it’s looking for truth, even if it’s usually truth I don’t care about. 

From Denton’s new Playboy interview conducted by Jeff Bercovici:


So Kinja is your bet that in 10 years we will all be part of a crowdsourced gossip press reporting on one another.

Nick Denton:

The Panopticon—the prison in which everybody is exposed to scrutiny all the time. Do you remember the website Fucked Company? It was big in about 2000, 2001. I was CEO of Moreover Technologies at the time. A saleswoman put in an anonymous report to the site about my having paid for the eye operation of a young male executive I had the hots for. The story, like many stories, was roughly half true. Yes, there was a young male executive. Yes, he did have an eye operation. No, it wasn’t paid for by me. It was paid for by the company’s health insurance according to normal procedure. And no, I didn’t fancy him; I detested him. It’s such a great example of Fucked Company and, by extension, most internet discussion systems. There’s some real truth that gets told that is never of a scale to warrant mainstream media attention, and there’s also no mechanism for fact-checking, no mechanism to actually converge on some real truth. It’s out there. Half of it’s right. Half of it’s wrong. You don’t know which half is which. What if we could develop a system for collaboratively reaching the truth? Sources and subjects and writers and editors and readers and casual armchair experts asking questions and answering them, with follow-ups and rebuttals. What if we could actually have a journalistic process that didn’t require paid journalists and tape recorders and the cost of a traditional journalistic operation? You could actually uncover everything—every abusive executive, every corrupt eye operation.


What are the implications for the broader society? What does America look like from inside the Panopticon?

Nick Denton:

When people take a look at the change in attitudes toward gay rights or gay marriage, they talk about the example of people who came out, celebrities who came out. That has a pretty powerful effect. But even more powerful are all the friends and relatives, people you know. When it’s no longer some weird group of faggots on Christopher Street but actually people you know, that’s when attitudes change, and my presumption is the internet is going to be a big part of that. You’re going to be bombarded with news you wouldn’t necessarily have consumed—information, humanity, texture. I think Facebook, more than anything else, and the internet have been responsible for a large part of the liberalization of the past five or 10 years when it comes to sex, when it comes to drinking. Five years ago it was embarrassing when somebody had photographs of somebody drunk as a student. There was actually a discussion about whether a whole generation of kids had damaged their career prospects because they put up too much information about themselves in social media. What actually happened was that institutions and organizations changed, and frankly any organization that didn’t change was going to handicap itself because everyone, every normal person, gets drunk in college. There are stupid pictures or sex pictures of pretty much everybody. And if those things are leaked or deliberately shared, I think the effect is to change the institutions rather than to damage the individuals. The internet is a secret-spilling machine, and the spilling of secrets has been very healthy for a lot of people’s lives.”

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"That image of Murdoch dyeing his hair in the sink is indelible—though the coloring may not be."

Michael Idov of New York magazine has a really insightful, colorful profile of acerbic Gawker Media kingpin Nick Denton. The British-born blog titan has been able to predict the next wave in NYC’s tumultuous media landscape as well as anyone over the last few years. An excerpt:

“Eight years into Gawker Media’s existence, the standard line on Denton is still that he’s an outsider of sorts, a rude alien come to torment—and supplant—media civilization as we know it. If you’re Bill Keller, say, or Tina Brown—whose Daily Beast gets one-tenth of Gawker Media’s readership on a good month—it’s much easier to view Denton as an upstart thug from nowhere, as opposed to an equal who’s kicking your ass. That plays directly into Denton’s strategy: Thuggish is the reputation he wants. ‘If I am a cornerstone of the new Establishment, then there is no new Establishment worth talking about,’ he says. ‘The only interesting people are on the West Coast, ‘he adds, then launches into a series of classic shameless Gawker riffs on the old New York media titans. ‘People used to quake when Barry Diller picked up the phone. Now he’s laughable. That image of Murdoch dyeing his hair in the sink is indelible—though the coloring may not be. Sumner Redstone would only be of interest to Gawker readers if he were to soil his adult diapers—on-camera. But the hard truth is that the golden age of New York media is largely over.’”

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