Gawker jumped the shark today. I don’t
think it’s the fault of its two new editors, Matt Haber and Jessica Coen, both
of whom are talented and funny writers. Nor do I blame Lockhart Steele, the
new editorial director. No: this latest turn of events has Nick Denton written
all over it.
Nick certainly never intended Gawker to be the kind of site which hosts hard-core
pornographic videos. Here’s what he had
in mind before it launched:
Gawker is an online magazine for Manhattan launching in January 2003. It’s
target audience is the city’s media and financial elite. Think of it as the
New York Observer, crossed with Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews.
Gawker actually succeeded very well at that, and pretty soon nearly all of
Manhattan’s media (if not financial) elite were reading it.
Gawker’s success, in turn, helped generate buzz for more downmarket blogs in
the Gawker Media stable, like Defamer (Hollywood gossip) and Fleshbot (outright
By July of 2004, I was pointing
out that Gawker’s self-proclaimed readership of "600,000 media junkies
each month" was, on the face of it, higher than the total number of media
junkies in the known universe. That posting ended up with a wager between me
and Nick Denton: if Gawker managed to get itself more than 600,000 unique visitors
in any month of 2004, I would buy Nick lunch at Lever House.
The lesson of this story is don’t go into a bet with Nick Denton. I lost that
bet. The small reason was Tara Reid’s left nipple; the large reason was that
Gawker had given up on appealing only or even mainly to media junkies.
In early November, Ms Reid managed to let a breast out in public, Gawker covered
it, and traffic went through the roof. On November 8, Gawker got 110,000
visits, compared to 49,000 a week previously. Most of those visits were evidently
from people who hadn’t visited Gawker before: the site’s unique visitors jumped
to 833,000 in November from just 425,000 in October.
Denton was mildly apologetic when he called in the bet: he knew a nipple-induced
spike from genuine repeat readership. But in fact, although the number of unique
visitors to Gawker did fall back in the holiday month of December, it then continued
to rise, surpassing the 1 million mark for the first time in January.
But these weren’t media junkies – they were people looking for dirty
celebrity gossip, which had previously been the province of Defamer and Fleshbot.
When the contents of Paris Hilton’s mobile phone got posted on the web last
week, all of the Gawker Media sites covered the story extensively, but Gawker
itself took the lead. On February 22, at the height of the most recent Paris
Hilton frenzy, Gawker got 220,000 visits in one day – a new record. Aggregating
across all of Gawker Media, gloated
Denton, the total number of pageviews reached 1.8 million. 434,000 of those
were from his flagship site.
I don’t think I’m betraying any confidences when I say that Nick Denton likes
it when his sites get a lot of traffic. In Gawker’s mix of high and low, it’s
the low which drives the traffic; the high gets Denton a certain amount of respect
and lunch meetings. My guess is that Nick’s now had lunch with pretty much anybody
and everybody he wants to have had lunch with; his priority now is on goosing
his traffic numbers.
Hence the full-court press when it came to Paris
Hilton’s Sidekick. Gawker linked to the full address book the minute it
appeared on gorillamask.net: Denton’s site was one click away from a whole slew
of celebrities’ phone numbers and email addresses. Similarly, when a video appeared
today featuring Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst having very explicit sex with
an unidentified girl, Gawker was more than happy to link to that. Private phone
numbers, private sex videos – so long as you’re a celebrity, there’s nothing
that Gawker won’t link to.
The real shark-jumping, however, came later in the day, when Gawker decided
to host the video themselves. Anybody going to Gawker’s Fred
Durst Sex Tape page was immediately confronted with the full two-minute
video, and quite possibly put off their dinner for the rest of the day. The
irony is that the title of the page was "The Fred Durst Sex Tape You Never
Wanted" – well, if you went to that page, you got it whether you
wanted it or not.
Gawker Media has hosted pornographic material on its webservers for a long
time, of course, as part of its Fleshbot service. But this was video, not stills,
and Gawker, not Fleshbot. Now note that Gawker’s advertising
page still comes with glowing notices from the likes of the Guardian, the
New York Times and Time magazine. "Followers of Gawker include Michael
Gross of the New York Daily News, Howard Stern, Kurt Andersen of NPR, Jodi Kantor
of the New York Times, Deborah Schoeneman of New York Magazine, Ed Needham of
Rolling Stone, and Maer Roshan of Radar," it says; it’s my guess that most
of those people read Gawker much less than they used to, and that none of them
(with the possible exception of Howard Stern) think very much of the fact that
Gawker was hosting the Fred Durst sex tape.
Denton has always valued traffic over advertisers: he’s happy to lose advertisers
if they object to risqué content, because that content means more pageviews
and ultimately more advertising revenue. But if I were Denton, I’d be very worried
that CheapTickets, the launch sponsor of Denton’s new Gridskipper site, decided
to pull its sponsorship after just two days, because, in Nick’s
words, "our travel site was too naughty". Denton put a brave face
on it, releasing a statement saying that "Gridskipper will continue its
obsessive search for the planet’s hottest bods, with the occasional hotel recommendation
thrown in". But the loss of a launch sponsor after just two days looks,
to borrow from Lady Bracknell, more like carelessness than a misfortune. To
put it another way: Gawker Media’s rush downmarket, in what seems to be an increasingly
desperate attempt to maximise pageviews, is actually jeopardising the integrity
of its sites and of its editors.
Gawker, as I say, was never meant to be the kind of site which hosts porn videos.
And Choire Sicha, the flamoyantly gay former editorial director of Gawker Media,
was never the kind of person who would make cheap shots about lesbians –
you know, talk about how they wear Birkenstocks and "comfy" pants,
that kind of thing. Yet as I pointed
out on MemeFirst earlier today, that’s exactly what he’s been reduced to
doing, in his role as guest-editor of Wonkette, another Gawker Media site. Less
than 18 months ago, Choire was castigating those who perpetuated the rumour
that Condoleezza Rice might be gay; today, he has joined their ranks. Nothing
has changed, in the interim, in terms of public knowledge about Rice’s sexuality.
What has changed is Gawker Media’s attitude to such tidbits.
When Gawker was riding high in the buzz rankings, Denton would talk evangelically
about the way that his weblogs could target small and affluent audiences, and
get premium advertising revenue by doing so. That idea seems to have gone straight
out the window: by going downmarket, Denton might have lost a couple of high-end
advertisers, but that’s more than made up for by his increase in traffic. Gawker
started with buzz, now it’s swapped that buzz for profit. Maybe blog publishers
have to make a choice: they can have one or the other, but not both. Denton
is reputedly obsessed with collegehumor.com
– the ultimate high-profit-low-buzz website. But I can assure him that
the number of people who read both the New York Observer and collegehumor.com
is minuscule. If he’s selling a highbrow audience to his advertisers, he’s going
to have to stop the slide downmarket on his websites.
Maybe he realised that today: a couple of hours after the Fred Durst video
went up on Gawker, it got taken down. (OK, full disclosure: after I told Lockhart
Steele that I thought he’d jumped the shark, he took the video off the page.)
But so long as Denton encourages his bloggers to above everything maximise the
number of hits they get, this kind of thing is going to continue to appear.
In the short term, it certainly helps Gawker Media’s traffic. In the long term,
however, it could end up disproving Denton’s original idea, that a narrowly-targeted
website can attract premium advertisers by dint of its upmarket content and
readership. Jason Calacanis, take note!
UPDATE: This page has been getting a lot more attention since
Gawker was both sued
and served a C&D by
Durst. The Smoking Gun, along with the New York Daily
News and The
Register, says that Durst is seeking $80 million, but I can’t see that figure
anywhere in the documentation, and have no idea where it comes from. In the
suit itself and the letter sent to Gawker, Durst only seems to be asking that
they stop hosting the video. But as Gawker’s Jessica Coen points
out, "we complied before you even got around to wasting paper on us".
I do think that what Gawker did was probably illegal: they republished Durst’s
intellectual property without his permission. Durst’s lawyers list a number
of different statutes that Gawker has allegedly violated, and I’m sure that
they could win a court case were it to come to that. On the other hand, it might
be very difficult for them to show damages, so I’m far from convinced that they
could get a large sum of money out of Denton & Co.