A Brief History of Elizabeth Spiers

Before Gawker, before ElizabethSpiers.com, before freelance gigs for everybody from the New York Post to Radar, there was Capital Influx. A blog dating back to when Spiers was still a drone working for a venture capital company, Capital Influx was everything you might want from such a site: eclectic, well-written, interesting, personal enough to be compelling yet not confessional enough that it descended into turgid meblogging.

Fancy an interesting exercise? Go read the Capital Influx archives for September 2002, exactly one year ago. It’s easy to see what Nick Denton saw in Elizabeth Spiers when he needed an editor for Gawker: a smart, funny, urban voice with wide-ranging interests and an intuitive understanding of the blog medium.

Fancy another interesting exercise? Go read Denton’s original manifesto for Gawker, back in December 2002.

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. The publication will be supported by advertising, primarily from real estate brokers and luxury goods retailers.

At the beginning, Gawker, as edited by Spiers, worked pretty much along those lines. The first advertiser was Corcoran, there was a whole category of postings called Real Estate, and a What Is Gawker page was posted, saying that

Current obsessions include but are not limited to, Tina Brown, urban dating rituals, Condé Nastiness, movie grosses, Hamptons gauche, real estate porn, Harvey Weinstein, fantasy skyscrapers, downwardly mobile i-bankers, Eurotrash, extreme sport social climbing, pomp, circumstance, and other matters of weighty import.

Gawker took off quickly, propelled by Denton’s media contacts and Spiers’s editorial voice, which combined insidery snarkiness with outsidery, well, gawking at the inherent ridiculousness of the Manhattan lifestyle. The best piece came at the very beginning: an interview with an East Village yuppie on the quest for the perfect coke dealer. Spiers simply let this ridiculously entitled Wall Streeter talk into a tape recorder, hanging herself: a perfect piece of journalism. It’s a devastating take-down of Manhattan culture, but with only the lightest sprinkling of irony.

Once Gawker was properly up and running, however, things changed. Spiers would issue, say, a 1,500-word report on her trip to the Condé Nast cafeteria, but already the irony was slathered on so thick that she seemed to be laughing at her own persona much more than she was saying anything interesting about either Manhattanites or their titanium gastronomic epicenter.

Then came April 21, the beginning of the end of Gawker as it was originally envisaged. That was the day that Spiers and Denton introduced their new feature, Gawker Stalker. A celebrity sightings service, it was basically a clearing house for which celebs had been seen that day in Manhattan. This was quite a departure: while sightings of Anna Wintour or James Truman might always have made it into Gawker, they would do so because only Manhattanites care about such things: they gave Spiers the opportunity to give people what they wanted while simultaneously pointing out that such a desire is both silly and exclusive. Gawker Stalker, on the other hand, appeals to the kind of people whom Spiers would otherwise ridicule as “baby boomer divorcees who drive matching Astrovans in Sapulpa, Oklahoma”.

Come July, Spiers was using up her Gawker vacation days in order to freelance at Page Six, and clearly started seeing herself as a gossip columnist first and foremost. While Gawker’s daily gossip roundup was usually entertaining, it still managed to retain a certain amount of ironic distance: isn’t it funny that Page Six thinks that Paris Hilton’s former chef is newsworthy? But with Gawker Stalker, that distance collapsed: it was reporting sightings of C-list television stars willy-nilly.

Corcoran was gone from the advertising roster at this point, to be replaced by Gawker personals: an irony-free zone leagues away from the “luxury goods retailers” Denton had originally wanted. At the same time, Spiers herself was losing her stranger-in-a-strange-land view of Manhattan as she spent increasing amounts of time with the very media insiders she would formerly ridicule.

In her Gawker bio, Spiers, referring to herself in the third person, writes that

she resigned herself to a lifetime of abject poverty and decided to write professionally. Or maybe she decided to write professionally and in the process, resigned herself to a lifetime of abject poverty. Chicken and egg, really.

This was always annoying, especially the “abject” bit: Spiers was never in abject poverty, and she knew it. She had a great life on the Lower East Side with broadband internet access, an email address at endgameresearch.com, a white-collar job, and no family to support. There was nothing abject about it, especially once the success of Gawker started to accelerate the rate at which freelance gigs came rolling in.

The general flavour of Gawker was changing: movie grosses and real-estate porn were out, breathless announcements of the new editor of the New York Times magazine were in. Gawker was becoming an insider breaking news, rather than an outsider aggregating it and layering a bunch of snark on top.

So when the news broke yesterday that Spiers was likely to take a full-time position at New York magazine, it came as little surprise. Spiers flatters herself that there would be “Conde Nast-wide peals of laughter (or a resounding “fuck you”) if I ever send a resume or query letter to Vogue,” but in fact she’s been much ruder about New York magazine than she has about the Condé Nast flagship.

Of course, such attitude doesn’t really hurt one’s chances of landing a job: all it does is open Spiers up to charges of hypocrisy if and when she finally does jump ship. But since she’ll probably land in some kind of gossip capacity at the magazine, that’s the least of the charges that’s going to be levelled at her: she’s going to have to grow a thick skin very fast.

The past year has been charmed for Elizabeth Spiers: she’s managed to parlay a low-paying blogging gig into media celebrity and what looks like a good job with benefits and a healthy expense account. Nick Denton doesn’t seem particularly upset about the imminent departure of his star editor: if anything he’s proud of acting as a launchpad for her “high-profile media gig”. Maybe he’s even secretly relieved that his Gawker brand isn’t going to be overshadowed by Spiers personally. Gawker could become a bit like Doctor Who: changing principals but remaining essentially the same thing.

Meanwhile, Spiers shall move, onwards and upwards. Or else she’ll become just another editorial employee at a New York City magazine. What’s unclear is what’s going to happen to her blogging. Spiers has been a great blogger for years now, and she obviously loves doing it. Maybe her new employer will put her talent to work on their website; maybe only ElizabethSpiers.com will remain, updating a couple of times a week with the kind of stuff she used to post every day at Capital Influx. It’ll be hard to return to pre-Gawker blogging, though: after all, she’s a celebrity now.

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13 Responses to A Brief History of Elizabeth Spiers

  1. Abe says:

    very nice, shockingly accurate in documenting the points where my interest in gawker declined sharply…

  2. Richard says:

    Um, yeah. That about sums it up. I even mailed Spiers, fanboy-style, at the end of May asking what she’d do when she tired of the shallowness. No reply, sadly. If the gods smile, she’ll end up as Christopher Hitchens’ true successor. I hope.

  3. la honte says:

    Oh my god. She’s left? Merde! Je suis navr»!

    Her secret French admirer.

  4. tim says:

    Let’s hope Spiers gets her own column in the new-ownership New York. Along with Wolff, this would be a must read. Sticking her in Intelligencer would be a big disservice. As would be Page Six. Or worse, some low-level Conde Nasty job.

    Too bad Gawker is losing her. She was Gawker, even if she’s better than it. And Choire lacks her flair. Hardly worth reading anymore. Sad.

  5. maccers says:

    That’s a nasty little article and factually incorrect.

  6. Wanda says:

    No it’s not, it’s pretty right-on–especially the abject-poverty part.

  7. Jason says:

    Huge fan of gawker, but moreso Ms. Spiers. Partially because she’s responded to my emails – but mostly because the girl has made it. In NY that’s what it’s all about … becoming something. She went from relative unknown to semi big-time in what, 1 year?


  8. I’ll leave Liz to defend herself (if she actually disagrees with anything here: she’s not a self-kidder, I think, and I like her but don’t know her well), but what I can’t believe you *didn’t* comment on is the fact that the fab Choire Sicha has been filling in while’s she’s been working elsewhere.

  9. No it’s not, it’s pretty right-on–especially the abject-poverty part.

    No, Wanda, it’s not right on, and several of Felix’s assumptions are factually incorrect. *Particularly* in the “abject poverty” part. I’d go into it, but not surprisingly, I don’t particularly want to disclose my personal finances on the Internet.

    It’s pretty presumptuous for you (or Felix) to assume you know anything about my financial situation or my motivations. Felix knows me, but only as a casual acquaintance, and I don’t know you at all. Unless you’ve been peeking at my bank account or talking to my creditors I don’t think you have the evidence to speculate one way or the other.

    beyond that, some of felix’s analysis is correct, although he totally misunderstands the impetus behind a lot of the changes we made on Gawker and mistakenly assumes my opinions about New York magazine have changed. there are other points i could refute, but I just don’t care that much. if people want to attack Gawker or my writing, I’m fair game. It’s not like I don’t do that to other publications.

  10. Tara says:

    I love anyone who sticks it to the Conde Nasties like Elizabeth does.. she’s the best at it.

  11. Wanda says:

    “Abject poverty” is a relative term, I guess…

  12. Dietsch says:

    Funny. I always assumed that “abject poverty” was intended as an ironic comment about the idea that writers, especially beginning writers, don’t often make much money.

    But I see now that I should have taken those words at face value. Boo, Ms. Spiers! Shame! How dare you use words like “abject” and “poverty” when you don’t have a distended belly?

  13. ron says:

    Lame, whiny, ignoble little post.

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