Has Gawker jumped the shark?

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.

This entry was posted in Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Has Gawker jumped the shark?

  1. David Weman says:

    From Denton’s old post i clicked through to Spiers old blogspot site. I had no idea she used to be a member of Gene Expression.

  2. Juan says:

    Another site to get the sex video (they already built a site :O)

    I would skip it altogether though, fat man Freddy and his pathetic hairy beer belly is beyond words. Masha is skinny but looks good.

  3. Josh says:

    I think it jumped the shark because it just isn’t funny anymore. Isn’t that enough?

  4. Blogging, Baby

    Sac remixes the FishbowlNY launch party. TMFTML et Lindsayism: “While writers of internet web logs, or bloggers, drew most of the publicity last year amidst a batch of high-profile signings, 2005 appears to be the year of the commenter, those…

  5. Negro Please says:

    Gawking at Gawker

    Not to mention that hosting that video is just nasty.

  6. Fred Durst And His Small Penis Sues Gawker

    Robert Blake Murder Case Goes To JuryI’d say things aren’t looking good for Mr. Blake.

  7. Fred Durst And His Small Penis Sues Gawker

    Robert Blake Murder Case Goes To JuryI’d say things aren’t looking good for Mr. Blake.

  8. Fred Durst And His Small Penis Sues Gawker

    Robert Blake Murder Case Goes To JuryI’d say things aren’t looking good for Mr. Blake.

  9. forex says:

    I don’t want Net flixs to ship now, but which I want to remember and eventually move to the active list

Comments are closed.