The New Gawker

On his own site, Nick Denton calls

it "battening down", against rising costs and an entirely hypothetical

downswing in entertainment-industry advertising expenditure. In the New York

Times, Denton goes a bit further: "We are becoming a lot more like a traditional

media company," he tells

David Carr in an article which somehow manages to portray one of New York’s

most professional and assiduous networkers – Denton really does know everyone

– as "the antithesis of the schmoozer". (It almost feels churlish

to point out that Denton made his first fortune by setting up a company whose

raison d’être was to monetize schmooze.)

In any case, Gawker Media would seem to be downsizing: something Denton is

presenting as a "countercyclical move". In reality, however, I’m not

sure that Gawker Media is going to be significantly smaller after the events

of this weekend. Five bloggers are leaving: Ken Layne and Scott Ross at Sploid,

Dong Resin at Screenhead, John Biggs at Gizmodo, and Jesse Oxfeld at Gawker.

Three bloggers are arriving Joshua David Stein at Gridskipper, Alex Balk at

Gawker, and Brian Lam at Gizmodo. Gridskipper’s Chris Mohney is getting elevated

to a new managing editor spot at Gawker. So maybe payroll will have fallen a

tiny bit, but certainly not by much. And given the salary expectations of the

likes of Balk and former Condé Nast-y Lam, it might even have gone up.

(Denton: "For editorial talent, we now pay within the range of mainstream


The big news here, at least as far as the blogosphere is concerned, is the

defenestration of Oxfeld. Jossip headlined

it as "Denton Wants Mainstream Appeal," and Oxfeld seemed

to concur: "it’s all basically true; whatever direction the site

takes in the future, I won’t be along for the ride." I don’t know

Oxfeld personally, but he seems well-liked within the blogging community, and

I suspect he was well-liked within Gawker Media as well. But Nick Denton is

no sentimentalist, and my guess is that he saw Oxfeld as appealing only to a

narrow slice of New York media insiders, and therefore being unable to deliver

the traffic growth that he wants for all his sites.

Indeed, Denton might well have noticed, at his numerous parties and lunches,

that New York media types read Gawker much less now than they used to in the

days of Choire Sicha. That’s probably not because Oxfeld serves them less well

than Choire did, but rather it’s more a function of the large amount of non-media

content on Gawker these days. It’s true that when sites post more often, their

readership rises. On the other hand, it’s also true that the New York media

elite doesn’t really have the time to wade through vast amounts of general-interest

celebrity gossip in order to find the occasional media-related tidbit. So as

Gawker has grown and mainstreamed, its "influence, buzz, and significance",

to quote Lockhart

Steele, has declined.

The man charged with squaring that circle is Alex Balk. Alex is one of the

few people in New York who knows even more journalists than Denton, and his

vicious wit should be able to merge well with Jessica Coen’s, and appeal to

a nationwide audience. I’ll be interested to find out whether he’s forced into

the Gawker house style, however, or whether he’ll be able to keep, at least

sometimes, his trademark deadpan headline-is-the-punchline technique, as originated,

I believe, with Esquire’s Dubious Achievement Awards.

If Balk is the man who Denton has hired to bring the buzz back to Gawker, then

Chris Mohney, I’d guess, will have more of a managerial role. This is Gawker

growing up, and Denton giving up on his original vision

of running "sites covering categories too small to warrant dedicated print

publications, but with an appeal to advertisers sufficient to support a bare-bones

editorial operation". Gawker now has an org chart with just as many layers

as quite a few magazines I can think of: interns, editors, a managing editor,

and editorial director, and, of course, at the top, Denton himself.

Will Balk scoff, in his initial posts, at the "managing editor" role?

(Managing Editor means very different things at different publications, and

in fact can be either higher or lower than Editor: the only thing that’s constant

is that no one ever knows exactly what it means.) I can’t imagine that he or

Coen will pay much in the way of deference to Mohney.

But bossing around Balk and Coen is not Mohney’s job, in my estimation –

and sunning myself as I am in England, I’m not really inclined to find out.

I assume that Mohney is being hired largely for his managerial prowess –

that he demonstrated an ability to herd far-flung copywriters while at Gridskipper,

and that his new job will in large part be managing Gawker’s ever-growing army

of interns and freelancers. (Nearly all Gawker’s regular features are outsourced,

and not actually written by its editors.) Mohney, as I see it, will have been

charged with goosing Gawker’s traffic and turning it into a gossip franchise

which can rival the combined might of Page Six and Keith Kelly – leaving

Jessica and Alex to bring the funny and the attitude and the snark.

The way I see it, then, the New Gawker is split into three parts. Alex will

revitalize it among New York media types; Jessica will continue to write about

more general-interest gossip and maybe give Gawker an increasing amount of exposure

on TV; and Chris will be in charge of the regular features, including the skeevy

Gawker Stalker, giving the website the sheer volume of posts which seems to

be necessary, these days, for large amounts of traffic.

Denton is moving in this direction largely, I would guess, as a result of his

advertisers. His initial dream of charging premium rates for premium readers

never even began to take off, and, to his credit, he was the first blog entrepeneur

to realise that the quality of a blog’s readership was much less important than

its size. (Jason Calacanis came to the same conclusion much later than Denton:

he was still launching B2B blogs even as Denton was launching blogs devoted

to sex and Hollywood.) Denton pays his bloggers according to the readership

growth they deliver – and if that growth isn’t forthcoming (cf Oddjack,

Sploid, Screenhead) then not only the bloggers but even the blogs themselves

will go.

Two years ago, I gave Denton

grief for saying that Gawker’s readership was made up of "media junkies".

Today, he’d no longer make that claim (and I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m

wrong here). Media junkies are still important to Gawker, just as they’re important

to the New York Post. But Gawker’s ambition is to become much bigger than that,

which means having to grow out its Condé-obsessed roots.

I’m sure that Denton is attempting to recapture some of the buzz that surrounded

Gawker in the early days. But that buzz has left not only the Gawker Media building

but indeed the entire blogosphere, and is presently to be found in the neighborhood

of Digg and MySpace. Whether it will ever return I have no idea, but in the

meantime Denton’s going to concentrate on growing traffic and making money.

The big question, of course, is what Denton’s ultimate goal is. I’ve speculated

in the past that he’d like to be the first blog company to go public, and this

latest move would be consistent with that. I’m sure that Gaby Derbyshire and

Lockhart Steele might like, at some point, to be able to monetize their equity.

But Gawker Media doesn’t need equity capital to grow, and Denton certainly doesn’t

need the cash. So for the time being, Gawker Media will become bigger and more

profitable and more Old Media-like. What Denton will ultimately do with his

baby is probably unknown even to him.

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3 Responses to The New Gawker

  1. Nichelle says:

    Excellent post. Your analysis is spot on!

  2. Chris says:

    I think you’re spot on here, and I think you have the split right in terms of who’ll be doing what. Nothing against Jessica (whose style and focus I love), but an Oxfeld/Balk pairing would have been killer for the Romenesko set.

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