Gawker Media, the New York-based blog network founded by Nick Denton, has already had to seek outside funding from a Russian investment fund as a result of a $140 million judgement recently won by former wrestler Hulk Hogan. Now, the company is said to be exploring a sale of some or all of its assets.
The only question is: Who would agree to buy it knowing that billionaire Peter Thiel is determined to destroy it by whatever means necessary?
According to both the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, Denton has hired an investment banker to “explore strategic options” up to and including a sale of the company. Fortune has confirmed that there have been approaches made to the company about a potential deal. Sources told the Post that at least one unnamed party has expressed interest in an acquisition at between $50 million and $70 million.
Earlier estimates, including one from Nick Denton himself, have pegged Gawker’s value at about $250 million. Any offer for the company’s assets, however, would have to include a potential payment of as much as $140 million to Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel, so a bid of $50 million or so is still within the ballpark of what Gawker is theoretically worth.
In an emailed statement, a Gawker spokesman said that nothing has changed, and that the company has “always said we’re exploring contingency plans of various sorts” in case the Hogan judgment is upheld on appeal. The spokesman went on to say:
That’s not quite accurate, however. There is one thing that is new, and it’s pretty significant. Everyone now knows that a billionaire has targeted Gawker Media for destruction because Peter Thiel gave an interview to the New York Times in which he said exactly that. It’s not just about a single case—it’s about a multi-year plan to fund multiple lawsuits against Gawker in the hope of shutting it down.
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What is true is that Denton appears to have already explored multiple ways of funding the company in the event of a financially-crippling Hogan win. The Gawker founder has reportedly had talks in the past with billionaire venture capitalist Mark Cuban as well as eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar, who already funds his own independent media entity, First Look Media.
Gawker has also reportedly had talks with Univision in the past, and according to the Financial Times, media entrepreneur Jay Penske — who owns Variety magazine — has expressed an interest in possibly acquiring Gawker.
There have been some hints in the past that Omidyar and Denton might be working on a merger of some kind. The two have already swapped staff in a number of cases, including Gawker editor John Cook, who spent a year as editor of First Look before returning to Gawker, and Alex Pareene, who worked at First Look before returning to Gawker. On Friday, meanwhile, the Post reported that Omidyar was helping Gawker in its fight against Hogan and trying to convince other media companies to do likewise.
Whether Gawker would mesh with First Look culturally is a different question—or whether it would fit with any other media outlet, for that matter. In some circles, Denton is seen as the author of his own misfortune in the sense that the site’s cavalier approach to privacy and pushing the boundaries of newsworthiness have made it a pariah. Even those who criticize Thiel for funding the Hogan lawsuit seem to find it hard to support the company.
How the Hulk Hogan case brought investors to Gawker. Watch:
From a purely financial point of view, there may have been companies and investors who were willing to buy a stake in Gawker before Peter Thiel’s involvement became public on the assumption that it might win the Hogan case on appeal or that damages might be reduced. But now it has become obvious that there is a billionaire who is committed to a long-term campaign to wipe out Gawker by funding lawsuits.
Who in their right mind would take on that kind of challenge? Is there a billionaire who wants to go head-to-head with Thiel or who feels a passionate commitment to free speech and freedom of the press and is willing to put his or her money on the line? That feels a little like hoping for a white knight carrying the Holy Grail to appear.
If someone did invest in or acquire Gawker, the only real option available would be to somehow fundamentally alter the company in order to make a continued financial vendetta by Thiel unlikely. Denton would have to be removed completely, and certain parts of the site might have to be sold or shut down. Valleywag, the gossip blog that wrote articles about Thiel—including one that outed him publicly as being gay—has already ceased to exist.
In a sense, Thiel appears to win either way. Either he is successful in his legal campaign to bankrupt the company and it has to shut down, or it has to sell itself to the highest bidder and change the nature of what it publishes and why. The only difference is whether Denton comes out of it with some money or not.