Gawker Media founder Nick Denton in 2010
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images
By Mathew Ingram
August 15, 2016

After its dramatic loss to former wrestler Hulk Hogan in a landmark privacy trial, New York-based publisher Gawker Media is being auctioned off to the highest bidder this week in order to try and pay the $140-million penalty in the case. All bids are due by the end of business Eastern Time on Monday.

Dozens of publishing companies and other media-industry players have expressed interest in potentially making an acquisition offer for the company over the past few months, according to sources with knowledge of the auction. But in many cases, these are competitors who are just looking for more information about Gawker’s revenues and so on, and aren’t seriously thinking about acquiring the company.

At the top of the list of companies who are expected to make a bid is long-time magazine publisher Ziff Davis, which has already signed an offer to buy the company for $90 million.

That deal was announced at the same time Gawker filed for court protection. Bankruptcy auctions typically involve such a “stalking horse bid,” which is used to set a floor for potential acquisition offers. But other bidders could come in with higher offers.

Gawker founder Nick Denton is said to favor the Ziff Davis bid—in part because the deal involves him staying on as a consultant to the company. The deal also leaves the door open to Denton potentially buying back the main Gawker website, while Ziff Davis takes the other sites such as Gizmodo and Jezebel.

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Two other leading bidders for Gawker are Vox Media, which runs the Vox site as well as other sites such as Recode, SB Nation, and Penske Media—which owns Variety magazine. Vox landed $200 million in funding from NBCUniversal last year. Penske has also shown an interest in expansion after acquiring a group of publications, including Women’s Wear Daily in 2014 for $100 million.

There’s also the possibility that Vox and Penske could combine to make a bid for Gawker, according to the New York Post, with some of the assets being split between them. One potential sticking point for some bidders is the 15-year lease Gawker signed in 2014 for its new office space, which is worth $75 million.

Another leading contender for Gawker’s assets is Univision, a media company that started as a Spanish-language broadcaster and has since expanded onto the web, by starting a site called Fusion and acquiring other digital publishers, including the African-American culture site The Root and the humor site The Onion. Univision was reportedly interested in Gawker even before the Hogan lawsuit.

Also on the bidding list are some less-likely acquirers, including New York magazine, which the New York Times says might be interested in buying some or all of Gawker.

The magazine is backed by the family trust of former Wall Street financier Bruce Wasserstein, which could probably afford such a deal. But sources close to the auction process say the magazine is not likely to be a contender in the contest for Gawker’s assets.

Some believe there’s a possibility that eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar might make a dark-horse bid. Omidyar pledged in 2013 to spend $250 million to create an alternative media company, and the company that emerged from that commitment—known as First Look Media—has reportedly discussed potential partnerships and/or funding with Gawker in the past.

First Look Media’s ambitions have changed since it was originally founded, however. The company’s initial vision was to create a stable of magazine-style properties focused on different topics, which would have theoretically been a good fit with Gawker. But since then, the company has shut down a couple of its projects, and is said to be focusing on video, which makes a bid for Gawker seem unlikely.

Speaking of long shots, could billionaire Peter Thiel—who funded the Hogan lawsuit in an attempt to drive Gawker out of business—put in a bid for the company and then shut it down?

Theoretically such an offer is possible, as Recode explained in a recent post. But because the purpose of a bankruptcy auction is to find the “highest and best” acquirer for a company’s assets, a bid from the man who wanted to extinguish Gawker as a business probably isn’t going to be the one that fits that criteria.

And what happens after the auction? The new owner takes possession of the assets, and the amount they paid goes into an escrow account to await the final decision in the Hogan case, which Gawker appealed. It has been on hold since the company filed for bankruptcy.

If Gawker loses, then all the proceeds from the sale go to Hogan. But if Gawker wins a reduced judgement, some of it may go to Denton and the other Gawker investors, including a venture fund that put money in earlier this year.

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