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Gawker and Reddit are learning a similar lesson: Growing up is hard

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Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media.Photograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Gawker Media has always gotten far more attention than it objectively deserves, in part because founder Nick Denton likes to take shots at the establishment, and in part because the outlet’s content is salacious in a way that makes it immensely appealing—even to those who would rather not admit it. But it’s probably fair to say that Gawker gets a lot of attention for another reason as well: Namely, that Denton and his staff like to fight their internal battles using public memos and blog posts.

Instead of having to piece together what may have happened in a specific case, all anyone has to do is read the posts and emails and memos from the various players involved in the event—whether it’s the firing of an editor, or a management restructuring. It’s as though all of the reporters at the New York Times each wrote their own blog posts about the friction at the paper, instead of just dribs and drabs showing up in a post by public editor Margaret Sullivan.

 

In the latest incident, Gawker has suffered a very public staff revolt over a story that the site published recently. The story was about a senior executive with Conde Nast who was allegedly trying to hook up with a gay escort, a man who had in turn tried to blackmail the executive when he realized that he was the brother of a politician. As with many Gawker stories in the past, the piece sparked an outcry over the invasion of privacy involving someone who wasn’t really a public figure.

A step too far

Such criticism is typically like oxygen to an outlet like Gawker, but in this case Denton decided that his staff had gone too far. In an unprecedented move, he called his management council together—a group he created last year to share power—and told them he wanted to remove the post, because it was not the kind of thing that Gawker wanted to be known for. A majority of the group agreed with him, and the story came down. In a post published on the site’s Kinja platform, Denton said:

“The media environment has changed, our readers have changed, and I have changed. Not only is criticism of yesterday’s piece from readers intense, but much of what they’ve said has resonated. Some of our own writers, proud to work at one of the only independent media companies, are equally appalled. I believe this public mood reflects a growing recognition that we all have secrets, and they are not all equally worthy of exposure.”

Many in the media industry agreed with Denton that the story went too far, including some writers at Gawker itself—such as Adam Weinstein, who was fired from the company and wrote about the issue (although his departure wasn’t directly related to the story). Some—including me—congratulated Denton for finally seeing the light and deciding that some of Gawker’s past crusades for freedom of information and transparency at all costs may have been misguided.

Senior editors at the company, however, were incensed that a group of non-editorial staff including the president of advertising and the chief operating officer would intervene in editorial matters and remove a story that had already been published. On Monday, executive editor Tommy Craggs and editor-in-chief Max Read resigned, and naturally the site posted their internal memos and statements about why they did so. Craggs said that with the decision to pull the story:

“The message was immediately broadcast to the company and to its readers that the responsibility Nick had vested in the executive editor is in fact meaningless, that true power over editorial resides in the whims of the four cringing members of the managing partnership’s Fear and Money Caucus.”

As more than one person has pointed out, this state of affairs is classic Gawker, in the sense that it combines high-minded editorial and ethical principles with a sordid and arguably even morally offensive story. So Read and Craggs—as well as some members of the recently-formed Gawker union, who wrote about their opposition on a blog called Politburo—are in the position of standing up for their publication’s right to publish not truth-telling investigative research, but offensive invasions of privacy about closeted gay men.

Fighting to stay relevant

Behind all of this sturm und drang, there is something that feels very familiar—if only because we have seen something similar happen with Reddit and the ongoing revolt involving management and some users who work as volunteer moderators. Obviously, Reddit isn’t a traditional media entity (although arguably neither is Gawker), but in both cases there is a real cultural fault line between the site’s past behavior and the need to become a more traditional business.

Reddit spent almost a decade being the id and ego of the Internet, a free-for-all zone where people could say and post whatever they wanted. But more recently it has raised venture funding and is trying to attract advertisers, and that has required it to crack down on some of the more offensive behavior. As a direct result of those actions, two CEOs have left and the co-founders are now back in control, but their ability to recover some of the goodwill they had with users is a question mark.

 

Gawker, meanwhile, is already a functioning business—one that has revenues of $44 million and is profitable, according to financial results released recently by Denton (who controls a majority of the shares). But it too is fighting its past as a kind of free-for-all, Wild West version of digital journalism, one that published whatever it wanted and stalked celebrities and damn the torpedoes. Denton admits this in his response to the resignation of Craggs and Read:

“We need a codification of editorial standards beyond putting truths on the internet. Stories need to be true and interesting. I believe we will have to make our peace with the idea that to be published, those truths should be worthwhile. And some humane guidelines are needed — in writing — on the calculus of cruelty and benefit in running a story.”

In some circles, the growing pains at both Reddit and Gawker are being painted as a typical capitalist horror story, in which the owners and/or management just want to attract advertisers and are scared that freedom and balls-to-the-wall journalism will offend their new masters. But in both cases, I think it’s actually a little more complicated than that.

Yes, Reddit is probably concerned about the $50 million it raised, and pleasing its venture investors. And Denton mentioned that the escort-blackmail story could have cost the company “in the seven figures” in advertising revenue (Denton has also said he is interested in selling a stake in the company, and is fighting a very high-profile and potentially expensive defamation case). But both are also fighting to remain relevant as they enter something approaching middle age, and realizing that their initial childish enthusiasms don’t really play as well any more. Can they make the transition?