Journalists confront powerful people. When those people strike back, it’s good to know a lawyer. That’s especially true at Gawker Media, which takes particular glee in publicizing the antics of thin-skinned athletes and politicians.
The journalists at Gawker, which also runs Jezebel and Deadspin, know Heather Dietrick has their backs. As the company’s general counsel and president, Dietrick not only vets the sites’ stories, but also steps in when angry men (yes, they’re usually men) try to threaten the writers and editors into backing down.
“I knew I wanted to move somewhere that pushed the envelope and Gawker is a natural choice for that,” Dietrick said, explaining why she chose to join a company that has had legal tussles with everyone from wrestler Hulk Hogan to quarterback icon Brett Favre to the crack-smoking ex-mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford.
Dietrick always wanted to fight for the First Amendment and, after obtaining her law degree at the University of Michigan and clerking for a federal judge, she landed a fellowship at Hearst Media, where she stayed on as a lawyer.
“It’s really critical for young lawyers to get their foot in the door in what is a pretty small media law world,” she said, explaining the challenge of breaking into the tight-knit media bar.
Now, at Gawker, she faces the enormous responsibility of regularly making legal decisions whose outcomes can determine the fate of the company. To get an idea of the stakes, consider the $100 million lawsuit Hulk Hogan is pursuing over Gawker’s decision to publish a short clip of him having sex with the then-wife of his friend.
Dietrick says she doesn’t feel scared in helping Gawker stand up to powerful celebrities. Instead, she says she finds the work “exhilarating,” even when the company’s controversial editorial decisions lead to turmoil. And she says that being a woman has not made her job any more difficult, though her age—at 34 she is very young for a general counsel—has at times surprised people.
“Being young in this position can sometimes stop people in their tracks, such as when you’re in court and fighting for the right to speak,” she said. “Being a woman has helped get women’s stories out there when pushing the envelope. Internally, our company is a meritocracy so being a woman or young is not such a big deal.”
So what tips does Dietrick have for those who want to follow a similar path? Her advice can be summed up in one word: network.
“You hear as a young person starting your career ‘network and build your relationships’ and you don’t really understand why that’s going to be meaningful to you,” she says. “Then you start seeing much you can learn from people. You take something away in business and personally from everyone you end up networking with.”
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