The only thing that seems to remain constant within Gawker Media is that nothing ever remains constant, apart from the eternal presence of founder and chief visionary Nick Denton, looming in the background. Denton is now taking his creation through yet another in a long line of reboots, reinventions and re-focusing exercises—another step in the growing up process for the former upstart media entity.
What this inevitably means is layoffs, of which there have been many, somewhat clumsily communicated via email and Slack, the in-house media equivalent of texting, as reported by The Awl and Re/code. But there have also been promotions and new staff announcements, including a new editor-in-chief for Gizmodo, the company’s flagship technology site.
Gawker Media’s executive editor John Cook describes this process as “sharpening,” and it certainly feels like Denton whittling a blunt stick down to a finer point. Sub-sites like Defamer and several others are being shut down, and even the venerable Valleywag—which has already been shut down and revived once—is being shuttered, this time for good.
As Cook put it:
“In many ways, we let 1,000 flowers bloom, a strategy that resulted in some successes, like Adequate Man, but also bred confusion among the readers and a thicket of different editorial rabbit holes.”
The stick-sharpening analogy doesn’t really work, however, unless it is one with two or three points—possibly a trident, which would fit with Denton’s reputation as the Dark Lord of the New York media scene. Because the new Gawker has several focuses: One is clearly politics and another is technology, with media/culture as a potential third.
Per the memos from both Denton and Cook, the Gawker site is being retooled to focus almost exclusively on politics. The most obvious example of this refocusing is the fact that Sam Biddle — a former Valleywag editor who has been skewering Silicon Valley and other pretentious types for some time—is heading out on the campaign trail.
In a sense, making Gawker all about politics is like going back to the future for Denton, since the politics-obsessed site Wonkette was what really put the company on the map back in the early 2000’s, under editor Ana Marie Cox. Gawker’s founding editor, Elizabeth Spiers, said on Twitter she was somewhat confused by the recent moves, in part because Wonkette proved difficult to monetize back in the early days.
In addition to focusing on politics and tech, Gawker is making a number of moves aimed at stemming some of the financial drains on the company. One of the big ones is the abandonment of Denton’s long-time dream to turn its Kinja discussion platform into an open blogging platform for the world to use.
During one of the smaller recent upheavals at Gawker, when former executive editor Joel Johnson was fired, he described (on Kinja, of course) how the company had spent tens of millions of dollars on the platform with little to show for it.
The truncating of Denton’s vision for Kinja is effectively an admission that Medium, the open blogging platform founded by former Twitter CEO Evan Williams, has won that battle. Kinja will continue to be used by Gawker editors and readers—and pitched to advertisers as a place they can talk with customers—but that’s it.
“We will no longer seek to develop Kinja as an open blogging platform, given the competition that exists from technology companies devoted entirely to that challenge. Work will continue, with full focus on improving the writer and reader experience on the seven media brands.”
In his memo, Cook says that Gawker is “finally acknowledging that we are a media company,” which seems like a strange thing to say about a company that has been around for more than a decade, and pulls in more than 100 million unique visitors a month (roughly the same size as Vox Media). But for much of its life, Gawker has acted a little like a Rottweiler puppy—careening around urinating and chewing on things in a kind of aimless frenzy.
Denton has been trying for some time to calm the company down, to rein in some of the excesses of snark and privacy invasions that Gawker has been known for. He has talked about making the site “20% nicer,” and in one of the most public expressions of his intentions, talked about how a story on a Conde Nast executive’s attempted liaison with a male prostitute crossed a line he no longer wants to cross.
Gawker is also currently shopping for investors who might want to buy a chunk of the company (Denton and his family currently own about 65% of the shares). So it’s possible that some of the “getting nicer” trend is also about making the media company a little more palatable for investors to put their money into.
Although downsizing certain things is clearly part of the goal, both Denton and Cook’s memos also said that they plan to up-size other things—including video and events, as well as the e-commerce operations that have been producing a large proportion of the company’s revenue for several years now.
So the vision of Gawker that Denton seems to be following is a streamlined group of sites that apply snark and ridicule where necessary, but mostly focused on politics and tech, with lots of video and e-commerce tie-ins. Is that a version of the company that will resonate with readers, and with advertisers? If it isn’t, then you can probably expect another wrenching pivot or reboot at some point in the future.