Gawker Founder Nick Denton on Peter Thiel and the Future of Media
Recently, you had a $140 million judgment against Gawker Media, declared bankruptcy and put the media empire you founded up for sale. How’s your mood?Actually it’s good. It’s a bit of a relief. We have a deal in place with Ziff Davis. And separately we’ll pursue this litigation with the various plaintiffs who are being backed by [PayPal billionaire] Peter Thiel. And we expect frankly to win all of those cases.
Can you explain the news value of the story that triggered the lawsuit, the Hulk Hogan sex tape? People, journalists, publishers will have different opinions about whether they would have published the eight seconds of grainy sex that was the illustration of the article. I don’t want to get into that debate all over again, just to note that a federal court has already determined that the piece was newsworthy.
Hogan’s lawsuit against you was bankrolled by Thiel, whom Gawker outed in 2007. Is there a sense in which he’s won, now that you’re selling? To the extent that the bankruptcy of Gawker was one of his objectives, he’s achieved that. But he and his secret scheme have all been exposed. He has been embarrassed. And I doubt that any billionaire will be pursuing precisely this template again, having seen how strong the backlash is.
Why do you think you lost? Was it an issue of tone? The Village Voice would have been equally offensive to a jury in Tampa [where the case was tried] 40 years ago, but it would not have been read by people on a Tampa jury. I think the cultural gap between a liberal metropolis like New York and the rest of America is more stark than it has been, and the conflict plays out in Internet media because Hulk Hogan’s [Florida] neighbors can read Gawker.
Are there any stories you regret publishing? Absolutely. I don’t think we’ve ever made a misstep as big as say the New York Times‘ reporting of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. We haven’t gotten anybody into any wars. But we’ve absolutely made mistakes. If you’re not making some, you’re probably not doing your job.
Is there a media mogul that you identify with? I’ve always had a surprising amount of respect for Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes. I respect publishers and media executives who’ll put out good, true, provocative stories and deal with the blowback.
You’re a Brit, Murdoch is Australian. Do you ever feel like American journalists are too soft? I’m not the only one who has noted that the American newspapers—maybe because they have been local monopolies—are concerned more about respectability than their British peers. And concerned less about getting the story out. The British press certainly seems more rambunctious than the American newspapers.
You recently got married. Has the fate of the Gawker empire become less central to your happiness? At my wedding, I think I actually said that I always thought I’d be successful but I never expected to be happy. And I am happily married to somebody who despises news in all its forms. I don’t know whether Gawker ever made me happy. I think it made me satisfied.
Do you feel like you have a rosebud? You mean something driving me? Maybe because I was gay, I grew up hating open secrets. Usually if someone’s gay it’s a pretty open secret. Their friends know, their family knows, but out of some misplaced sense of decency nobody talks about it. Generally my view is that, let’s just have it out. The truth will set you free. That’s what I believe.
Is Gawker.com as we know it, the site that drove a certain type of internet culture, a thing of the past? Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Kotaku, Jalopnik, Deadspin, Jezebel represents about 90% of the audience of the group. It’s only really because media people are so obsessed by Gawker.com that it’s had such an outsized share of attention. I think the Peter Thiel legal campaign, a secret campaign to set up critics demonstrates why independent media is so important. And it underlines why Gawker.com continues to have such an appeal. So I think as long as readers—whether they admit it publicly or not—as long as readers have a hunger for true, critical, funny stories about how the system works and about the concentration of money and power in modern society, as long as they have that appetite, then a site like Gawker.com is going to have a continued purpose.
You had litigation insurance, which you’ve used up. Did the Hulk Hogan lawsuit cost you personally? The company’s actually not majority owned by me anymore. My net worth is tied up almost entirely in stock in Gawker Media Group. We ran this as a small business. We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and we didn’t take any outside capital. And I and the other founders took very low salaries for nearly a decade. So my net worth is entirely pooled up in the value of Gawker Media Group. I have a stake of about 30%. And then I have an apartment with a mortgage, and that’s it. All of that stuff is publicly available. We have become not just proponents of radical transparency; we are living radical transparency with pretty much every single aspect of our financial lives and existence being now public. Which is fine by me.
What will the media landscape look like five years down the road? First of all, I think that properties like Gizmodo and Lifehacker and Deadspin and Jezebel have a much better chance of prospering in this new world than general news brands, news and media brands. Facebook will be the only general news brand, and maybe another social network or two. The more specialized, more focused publications will be the ones that prosper. I think that’s one thing that’s going to happen. And my personal interest is to find a way online to allow writers and readers and subjects and sources to debate and develop a story together. Not necessarily through conflict and trollery, but through civil disagreements online which further everybody’s understanding of an issue.
You’ve invested a lot in your online comment system, Kinja. Why? Comments and online discussion have been my obsession for several years. I don’t believe that journalists have any monopoly on understanding. And I think it’s healthier when not just their viewpoint but the viewpoints of their sources, the viewpoints of their subjects of an article, viewpoints of experts are all given equal weight in an article. I think the role of journalists as gatekeeper is more challenged now than it has been. And the internet, internet forums, internet comments, essentially social media environments, give the opportunity to more people to contribute to a story and contribute to our collective understanding.
But so much online commenting is just trollery… And often those trolls do crowd out civil discussion. Sometimes I feel like the only people left on Twitter are the trolls. The basic idea of the comments on Gizmodo and Lifehacker and Kotaku and the other Gawker properties is that they should reflect a conversation between the writer and readers. And I think most people agree that our comments, they’re not perfect, the occasional troll makes his or her way in. But generally discussions augment the stories and that’s why people spend longer on a Gawker story and are more likely to be engaged than they are on other news properties.
Why are online comments so misogynist? There’s racism, there’s misogyny, there’s many nasty thoughts. I think it boils down to the fact that people are mean. Sometimes they’re supportive and loving but sometimes they’re mean. And anonymity gives people a chance to share things about themselves that they would never share with anybody else, in a constructive fashion.
Do you think other media outlets have been lax in covering Silicon Valley? Silicon Valley is a huge story and has been covered thoroughly. But Silicon Valley billionaires and Silicon Valley companies are notoriously controlling. I worked as a journalist for The Financial Times in Silicon Valley and I remember even back then that if you played along and if a story followed a company’s talking points you were fine. And if you asked critical questions, particularly if those critical questions got an airing in the article itself, then you’d lose access and you wouldn’t be invited back, you wouldn’t get early sight of gadgets or a piece of news. Silicon Valley, I think, has used the media and public fascination with its products as an instrument of power. And I think that’s natural. And I think it’s also natural that there be a reaction to that. And readers gravitate to more skeptical, cynical or critical coverage. Which is the reason why Valleywag, the Gawker section covering Silicon Valley, was such a phenomenon in Silicon Valley. People may have hated it, but they were all reading it.
Do you have any regret about not selling before these legal troubles depressed your sale price? The consolidation of digital media has only been going for the last 12 months. This lawsuit began in 2012. There was no window.
Wasn’t the Huffington Post sold before 2012? That was 2011. Look, we built the largest independent digital media company without outside capital, without buying traffic. And we pursued that path for as long as we could. The market is consolidating right now. If Gawker Media ends up as part of Ziff Davis I think it’s be an extremely powerful combination. It will be the dominant digital media player in technology and video games coverage, it will be very strong in lifestyle. This is a game of musical chairs. And there aren’t all that many chairs. There are plenty of people dancing around. And I think Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Kotaku, Jalopnik, Deadspin and Jezebel are going to be enduring properties, hopefully with stronger backing, stronger financial backing than they have been in the past. And less distracted by the litigation that enveloped Gawker.com.
Is there anybody you wouldn’t sell to? Anybody I wouldn’t sell to? I think there’s certain potential acquirers that our writers would not want to work for. But my main focus is to get the very best deal that we can to maximize value and to provide satisfying and secure jobs for the people who work here.
The people in my newsroom here want to know who was your favorite editor-in-chief at Gawker. This is just a matter of personal taste. I liked the original Elizabeth Spiers Gawker. I like in particular the way that the humor was delivered. I like the way that she writes intelligent pieces with witty asides, clearly marked. So you know what she’s saying, you know what’s a joke and what’s serious. And that meshes with my own personal style.
Is there a future for independent journalism? I think Facebook instant articles and the strength of Facebook as a marketplace for both content and advertising actually does offer some opportunities to independent publishers. The original goal of Gawker was actually to be a completely lightweight organization employing only writers and using technology, and taking technology and advertising sales kind of off the shelf. And I think it was early, and that’s why we developed our own publishing platform and our own advertising sales force. But I think the time for that idea will come again.