Why the Death of Gawker Isn’t Something to Cheer About
The court-ordered bankruptcy auction of Gawker Media approached its final conclusion on Thursday, with most of company’s assets set to be acquired by Univision for $135 million. But one thing that isn’t part of the deal is Gawker.com—the website that helped to launch an alternative blogging empire almost 14 years ago.
In other words, while some of Gawker will continue to live on as Univision absorbs existing verticals like Gizmodo and Jezebel, what many saw as the heart and soul of the company (to the extent it had either one of those things) will no longer exist. Staff were notified by founder Nick Denton on Thursday afternoon.
In the original offer from Ziff Davis that Gawker announced when it filed for bankruptcy, it looked as though a window had been left open that might have allowed Denton take over ownership of the main site, but that window appears to have closed. The Univision offer reportedly includes a clause that prevents him from competing with the new owner of his former company.
Univision hasn’t disclosed why it didn’t want to acquire Gawker.com, but it’s likely the reputation of the site (not to mention a conspicuous lack of advertising on that particular vertical) convinced the company not to include it in the deal.
In a statement (reproduced in full below), Denton said: “Sadly, neither I nor Gawker.com, the buccaneering flagship of the group I built with my colleagues, are coming along for this next stage. Desirable though the other properties are, we have not been able to find a single media company or investor willing also to take on Gawker.com. The campaign being mounted against its editorial ethos and former writers has made it too risky.”
For many, the name Gawker is now indelibly associated with a massive legal judgment for privacy invasion and a host of equally unseemly stories, including one that the site eventually took down that outed a married Conde Nast executive who was cruising for gay strippers.
The site also outed PayPal (PYPL) co-founder and early Facebook (FB) investor Peter Thiel, of course, a slight that the Silicon Valley billionaire later said helped convince him to finance Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit in an ultimately successful attempt to drive the company into bankruptcy.
While those kinds of stories are the ones many people will think of when they hear the name, however, Gawker also used its take-no-prisoners attitude to break some truly significant news stories, stories that in many cases were ultimately picked up by the mainstream media. It “spoke truth to power,” something that true crusading journalism theoretically always strives to do.
In many ways, Gawker is one of the premier examples of a media outlet that no one could ever truly love because of all the ways they humiliated people for no reason—and their penchant for cheap titillation. And yet, it accomplished too much serious journalism to truly hate.
Denton, a refugee from the Financial Times who got rich selling one of the very first truly digital news entities (known as Moreover), often seemed cavalier about his approach to journalism. But he was committed to the cause of transparency and the belief that the world would be a better place if everyone could divulge all the secrets they knew about themselves or anyone else.
In typical Denton-like fashion, of course, that commitment didn’t always extend to the details of his own business affairs, which as Fortune‘s Jeff Roberts has reported involved numerous foreign entities and offshore holding companies designed to avoid tax.
As inscrutable and often infuriating as Denton could be, however, what he built with Gawker Media was arguably unique. He never tired of pointing out to anyone who would listen. Until the Hulk Hogan verdict, the company was one of the largest self-funded media entities in North America, with more than 100 million monthly unique visitors and annual revenues of $50 million.
Along the way, Denton spent more money than almost any other media company, large or small, on trying to reinvent reader interaction through a proprietary platform he called Kinja, which he hoped would level the playing field between journalist and audience.
Perhaps, as many critics have argued, it was Denton’s own fault that his company was driven into the ground. Stories like the Hogan one had too much in them that was disturbing, and too little that justified their publication, something I think even Denton would admit.
And yet, there is such a shortage of independent, truth-telling media outlets at the moment that celebrating the death of another one seems hugely inappropriate.
Now, the empire that Denton built—which at least theoretically was once worth as much as $250 million—has been sold for a little over half that amount. And while most of the assets, human and otherwise, will survive, the core of what the company was is gone.
All of this because Gawker irritated a vindictive billionaire, and crossed the vague line between private and public information involving a celebrity—and, perhaps, because Denton was guilty of an excess of hubris.
Even though some of its stories made us deeply uncomfortable, however, and made it hard to defend the site to its critics, something important has been lost with the death of Gawker. The fact that one man was able to drive it out of business because of a personal vendetta should keep everyone in the media awake at night, regardless of what they think of the company or its legacy.
Denton’s farewell note to his employees and to Gawker readers appears in full below:
I am relieved that, with the approval today of the agreement with Univision, that we have found the best possible harbor for Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Kotaku, Jalopnik, Jezebel and Deadspin, and our talented writers and other staff. They will be joining The Onion, ClickHole and other beloved web properties in Fusion Media Group, the digital operation of Univision. Isaac Lee and the team at Fusion are fellow spirits, as committed to real journalism and an open future as they are to digital media expansion.
Sadly, neither I nor Gawker.com, the buccaneering flagship of the group I built with my colleagues, are coming along for this next stage. Desirable though the other properties are, we have not been able to find a single media company or investor willing also to take on Gawker.com. The campaign being mounted against its editorial ethos and former writers has made it too risky. I can understand the caution.
Even if the appeals court overturns this spring’s Florida jury verdict, Peter Thiel has already achieved many of his objectives.
I will move on to other projects, working to make the web a forum for the open exchange of ideas and information, but out of the news and gossip business.
Gawker.com may, like Spy Magazine in its day, have a second act. For the moment, however, it will be mothballed, until the smoke clears and a new owner can be found. The archives will remain, but Monday’s posts will be the last of this iteration.
I am proud of what we have achieved at Gawker Media Group, both in our work and our business, never more so than in these last few months.
Our bloggers — and the alumni now dispersed through the media from the New Yorker to the New York Times — have introduced a new style of journalism, sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes snarky, but always authentic. We connect with a skeptical and media-savvy generation by giving them the real story, the version that journalists used to keep to themselves.
Without outside capital, we bootstrapped a profitable digital media operation. With only the talent and energy of our writers and other staff, we have drawn one of the most influential audiences in digital media: our stories connect with 100m people a month around the world. In 2016’s dance of media consolidation, the company has found a partner that understands our appeal and character;
not all will have that luck.
As for Gawker.com, founded in 2003 and mothballed in 2016, it will live on in legend. As the short-lived killer android is told in Blade Runner: “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly.”