Is Gawker’s story removal setting a dangerous precedent?

Nick Denton, Gawker Media
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Gawker's decision to pull down a controversial post outing a Condé Nast executive was not led by its editorial team. Instead, the decision to remove the article came mostly from business executives who lead its managing partnership, prompting on Monday Gawker Executive Editor Tommy Craggs and Editor-in-Chief Max Read to quit in protest.

Some experts believe that the overriding of editorial by Gawker's business leadership could lead to a slippery slope over the loss of journalistic independence.

"You don't want your business people making journalistic decisions," said Kelly McBride, Poynter Institute vice president for academic programs and a media ethicist. "That's a horrible precedent for a journalistic organization."

On Thursday, Gawker published a post titled "Condé Nast's CFO Tried To Pay $2,500 for a Night With a Gay Porn Star," which alleged that a senior executive at the company sent text messages where he tried to solicit an unidentified male escort. The subject of the article, however, denied the incident and alleged to Gawker that it was a "shakedown."

The article was later removed after a vote by the managing partnership. Gawker co-founder and CEO Nick Denton expressed regret over publishing in the first place in a blog post. He wrote despite his belief it was valid, the newsworthiness of the article "was not in my view sufficient to offset the embarrassment to the subject and his family."

Whether or not Gawker should have exposed the private details of a nonpublic figure's life remains up for debate.

Many opponents pointed out that the story amounted to homophobic shaming, while some of Gawker's editorial staff defended the decision. Gawker's Read wrote in the comments that "given the chance, Gawker will always report on married C-suite executives of major media companies f---ing around on their wives."

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What is clear is that the decision to post the original story and leave it up was made by the editorial team. The decision to take it down was headed by the company's business leaders.

Erosion of 'Church/state' division

In a post by Gawker writer J.K. Trotter, he explained that the Gawker Media managing partnership voted 4 to 2 to remove the piece. Gawker President of Advertising and Partnerships Andrew Gorenstein; Chief Operating Officer Scott Kidder; Chief Strategy Officer Erin Pettigrew; and Denton voted to remove the article. (Chief Technology Officer Tom Plunkett, who was an original member of the board, is no longer with the company.)

The two board member dissenters who wanted to keep the article up were chief legal counsel and President Heather Dietrick, as well as Craggs. Trotter added that every other member of Gawker Media's editorial leadership "strenuously protested removing the post."

"Our union drive has expressed at every stage of the process that one of our core goals is to protect the editorial independence of Gawker Media sites from the influence of business-side concerns," Gawker Media's editorial staff wrote in a statement.

"Today's unprecedented breach of the firewall, in which business executives deleted an editorial post over the objections of the entire executive editorial staff, demonstrated exactly why we seek greater protection. Our opinions on the post are not unanimous but we are united in objecting to editorial decisions being made by a majority of noneditorial managers," they said.

"Disagreements about editorial judgment are matters to be resolved by editorial employees. We condemn the takedown in the strongest possible terms."

As a result, Craggs and Read resigned from their jobs on Monday. Gawker's Trotter posted the letters the two men sent to the staff and managing partners. Craggs explained that he and the rest of editorial were unaware that the story's survival would be put the a vote, and he was on a plane at the time. He added that advertisers like Discover and BFGoodrich were pulling or halting their campaigns as a result of the article.

"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," Craggs wrote.

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In a post on his Kinja page, Denton denied that advertiser interest was a main motivator for pulling the post down. While he acknowledged that Gawker would have lost seven figures this week if it kept the post up, Denton said he was the only one aware of the financial repercussions before the vote. He wrote his main concern was the reputation of the company, especially as they head to a highly-publicized trial over posting an authorized sex tape featuring former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan.

"That post wasn't what Gawker should stand for, and it is symptomatic of a site that has been out of control of editorial management," Denton wrote. Our flagship site carries the same name as the company, and the reputation of the entire company rests on its work. When Gawker itself is seen as sneering and callous, it affects all of us."

Poynter's McBride explained that the Gawker article points out two major issues facing journalism today: the sliding scale of what is journalistic content and the weakening independence of editorial leadership.

While she strongly disagreed with the decision of posting the article in the first place, she also argued there need to be boundaries on the business side.

"I'm afraid for the whole economic model of journalism," McBride said. "That's definitely precarious. It was easy to keep the business people out when you were making a lot of money. It is very hard to keep the business people out when you're not making any money or small amounts of money from the editorial process."

As the popularity of sponsored content grows, issues of business interests versus editorial become more common.

Buzzfeed, for example, recently removed two posts that were critical of two of the site's advertisers, Dove and Hasbro's Monopoly. The stories were later reposted in April. Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith said in a letter to his staff that the stories were not initially removed because of advertiser pressure, but because the articles were part of an "ongoing conversation about how and when to publish personal opinion pieces."

"I agree that the church/state division of editorial and publishing is eroding," digital media analyst, author and consultant Rebecca Lieb said.

"Gawker has published countless stories that have embarrassed people," Lieb added. "It's hard to understand the justification for pulling this particular one, and it's correspondingly difficult not to suspect a personal or business relationship was at the root of the decision."

Gawker declined to comment.

Note: The story was updated to reflect the correct voting record, which was initially misreported by Gawker due to a miscount of the vote. It was again updated on Monday after Craggs and Read resigned over the pulling of the article.