It is one thing to engage in this sort of behavior when you are focused mainly on enlarging your audience or user base. But the calculus changes when you start worrying about alienating advertisers, too.
Attracting traffic is a more straightforward proposition than increasing revenue, especially for companies like Gawker and Reddit, whose identities are bound up with pushing the boundaries of good taste.
Ellen Pao, who recently resigned as chief executive of Reddit after the community turned against her — she called it "one of the largest trolling attacks in history" — described the challenge in an op-ed article for The Washington Post.
"A large portion of the Internet audience enjoys edgy content and the behavior of the more extreme users; it wants to see the bad with the good, so it becomes harder to get rid of the ugly," she wrote. "But to attract more mainstream audiences and bring in the big-budget advertisers, you must hide or remove the ugly."
For Gawker, which claims to protect its editorial staff from its business concerns, removing the ugly may be no less difficult, even if it is the writers and editors who are likely to object. Mr. Denton acknowledged this reality in his memo, when he wrote that he respected the convictions of any employees who chose to resign because they found Gawker's "gentler editorial mission too limiting."
It is difficult to separate Mr. Denton's desire to tame some of Gawker's more hostile impulses from the evolving culture of the Internet. While he has been sharply critical of the power Facebook holds over publishers, he also knows that Gawker's cynical tone and taste for takedowns is out of step with the prevailing spirit of positivity — of liking and sharing — on social media today.
What is more, these same social media sites allow people to band together to raise their collective voice in protest, whatever the cause of the day may be. Gawker has published plenty of distasteful articles in its history; it seems likely that if the post about the media executive had gone up in 2005 rather than 2015, it would have generated a great deal less controversy.
Gawker says this is the first time it has ever deleted a post for anything other than factual or legal reasons, but it is not the only digital media company to have done so. BuzzFeed has removed numerous posts from its early years, explaining that they no longer meet the site's editorial standards. Whether this constitutes brand-shaping or erasing history depends on your point of view.
A few months ago, BuzzFeed removed articles criticizing the cosmetics brand Dove and the board game Monopoly — which are made by companies that advertise on BuzzFeed. The site's editor in chief, Ben Smith, later reinstated the posts with an apology.
It will not be easy to impose standards and guidelines on cultures that have grown up without them, particularly in an online setting that prizes unfiltered expression and where the boundary between viral and offensive can be hard to judge.
"When we're talking about legacy media, there are clear rules about what you can do and what you can't do," said Gina Bianchini, chief executive of Mightybell, a social networking start-up. "I think we're going to continue to see stories pop up and be taken down as we try to figure out where the line is."