Gawker’s Future: A Conversation With Nick Denton

Ravi Somaiya

On July 16, the news and gossip website Gawker, a digital-media pioneer partly responsible for the tone and sensibility of web journalism, published an article that accused a married male media executive of seeking, via text message, to pay for sex with a gay escort. It was swiftly condemned as an unseemly invasion of privacy, and Gawker's founder and chief executive, Nick Denton, decided to remove the article from the site. Two of his editors resigned, accusing Mr. Denton of violating editorial independence.

He has since vowed, in a series of publicly released memos, to change the site, to make it "nicer" and less tabloid in its sensibilities, and perhaps even change its name, as a reflection of a changed media environment and to safeguard the rest of his portfolio — including the sports site Deadspin and the gadget site Gizmodo.

"This is an opportunity to be seized, our best shot as an independent media company supporting the freest journalists on the web," he wrote in a memo to staff members on Sunday. "We will face up to celebrities and other public figures who use the courts and other pressure to suppress the truth; reinforce the existing church-state divide; establish a clearer standard of newsworthiness; inject some more humanity into; bring in more experienced executives, managers and editors; and refine our workplace culture; and continue. This is the next stage of our evolution."

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The following conversation was conducted by instant message on Sunday afternoon, the day before a kind of reintroduction of Gawker, as it moves to new offices. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Can you describe your thought process before the story about the media executive was published?

A. As I've said before, I couldn't see the point of the story, or why the subject's position was relevant. This was not a story about the conduct of his job, or the culture of the company he worked for.

Q. So what responsibility do you bear for its running? Both culturally and specifically?

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A. I bear responsibility for dodging a real debate about the purpose of Gawker. The truth is necessary to a story, but it's not sufficient. In my view, there has to be some meaning. It has to be interesting. And my ethos diverged from that of the editorial leadership. The one good thing to come out of this misbegotten story is that we are finally having that discussion about editorial standards.

Nick Denton, founder and CEO of Gawker Media.
Katie Kramer | CNBC

Q. But when you think about what has happened in the life of this media executive, what do you think your responsibility personally is?

A. I have been involved in the outing of several public figures. I am a gay man who lived in the closet myself. I believe people are happier when they live in truth. But this media executive had not invited our attention, there was no public hypocrisy to expose, and it was a private matter far from the open secrets that we usually disseminate. I was revolted by the article, and ashamed to have it anywhere near the Gawker name. I am deeply sorry that any editor hired by me would ever believe that was a piece worth standing behind. In hiring new newsroom leaders, this story will be a litmus test.

Q. Have you been in contact at all with the media executive at the heart of this? If not, what would you say to him, if given the opportunity?

A. I am in the middle of a note to the media executive at the center of the story, but I think my apology should be private unless he chooses to share it. We cannot un-ring this bell. But we can make sure its ugly sound is not heard again.

Q. I am going to ask you to respond to, or expand on, some of your statements in recent days. In the statement you posted on taking down the article, you said that it might have worked as an article in a previous era, "but the media environment has changed, our readers have changed, and I have changed." Let's start with ways in which you have changed. Are you now an insider?

A. I am where I've been: with many friends among journalists and many fewer among the people we cover. I'm fine with that. Access is overrated in journalism. But something has changed. Personally, I'm much more sensitive to the children and families of those who get caught up in stories.

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Q. Does that have anything to do with the fact that you yourself got married?

A. I did get married last year, to Derrence. And we are hoping to start a family. So I am less of a sexual outsider than I was. At this point, I probably socialize as much with married people as I do with single people. I'll leave others to psychoanalyze that.

Q. Do you think Derrence agrees with what you do?

A. We are a couple, and Derrence has a powerful effect on my thinking, but I'm not going to speak for him.

Q. Have you been more hands-off at Gawker in recent years? Have you left it a little rudderless, perhaps?

A. There was a rudder. It was just pointing in a direction that ultimately I didn't agree with. The company has more than 250 people. I have to be able to trust the heads of the major departments, editorial included.

Q. Now to Gawker itself. In what way have Gawker's readers changed?

A. Gawker's readers have changed along with the society they're part of. My sense is that glee at information that spills out on the Internet has given way to a greater concern for personal privacy. More and more people have public lives on social media. And nobody wants to live in a world in which it's so easy for your smartphone texts to spill onto the web — and so easy for media to justify spreading the embarrassment.

Q. You said in a recent memo to all of Gawker staff that "even the best of our stories fail to get credit, in part because of Gawker's reputation for tabloid trash." How do you define tabloid trash?

A. I define tabloid trash as a scandal without any point. Infidelity, drug use, illness: These may be sufficient justification for a tabloid news site. But Gawker is supposed to be an intelligent tabloid, that covers juicy stories that show how the world works. I'm proud of our coverage of Bill O'Reilly's temper, Hillary Clinton's secret kitchen cabinet, the privilege of Michael Lynton's daughter. In all those examples, there was a point, and a public interest in the truth getting wider circulation.

Q. Is it fair to say that Gawker will become more like the publications it set out in opposition to?

A. Gawker will be at the very edge of the mainstream. It will look for real stories either in the compromises of mainstream media companies, or in the principled anarchy of free-for-all web communities such as Reddit. I don't think The New York Times should relax just yet.

Q. Are you at all worried about the rapid rise of competitors like BuzzFeed and Vice?

A. There are four big online media groups to emerge on the web: BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox and Gawker Media. Unlike the others, we have achieved scale and profitability without a dollar in external investment.

Q. But do they threaten Gawker Media? Are they at all behind your reaction to this , and the desire to be nicer?

A. BuzzFeed and Vice are taking a different path. There is plenty of room for all of us. If anybody should be worried, it is the established media company that has not been able to bring TV and print audiences online.

Q. Speaking of which: You outlined, in your latest memo, that Gawker should be about getting the real story — the story that journalists at more conservative publications tell in the bar after work. Do you think it is possible to do that without ending up with a post like the one you removed?

A. To publish the story behind the story, there has to be a story in the first place. In the instance of the media executive and the escort, there wasn't a story, not by any editorial standard that I'm aware of. We will continue to run stories that others deem too distasteful. Our standards will be looser than those of The Times and other established news organizations. But there will be clearer standards.

Q. You said recently that Ta-Nehisi Coates would be your dream Gawker executive editor. Why? What does he offer, or represent?

A. I'm not going to talk about individual candidates. But we are looking for a mixture of news judgment, intellectual framework and humanity. The ideal candidate was actually a colleague of yours, David Carr, now sadly no longer with us.

Q. Is humanity an important component of journalism?

A. Yes, David Carr was described as the most human of humans. Let the writers run a little wild, but they need to be saved from their own selves by editors with a conscience.

Q. So what would you like to see Gawker as in a year or two's time? And what changes will you be making, apart from the move, to ensure that?

A. I'd like Gawker to be the best version of itself, taking the best of each era of the site. The scoops of John Cook. The investigations of Adrian Chen or J. K. Trotter. Pop culture from Rich Juzwiak. And some of Max Read's excellent vision for the site. All the ingredients are there, and the talent. And I'd like to see other properties — category leaders like Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Deadspin and Jezebel — come out from Gawker's shadow. "Gawker is your one-stop guide to media and pop culture. It is the place you come to learn the real story — the account you won't (or can't) find anywhere else." That's from Max's memo at the start of the year.

As for how we get there, most depends on bringing in experienced newsroom leaders and establishing an formal editorial code.

Q. How hands-on will you be?

A. I do not want to establish bad precedent through my intervention in the case of the media executive. Our main focus will be on the hiring of an executive editor who shares my editorial ethos, and a formalization of decision making in the event of disagreements over a story.

Q. Will there be hard limits in that code? Stuff you won't cover?

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A. Nobody wants a long document that no writer will internalize. A few paragraphs, openly debated with editors and writers, would be most effective. From my memo, "At Gawker Media, it is not enough for a story to be true; it has to be true and interesting. It should be interesting not only to an in-house editor, but to our reader communities. And the interest should be worth the hurt inflicted."

Q. You said the media environment has changed. How?

A. I think the gap between the reader and a public figure has narrowed. We have more of a feeling that celebrities and the subjects of stories are people just like us, with secrets that others don't have an automatic right to. And Gawker itself is larger. In the past, the site might have been seen as an ankle-biter, its wilder posts dismissed or ignored. Now, we're The Man. And a writer's fight against the system can come across as plain bullying of an individual who is as much a prisoner of the system as anybody else.

Everybody will be back to work this coming week. New office. New execs. Gawker always bounces back. This is just the way that crises play out in open organizations. And I know I would say that, but it is also true. Just think about it: an all-hands meeting in which everybody is free to speak, and they're backchanneling on Slack [an instant messaging app] and live-blogging on Twitter. Total transparency. Most companies would be terrified!

Q. Will you be changing the name?

A. The name change is just a proposal. Nothing imminent (though I would like Gawker to be free of such responsibility for the whole company's reputation).

Q. Is it a serious proposal? One that has traction and might happen? Or more of a musing?

A. It might happen.

Q. What are the potential names?

A. It won't be anytime soon. We are considering it. It is more of a distraction. We are committed to making Gawker a brand the whole company can be proud of.

Q. You offered buyouts to any staff members who could not go along with these changes. How many have taken them?

A. I am not sure. I'm leaving to it to Heather [Dietrick, the president and general counsel of Gawker Media]. I really don't want to get dragged into editorial personnel decisions, though obviously I have views about writers.