Whatever happens to Gawker, it's already changed digital media

Nick Denton of Gawker
Fred Lee | ABC | Getty Images

Whatever's next for Gawker Media, it's tone of snarky, no-holds-barred style of journalism has impacted digital media forever.

"Gawker's impact on digital media resonates today when you look at properties like BuzzFeed," said Rebecca Lieb, digital media analyst and author. "The really compelling headline, the almost irresistible story because it's a little bit cheeky, it's a little bit snarky. ... It was really one of the first native digital properties to really carve out a language and a voice and a tone that was uniquely suited for the medium."

The Gawker Media Group said Friday that it has agreed to sell its seven media brands and other assets to digital media company Ziff Davis, which is owned by j2 Global. Sources close to Gawker said the opening bid was between $90 million and $100 million.

"There's a tremendous fit between the two organizations, from brands to audience to monetization," Ziff Davis said in a statement.

The company added it saw Gawker brands Gizmodo, Lifehacker and Kotaku bolstering its consumer tech and gaming positions, while other Gawker sites Jalopnik, Deadspin and Jezebel would strengthen its lifestyle portfolio.

This came shortly after the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The filings stated it had assets of $50 million to $100 million and liabilities of $100 million to $500 million.

The company, CEO Nick Denton and former editor A.J. Daulerio have been embroiled in a lengthy invasion-of-privacy legal battle with entertainer and wrestler Hulk Hogan, after its main publication wrote a story about his leaked sex tape. A Florida jury granted Hogan $140 million in damages. Recently, it was revealed that Hogan's legal case has been bankrolled by Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel.

Denton called the trial a "sham" in a statement on Gawker. He alleged that the case was more about Hogan fearing outcry about racist sentiment on the tape than fears over his personal privacy. When it was disclosed that Thiel backed the Hogan lawsuit, Denton said during a CNBC "Squawk Box" interview that it revealed the "true interests" of the legal case.

"It becomes a story about the power of the billionaire class, particularly the power of the billionaire class in Silicon Valley. They have money. They have wealth. They have anonymity. They have special purpose vehicles. They have offshore accounts. ... They are exercising their power from behind the scenes. I think it's more important than ever that there be an independent media to hold them to account," Denton said.

That exact tone of defiance — whether you agree with it or not — is exactly what gets Gawker in trouble in the first place. When it launched in 2003, it was one of the first truly digital publications to embrace the anarchic tone of the blogosphere and turn it into a media outlet.

While some have felt that its publications have held politicians, Silicon Valley elite and media executives accountable, others have argued it's made personal life gossip of nonpublic figures mainstream. It has since toned down its rhetoric, even controversially pulling down a post that outed a senior executive at Conde Nast. Still, its legacy remains.

Denton doesn't believe this is the end of Gawker. On Friday, he tweeted that he believed Thiel would not prevail.

Gawker reaches purchase agreement with Ziff Davis

"Even with his billions, Thiel will not silence our writers," he wrote. "Our sites will thrive — under new ownership — and we'll win in court."

Lieb points out that it will be interesting to see what happens to Gawker once a more traditional publisher takes it over.

"We are encouraged by the agreement with Ziff Davis, one of the most rigorously managed and profitable companies in digital media," Denton said in the statement. "A combination would marry Ziff Davis' strength in e-commerce, licensing and video with GMG's premium media brands."

CNBC had previously been told by sources that Univision and Gawker were in talks. Univision was interested at the time in creating Spanish-language versions of sites like Gizmodo. The New York Post also reported that Penske Media and Vox Media were in talks. Both companies declined to comment to CNBC.

But even if Gawker doesn't survive, the tone it set will remain, Lieb said.

"The space will be filled," said Lieb. "There is a lot of content online, but Gawker has shown that digital media is a force to be contended with."

Disclosure: CNBC's parent company NBC Universal is an investor in Vox Media and BuzzFeed.

Related Tags