Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Duff: Gossip blog could redefine Web journalism, if it survives

Duff: Gossip blog could redefine Web journalism, if it survives
Back in November, I made a special effort to praise Nick Denton’s Gawker site and the suite of publications that sprang up around it.

I praised Gawker for having an outsider ethic, for showcasing sharp writing and for spawning a vibrant community of commenters. I said Gawker was the antidote to traditional entertainment journalism, and before the ink on my column was dry, Denton started a chain of events that unraveled everything I had just praised.

On Nov. 30, two of Gawker’s editors, Emily Gould and Choire Sicha, announced their resignation. A day later, Josh Stein followed.

Gawker lost half its staff in 48 hours. The list of possible reasons goes on and on: the tone of the site had gotten meaner, the pace of work was brutal, commenters had taken the spotlight off the main content and Denton was getting ready to change the entire direction of the site.

From 2002-2007, Gawker’s popularity came from the quality of its writing – a witty, acid tone inspired by the old Spy magazine.

Gawker may have been a gossip site, but it was also a blog. It used an intimate first-person style that put readers and contributors on the same level – as if the editors were just another set of spurned media wannabes, making fun of elites on the inside.

It didn’t sound like a news site, it sounded like a personal journal. In the beginning, that’s exactly what it was. Gawker editor Elizabeth Spiers arrived in New York as a complete novice and took her audience on a real time tour of New York – taking the audience step by step through her New York education.

Gawker editors kept their outsider tone all the way through 2007, when fan-favorite Alex Balk gave Gawker a taste of its own medicine. It seemed like fair play at the time. Gawker cut its teeth chewing on arrogant media personalities, so on Sept. 5, Balk took a bite out of his boss.

Denton was considering a new pay system that would reward writers based on the raw popularity of their posts. Where they used to get paid by the post, now they would be paid by the page view. Gawker critics (myself included) fear that system will create a “race for the bottom” as hungry editors replace witty commentary with YouTube videos of babies getting kicked in the face.

Balk posted some internal chatter between himself and Denton and got roasted for it in public. Balk quit soon after, and the fans have been pining for him ever since.

Now it’s a new year and Nick Denton has taken personal control of his site. With the flip of a switch, Gawker lost its sense of humor and became a rather ordinary blog.

The army of commenters, courted so carefully by Denton in 2007, have been marginalized and insulted by this change in tone. A group of frequent posters have launched a rebellion against the new site, boycotting new threads and staging protests in old ones. Last week they started moving high-traffic events off site, beyond the reach of Denton and his advertisers.

It’s a classic underdog story, but Gawker is a real business, and it’s hard to measure how much power these commenters have. Gawker is still a dominant presence on the Web, still a vital part of New York. Regular visitors may be repelled by YouTube videos and Julia Allison guest posts, but a dozen new readers are waiting to take their place, clicking in from email forwards and social networking sites. These visitors won’t care about the tone of Gawker or the culture that it came from. They won’t be as loyal or as clever as the old readership, but there’s more of them, and advertisers won’t care where the hits come from.

I’m afraid Gawker ’08 will look more like a ghetto than a dinner party, as the masses take over and smart young writers leave for greener pastures. I hope readers will rebel against Denton’s new model and force him to bring the old Gawker back, but the Web tends to reward quantity over quality, and nobody ever lost money appealing to the lowest common denominator.

You don’t have to live in New York to care about this. Gawker is an industry leader. If Denton’s experiment works, hundreds of publications will follow his example. Paying writers by the page view could change the whole structure of Internet journalism, crowding out quality writing as everybody races to post pictures of Britney in her underwear.

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 11, 2008 at 13:41

Posted in Columns

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