Jul 27, 2015 ยท 7 minutes

“I don’t have a huge amount of time for noble failure” -- Nick Denton

The last thing you need today is another “rival” gloating about the slow, slow, slow, very sudden downfall of Gawker. Today, we’re told, the site is relaunching as a rubber-tipped, sanitized-for-your-protection version of its former self. Less punching down, less fucking up.

I wrote last week about how this all fits into Nick Denton’s plan to destroy Gawker’s editorial union before it had even finished organizing. How, seizing on the public revulsion over his site’s outing of a married accountant who allegedly attempted to pay for sex, Denton issued Gawker staff an ultimatum: Quit or get back in line.

In a few weeks the only staff remaining will be those who support Denton's management, those prepared to play along because they have nowhere else to go and, of course, those who hope to use the turmoil to clamber a little higher up the greasy pole.

My estimate was off by a few weeks. In fact, Denton’s deadline is set for end of business today, after which any employee remaining will implicitly agree to a “flourishing discussion” and “reigning civility” between staff, readers and management.

In the words of the company’s general counsel, Heather Dietrick...

Those who stay will be committing to a slight recalibration, making sure that we publish stories that are newsworthy and both true and interesting. They'll be supporting a workplace where open discussion flourishes and civility reigns.

Too much time will be wasted this week predicting what will happen next at Gawker. As I sit down to write this -- Sunday afternoon, just after Denton published his latest “Gawker is Growing Up” memo -- it’s unclear how many of Gawker’s fearless, truth-to-power reporters will have the actual courage to quit their cushy blogging job and risk the open market.

Given how previous Gawker refugees have fared in the real world -- brave souls like Alex Pareene, John Cook who made a big show of running away before reality made an even bigger show of sending them back -- I suspect the exodus will be appreciably less than massive.

(Update: As of publication time there is only one confirmed departure -- William Arkin, a writer for a Gawker subdomain called “Phase Zero.” Arkin explained his departure saying “I hate to be hyperbolic, but want to understand ISIS or the Tea Party or Occupy or Charleston or Dylan? Look no further than Gawker and its ilk...We are making the world a miserable place. I’m glad I can withdraw and think about it.”)

There will also doubtless be more ruminating on how Nick Denton appears to be going soft in his old age. How newly-married life appears to have tamed the beast whose Twitter bio once described him as a “Gossip merchant” but now reads “Independent journalist.” Even though, as Denton himself told Forbes, “in order to get the husband that I have I would have had to change before I met him rather than after.”.

It’d be nice if any of this were true: If the founder of Gawker really were a changed man, if gossip merchants really could be transformed -- by love or by age -- into independent journalists.

Well, maybe they can. But not in Nick Denton's case.

For good or ill, the events of the past few weeks show that Denton remains what he has always been: An opportunist, a speculator, and a master showman. What we’ve seen unfold over the past week or so is a study in brand repositioning to reflect a changing market. The failure of one cynical business strategy, giving rise to an equally cynical one.

In 2003, when Denton founded Gawker, he made what likely seemed like a sure bet: That the Internet would make all of us nastier. That, as blogging and what became social media continued to take over the world, our bar for what constituted “celebrity” and “public interest” would drop lower and lower. Our hunger, and tolerance, for meanness, snark and outright bullying of our fellow man would only increase along with our ability to get away with it.

For a long while -- until surprisingly recently -- it looked like Denton's gamble had paid off. From Lulzsec to revenge porn to Gamergate, every week the world seemed to get appreciably nastier, our private lives increasingly fair game. And sitting on the top of that world was Nick Denton -- the man who predicted this new public mood and had set himself up to profit handsomely by hiring an army of sociopathic children to reflect it.

Fusty old publications like The New York Times wouldn’t dream of inciting threats of violence against a woman who made a dumb joke on Twitter. Gawker would. Even the National Enquirer might hesitate before sharing naked photos hacked from a celebrity’s phone. Not Gawker. And no one with a shred of human decency would use an executive’s hacked Amazon receipts to mock her personal grooming habits. At Denton's instruction, human decency was weeded out of Gawker employees at first interview.

But then something strange happened -- something that, as a recovering alcoholic, I recognize all too well. The world sobered up. Somewhere amongst Jennifer Lawrence likening “the fappening” to sexual assault and states passing revenge porn laws and Lulzsec hackers starting to be rounded up by the FBI -- long after Gawker reported on a female politician’s college sex life but long before it reported on an accountant paying for sex -- a good portion of the planet woke up to the fact that we’ve all been blackout drunk on bile for the past decade or so. It’s not clear that there was a single “rock bottom” moment, so much as a slow realization amongst much of the Internet Community that we hated the people we’d become.  Suddenly the “snark” that seemed so cool just felt mean and sad and pathetic.

Of course not everyone has come to this conclusion -- and some never will. There will always be sociopaths, homophobes and misogynists online, including the irredeemable ones who currently work at Gawker. But enough readers have rejected that kind of unconscionable bigotry for a canny businessman like Nick Denton to know his original business strategy has failed. Gawker’s meanness has become toxic to readers and advertisers, and is even starting to make Denton unpopular amongst his most loyal friends.

By contrast, entrepreneurs who took the opposite bet to Gawker -- folks like Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti and Vox’s Jim Bankoff, who built their empires on 90s nostalgia and friendly explainers, targeting those who yearn for a gentler, simpler world --  are seeing their traffic, revenue and valuation soar.  

Public mood is an endless loop and, eventually, nastiness will be back in vogue. But if Gawker is to survive that long, Denton knows he needs to follow the curve. Like any good, opportunistic publisher, he needs to quickly reinvent Gawker as kinder, fluffier and more marketable to a modern, sober audience. Media tycoons have been doing this for decades -- witness Rupert Murdoch’s UK tabloids flipping back and forth between supporting Labour and Conservative governments in line with public mood. Denton himself acknowledged that need to follow “the numbers” as far back in 2010 when he was profiled in the New Yorker:

“I actually think Gawker’s fairer now than it used to be,” he told me, and quickly added that this had not come about through “any great moral reëxamination” but because the numbers are inherently self-correcting….

“If you’re running Spy, at some point you have a choice: do you want to be the cute, unprofitable, ultimately doomed niche publication, or do you want to create something that’s viable and lasting?” Denton said. “I didn’t like the story of Spy. They failed.”

Seen in those terms, the new Gawker doesn’t reflect any particular shift in Nick Denton’s personality or personal ideology, any more than Murdoch’s support of Margaret Thatcher and later Tony Blair and then back to David Cameron showed an actual leftward, then rightward, shift.  

All of Denton’s previous grand statements about “truth absolutis[m]” and how “hypocrisy is the only modern sin” can now be seen for what they were -- advertising guff to cement Gawker’s position as the market leader in meanness. Likewise his new campaign -- with slogans about “communities built around the shared enthusiasms of writers and readers”  -- are classic brand repositioning.

New Gawker for a New Generation. Business as usual for Nick Denton.