Most every organization operating in the spheres of media and public life these days has an agenda lurking just below the surface, obscured but not invisible. The pool of truly independent entities—or at least entities with unblemished reputations for independence—grows shallower each year. The latest drop in the waterline comes with the gobbling up of the editorial properties of 14-year-old online media company Gawker Media by Univision for $135 million in a bankruptcy auction Tuesday, and it’s one very much worth marking.
The company was founded by Nick Denton in 2002 when blogging was new and unusual, cheap and punchy, and liable to reshuffle the publishing world’s established order and so much more. Its first site was the gadget blog Gizmodo; the flagship Gawker, covering New York and the media, came a year later. The D.C. site Wonkette, sports site Deadspin, women’s site Jezebel, and others would follow. All were driven by aggregation of the news with an irreverent voice—and gossip. They became sources of media fascination and later competitors to some of the titles that had once figured the company a curio.
Denton held onto the sites until Tuesday, when they were sold to satisfy Gawker’s creditors, pro wrestler Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea the largest among them. A Florida jury awarded Bollea $140 million in March after he won an invasion-of-privacy case against Gawker, Denton, and A.J. Daulerio, a former Gawker editor and the author of a post that included snippets of a Bollea sex tape. Gawker is appealing the judgment but would have had to turn the sites over to Bollea had it not entered bankruptcy. After the trial it transpired that billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel had funded Bollea’s suit and others in hopes of hobbling the company.
Gawker isn’t going out of business, but Thiel’s gambit worked. The sites are losing their independence—and what a loss that is. The place in its heyday was the rarest of modern publishing concerns, a journalist’s paradise. (At least as far as editorial freedom went. Pressures to produce traffic engendered a fair amount of stress and burnout among the staff.) It took no investment from venture capitalists or old-line media players even as they were aggressively seeding Gawker’s peers. The company was dedicated to the pursuit of provocative and uncomfortable truth.
I worked at Deadspin from 2011 to 2013 and did so blissfully unaware (as did many of my coworkers) of which advertisers paid our salaries or who Denton’s friends were. There was no better way to get ahead there than by publishing a big scoop, one that upset powerful people. Probably the biggest story we published while I was there was one I co-wrote, about Manti Te’o, the All-American linebacker at Notre Dame whose girlfriend’s death had featured prominently in many meaty stories about his season and his life. We revealed that the girlfriend had never existed. In previous years, Deadspin had exposed Brett Favre’s penis (in the process of exposing that he had sexually harassed a woman who worked for the New York Jets) and the finances of professional sports franchises. All of the titles produced stories like these, from Gawker’s revelation that the mayor of Toronto smoked crack to Jezebel’s documentation of how extensively fashion magazines photoshopped their cover subjects to Gizmodo’s surfacing of an iPhone before it hit the market.
Some of these stories any outlet would have chased and published. But others could be touched first only by Gawker sites, unencumbered as they were by financial relationships with major entities. The company’s goals flowed from its editorial mission rather than its business aims. Even when Gawker announced aspirations to transcend publishing and become a major tech player, those initiatives never came together well enough to displace journalism as the company’s primary business.
In their pursuit, the Gawker sites occasionally and conspicuously crossed the line they toed, and the ensuing drama could overshadow the work. (That thread spans most all of the company’s run, from a dire CNN hit in 2007 about a celebrity-location spotter to a post last summer about a media executive and an escort that led to a staff mutiny.) The house style could turn mean and prurient and knee-jerk and some writers would too often punch down.
But the sites were at heart a life-affirming throwback, a mid-size and profitable media entity driven by a desire to hold the powerful to account. Gawker’s improbable rise concurred with the spread of a gloomy contagion throughout the media industry. TV news had been corporatized decades before. But beginning early in the 2000s, shrinking profits in the newspaper industry compelled consolidation, followed by a wave of bankruptcies and stock-exchange delistings. Beneficent time-tested owners saw their steady profits eroding and sold their papers so that they might park their capital somewhere more rewarding. Exit the Bancrofts and Grahams; enter a brigade of capital vultures and billionaires with opaque motivations and no need to profit from the newspapers. (A puzzler: Which type of owner should spook readers more?)
As told by the funny business afoot at the former Tribune Publishing (presently debased as Tronc), involvement of the above entities can pervert the way journalism gets done. The investor who masterminded a takeover of the company reportedly directed journalists to dig up dirt on a rival shareholder. Last year, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson hid his acquisition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and a chain of other papers while one journalist used a pseudonym to attack a Las Vegas judge presiding over a case against a gambling concern Adelson controls.
All of which is to say the independent media company is disappearing. And the void created by its absence is being filled in unexpected and puzzling ways. Some political entities have turned themselves into publishers. Social media, for one, grants the powerful a vehicle for telling their own stories free of constraints (chiefly, the unvarnished truth). Wikileaks-published document hacks, such the recent Sony and Democratic National Committee troves, invert the social-media dynamic by lashing the powerful to the truth no matter what they might want. But the hackers’ motives are rarely apparent, let alone pure. And even the powerful are entitled to some privacy.
The question of exactly how much privacy the powerful deserve was the matter that bankrupted Gawker—both ostensibly, in the case of the Hulk Hogan sex tape, and actually, in the case of the 2007 post “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” Thiel wrote in a Times op-ed Tuesday that at the time he had come out to some people he knew, but not to the broader world. I can understand why he would loathe Gawker, and even why he would avail himself of unorthodox means to strip the company of its independence. But we should all wish it hadn’t worked.