The start of 2012 brings with it a new top editor at the flagship site of Nick Denton's Gawker Media, as A.J. Daulerio, formerly of the network's sports blog Deadspin, takes over at the general-interest gossip site. So far, Daulerio has mocked his boss and pissed off Brian Williams in a way that indicates an interest in brutal transparency, posting internal e-mails and even auditioning new writers by having them post live to the site. Today, the editor-in-chief is ushering in his reign with more unorthodoxy — bound to appeal to media nerds — which essentially asks, "What is a blog, anyway?"
In a post this morning entitled "Gawker Will Be Conducting An Experiment, Please Enjoy Your Free Cute Cats Singing And Sideboobs," Daulerio lays out his editorial exercise for everyone to see:
This week, the writers of this site have all agreed to participate in an obnoxious, but worthwhile exercise. Each day, a different staff writer will be forced to break their usual routine and offer up posts they feel would garner the most traffic. While that writer struggles to find dancing cat videos and Burger King bathroom fights or any other post they feel will add those precious, precious new eyeballs, the rest of the staff will spend time on more substantive stories they may have neglected due to the rigors of scouring the internet each day to hit some imaginary quota. The writers not relegated to traffic-whoring duty will still post, just less frequently than many of them are probably used to.
The purpose of this is to make it perfectly clear to the staff of Gawker (and to the readers, hopefully) that just because this is technically a "blog," there is plenty of room for other pieces that aren't aggregated and repackaged with block-quotes and snappy snarky snarking snark-snark shit.
Daulerio himself has taken the first shift in "traffic-whoring duty," resulting in several small posts, mostly about celebrities, aggregated from sites like TMZ. While he admits that "Gawker's traffic is still a priority," he says "it's time to let the writers take their time and think beyond their personal news feeds." (But there are some standards: The quest for traffic includes bans on porn, racism, and galleries.)
In a way, Daulerio is just dramatizing what happens on most successful blogs: Writers alternate between quick, dirty (and usually aggregated articles) and longer, thoughtful (and original) pieces, ideally striking some balance both on an individual level and for the site as a whole. Gawker Media does this, Andrew Sullivan does this, and so do we here at Daily Intel. More dramatically, Buzzfeed is attempting to work through this method by sending reporters out on the campaign trail and having them file serious dispatches alongside a ton of unserious content.
But by explicitly and publicly announcing the experiment, Daulerio is making a point, in addition to the added bonus of creating a little splash to start his term. He could be getting at a few things:
Maybe this is the way a big blog should work. Perhaps the test-run will be so successful that trashy, traffic-whoring shifts once a week will become the norm, leaving other writers time to get trenchant and go long. It's certainly not impossible that a site could grow by allowing its writers time to stretch their wings while also maintaining a baseline of cheap celebrity content and cats.
But more likely, in my view, Daulerio's experiment will go to show that editorial success online isn't all SEO, The Huffington Post be damned. It's possible, or maybe even likely, that when Gawker tallies up their stats at the end of the imposed trial period, the thoughtful, longer, substantive stuff will have performed better than the junk food about Kevin Federline, at least a good percentage of the time. When a writer focuses solely on what they think "the Internet" and Google Gods want, they'll probably be wrong (not to mention go brain-dead).
If the online world's mini longform boom and widespread blog push toward original reporting has demonstrated anything, it's that an audience can consume both high quality and thoughtful writing alongside a YouTube video of a Korean kid singing Lady Gaga. That's not a secret, but it does get lost sometimes amid pessimism about the creation of "content" online; writers know this better than anyone and have seen it play out. Daulerio's demonstration, more than a gentle reminder of these facts, might be more like a smack upside the head.