Gawker’s Nick Denton Says This Is ‘Not the Company I Built’; Staffers Disagree

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Nick Denton speaks during Advertising Week in New York on Monday, Sept. 27, 2010. Photo: Bloomberg/2010 Bloomberg

The dispute between Gawker Media staffers and founder/CEO Nick Denton (along with the rest of the company’s managing partners) deepened on Monday afternoon, with Denton saying of the current controversy, “This is the very, very worst version of the company … This is not the company I built.” Earlier in the day, Gawker Media executive editor Tommy Craggs and Gawker.com editor-in-chief Max Read announced they were resigning following the partners’ decision to take down a post about a media executive, who is married to a woman, attempting to hire a male escort. New York’s Gabriel Sherman reported that during their farewell meeting, Craggs told staffers, “This is Nick’s Reichstag fire.” A source explained that Craggs and Denton clashed in recent weeks over Gawker’s long-term direction, and alleged that the founder hopes to transform the company into an edgier version of Vox.

Denton held his own meeting with Gawker’s editorial staff several hours later. (Full disclosure: I was formerly employed by the Gawker site Jezebel.) According to Capital New York, he said he still believes it’s acceptable to expose the sexual orientation of public figures in certain instances, but he can’t think of an outing more “egregious and poorly handled” than the post in question. “I don’t want some guy blowing his brains out and that being on our hands,” he said. Denton also criticized the editors for failing to protect the post’s author, Jordan Sargent, who is “shell-shocked” after receiving torrents of online criticism. “It’s the responsibility of the company and it’s the responsibility of the editors to protect their writers from that shitstorm,” he said.

Denton went on to criticize the staff for adopting a “maximalist interpretation of editorial freedom.” He clarified some of his reported remarks in a Gchat with Capital on Monday evening, saying, “What I can’t accept is an unlimited and subjective version of editorial freedom. It is not whatever an editor thinks it is; it is not a license to write anything; it is a privilege, protected by the constitution, and carrying with it responsibilities.” Denton acknowledged that clashes with remarks he’s made in the past, saying, “I’ve been told that there’s a lag, some of my ideas from seven years ago are still being treated as sacrosanct when I’ve actually moved on.” (Interestingly, Steve Huffman, the CEO of Gawker’s longtime foe Reddit, expressed a similar sentiment last week, saying, despite what users think, the founders never intended the site to be a “bastion of free speech.”)

As for his supposed desire to “Vox-ify Gawker,” Denton said, “Nah, Vox is already Vox. Gawker will be Gawker. Our explainers will be juicier. And stories bolder.”

Gawker Media executive features editor Tom Scocca returned the volley, telling the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple that Denton’s remarks at the meeting were “pretty annoying and crappy.” He explained, “Nick got up and tried to express his belief that this was anything other than him freaking out about Twitter and he offered some historically dubious claims about his own record and journalistic priorities that people were able to challenge on the spot.” He added, “There was a lot to dispute in Nick’s analysis and we disputed it.”

Denton suggested during the meeting that Gawker should have a written editorial policy that explicitly states that stories must be newsworthy, not just true. Scocca disputed the idea that Gawker hasn’t been following that standard, saying, “If you don’t think Tommy Craggs has been producing interesting and meaningful content, you haven’t been reading the site.”

Scocca said Gawker staffers also questioned why Denton didn’t kill the story about the media executive himself. “Nick had been aware that this story was going up and so the idea that the story was so identifiably reprehensible … is given the lie by the fact that Nick was aware the post existed and didn’t exercise the publisher’s prerogative” to pull it, Scocca said. Denton told Wemple he didn’t read the story before it went up. “I haven’t read a story prior to publication since Tommy took over,” he said. “He talked us through it. I told him I didn’t see the point.”

Gawker’s remote editors are flying in for another all-hands meeting on Tuesday, so tune in tomorrow for the next dramatic installment.