On Friday afternoon, after many hours of angry tweets and takes, Gawker decided to take down the story it had published the night before on a married Condé Nast executive who was being blackmailed by a gay escort. It was the first time the media company had removed a big story from the internet for editorial concerns rather than factual or legal ones. And it was a decision that many in the company appear to be very conflicted about. Everyone who worked on the editorial side of the company defended the post and its right to stay online, and everyone on the business and ad side of the company argued it should disappear.
In a long statement, Gawker CEO Nick Denton explained the decision. “I cannot blame our editors and writers for pursuing that original mission,” he writes. “But the media environment has changed, our readers have changed, and I have changed.” He adds that “this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories. It is not enough for them simply to be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting.” In other words, they will have to be … news. He ends by noting that some may see this move as a sign that Gawker is giving in.
Employees — current and former — took to Twitter to debate the deletion and the original post. Many seem gobsmacked that the business side of the company had managed to overrule an editorial decision guided by years of mischief-making precedent.
Around 5 p.m., Gawker writer Tom Scocca published a post with the tag “Editorial Standards” titled, “Hi, I Am a Cute and Very Harmless Kittycat.” It featured a photo of a wide-eyed kitten and one sentence: “Please don’t take me down.” An hour later, the Gawker Media editorial staff published a statement echoing the tweets above — the separation of business and editorial decisions is sacred — and arguing that the decision to take the post down against its wishes was further proof that the editorial side needed to unionize.
Our union drive has expressed at every stage of the process that one of our core goals is to protect the editorial independence of Gawker Media sites from the influence of business-side concerns. Today’s unprecedented breach of the firewall, in which business executives deleted an editorial post over the objections of the entire executive editorial staff, demonstrated exactly why we seek greater protection. Our opinions on the post are not unanimous but we are united in objecting to editorial decisions being made by a majority of non-editorial managers. Disagreements about editorial judgment are matters to be resolved by editorial employees. We condemn the takedown in the strongest possible terms.
Deadspin editor Timothy Burke wrote a comment under the statement, noting that while the editorial staff seemed united in thinking that business concerns shouldn’t have interfered with editorial independence, that didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of writers who had been disappointed that the story had existed in the first place: “A large percentage of the Gawker Media editorial staff disagreed with Gawker’s decision to publish the post to which this statement refers. Our opposition to the removal of the post lies solely in the process by which that decision was made, not in regard to the content of the post itself.”
Adam Weinstein, who tweeted his disapproval of the story earlier, wrote on Tumblr that he no longer worked for Gawker — because he had been fired last month. He also didn’t seem too happy about where his former company appeared to be heading.
My personal view is Gawker’s usual surplus of talent and insight is being undermined by a couple of people running things who’ve made it very small, very mean, and very jerkily gossipy without an intermediate process of reflection.
Other writers and employees stuck to simply noting that it had been a crazy day at the office on Twitter, without delving into the office politics publicly.
After the post came down, corners of the internet previously interested in chastising Gawker began to wonder what the decision to take down the story meant for the company’s future. At The New Republic, Jeet Heer wrote, “The question for Gawker will be whether the new standards outlined by Denton are compatible with the ethos that has governed the site from the beginning. If stories are supposed to reveal something ‘meaningful,’ will Gawker still be Gawker?” Michael Wolff — who has often been a target of Gawker’s scorn and has made no secret of his dislike for its stories, especially when they are about him — wrote on Hollywood Reporter that he had seen a schism between the editorial thinking of Denton and his publication for a while. “The boss is supposed to not let something be published that he can’t stand by. … Where was he? Who is minding the store? Are the nuts running the nuthouse?”
At the Washington Post, Erik Wemple argued that the post had a purpose beyond its questionable newsworthiness. His theory is that “the site publishes stories such as this just to stay in shape. Its people know that when they step close, near or on top of ethical lines, they are in good territory for their brand. That queasiness about the publishability of a story is a good feeling. That causing a firestorm in media-crit blogs is part of the mission statement. That writing about some guy’s arrangements with an escort sends a message to their sources — Yes, send us the sleazy stuff, please.”
Beyond questions of whether Gawker’s editorial mission would survive the maelstrom — and the furious reaction of the editorial staff to how this post’s life unexpectedly expired makes it clear that it is ready to fight to keep doing what it’s doing undeterred — Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern thinks that the media company should be more worried about having to deal with even more legal problems beyond Hulk Hogan in the near future. ”[U]nless Gawker is completely confident that every single allegation [in the post] is completely accurate, the company should be very, very nervous right now.”