Gawker’s Existential Crisis

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What now?

At noon today, outgoing Gawker editors Tommy Craggs and Max Read held a meeting with the company’s editorial staff to explain their decision to resign over founder Nick Denton’s decision to delete a post about a married Condé Nast executive’s efforts to arrange sex with a male prostitute. Since the scandal broke on Thursday, Gawker has been having what can best be described as a nervous breakdown. What started as internal conflict over a journalism judgment call (or lack of one) has metastasized into an existential crisis about just, what, exactly, is Gawker? Denton’s website, which started more than a decade ago as a single blog dedicated to mocking the Manhattan media elite, has now grown into a digital media company with more than half a dozen websites generating millions in revenue.

Standing in front of their former colleagues packed into Gawker’s Elizabeth Street offices this afternoon, Craggs and Read explained that they were quitting to defend a sacred principle, according to a source in the room. The stakes, Craggs said, are much larger than one blog post. If Denton got his way, Gawker would just become a tamer Vox, which has been valued by some at north of $400 million. “This is Nick’s Reichstag fire,” Craggs, Gawker Media’s executive editor, told staffers. What he meant, a source told me, is that “this was the pretext by which he can Vox-ify Gawker.” 

This is a big reason that controversy escalated so quickly. In the weeks leading up to the Condé post, Denton has been increasingly at odds with Craggs over the company’s long-term direction, telling him that the site had become “too mean.” In his resignation letter, Craggs mockingly described a “brand book” that Denton commissioned as a sort of mission statement for the company. “We reveal what’s really happening without restraint, inhibition, or ulterior motives,” the document states. “We’re fearless in sharing our own perspectives — regardless of how unconventional, unpopular, or unexpected they may be. We tell the real story.”

According to one Gawker source, Denton has been panicked that Gawker is slipping further behind new media competitors. “Nick has decided Gawker should be Vox but a little edgier,” one Gawker source said. “He’s rich and successful and he’s been fully captured by the people he wanted to report on and be mean about.” (Denton could not be reached for comment.)

In one way, the staffers’ frustration is understandable. Denton, after all, encouraged them for years to throw bombs and not worry about the collateral damage, in human or financial terms. “Some of the cruelest posts that have ever been written are by Nick,” one said. Denton seemed to acknowledge this himself in an email to Jordan Sargent, the 26-year-old reporter who posted the disgraced post. “You need to know you did nothing wrong,” Denton told him. “These are the stories we used to do. But times have changed.” It wasn’t just Denton’s belief that the post was beyond the pale. All of Twitter was in an uproar over the cruelty to an essentially private citizen. Gawker staffers I spoke to continue to defend the post. “This is gossip and a bizarre story to boot. We fucked up the packaging,” one told me. “The facts of the story are newsworthy, bottom to top.” 

The more immediate question is just how the site will continue to function this week. At Craggs and Read’s farewell meeting, staffers expressed anger that they were leaving them behind. At one point, writer Bill Arkin wanted to know what would happen to the rest of them. Craggs and Read didn’t have answers. “This is not helpful!” Arkin yelled, according to a source. Right now, Gawker is being edited by Read’s deputy, Leah Beckmann. Denton has been trying to right the ship. At 1 p.m. today, he held a meeting with the company. Two sources said he asked John Cook, executive editor for investigations, to fill in as acting editorial director. So far Cook hasn’t answered.