Save the Trash! Why the Gawker Archive Is Important

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You probably can't read this magazine, even if you want to.

In 1924, a health faddist named Bernarr Macfadden, who’d made a bunch of money publishing bodybuilding and pulp-fiction magazines, started a new tabloid newspaper called the New York Evening Graphic. Created to compete with the newish Daily News and Daily Mirror, it was monstrously sleazy for its time. It covered, and inflamed, celebrity scandals, notably the delicious, ridiculous tale of Peaches and Daddy; it also launched the career of Walter Winchell, the most powerful newspaper columnist who ever lived. The Graphic was feared and hated and, of course, widely read in tenements and classic sixes alike. (Peak circulation has been estimated at a million copies a day — several times more than the New York Post of that era.) The Graphic was also a lawsuit magnet, and in 1932 it was driven out of business by the paired forces of heavy litigation and the Depression.

The New York Public Library, back then, preserved the New York newspapers by binding them in large volumes and (later) microfilming them. The Graphic, though, must have seemed like garbage, and the librarians opted out. A few years ago, when the historians Penelope Pelizzon and Nancy West were working on a book called Tabloid, Inc., they found that no single library had all of the Graphic. A few places have incomplete sets; at least one stretch of the paper’s run is completely gone.

In 1954, a former Graphic reporter started a pulp magazine called Confidential. It too was hugely successful, especially after it broke the news that Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio’s marriage was on the rocks, and kept publishing until 1978. (Peak claimed circulation: 4 million.) And it too was considered too crappy to preserve. Academic libraries certainly didn’t want it; the New York Public Library didn’t either. A look at Worldcat, the catalogue-of-catalogues site, reveals that scattered issues are held by a few universities, in some cases in their rare-books divisions, where they were donated along with an individual’s papers. It appears that nobody has a full set of Confidential, either.

The bankruptcy sale of Gawker Media to Univision this week did not include the company’s flagship site, gawker.com. For now, it remains with Nick Denton, its founder; it will eventually be auctioned off to pay the company’s creditors. Maybe Denton himself will be able to buy it back and keep its archives online, pulling in a few ad dollars from random visitors who come in through Google. Maybe Peter Thiel will buy it and flush it down the pipes, cackling. Maybe some third party will start a new site on the old URL and scrub the archives of anything potentially litigation-inspiring.

The early content of Gawker, in particular, is of real significance in the history of journalism. Elizabeth Spiers, in the site’s first days, and Choire Sicha, soon thereafter, all but invented the bloggy, voice-y approach to online writing that now dominates the web. Many of us try to do that sort of work in a more generous or kinder way; many of us do not have the appetite for blood that Gawker did. But whether you like it or not, or mimic it or not, what they did changed the way things are done. For that alone, it is (and will be) worth study, and is thus worth preserving.

It is, once you stop to think about it, crazy that no library has attempted to archive Gawker. If you are in the business of saving newspapers and magazines for the future, you should be in the business of saving digital newspapers and magazines as well, period. Most libraries, faced with budget crunches and far more digital content than they could possibly manage, don’t do this. Given their depressingly limited resources, it’s entirely justifiable for them to say, “Let the New York Times archive itself for now.” (The barrier is not an issue of storage space, which the cloud makes nearly infinite; it’s a question of dedicated manpower to set up an information funnel, bring all the data in, and catalogue it and make it accessible.)

But when a site like Gawker is at risk of going dark, there needs to be action, whether from the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library or the New-York Historical Society or a major research university — all institutions that, good as they are, tend not to move fast at moments like this. Their customs (which are truly, literally hidebound) have already left a big hole in the culture. If you want to look up a post from the early, great Web magazine Feed, it’s likely gone for good. Same for the early iterations of Radar, or the interestingly weird nonsense at pseudo.com, or the early lifecasting by Jennifer Ringley. A couple of years ago, I tried to look up a great story called “Voyeur Dorm” by my onetime colleague Vanessa Grigoriadis, written for nerve.com during the very early days of the cam-girl business. It deserves to be in journalism anthologies, and it too was missing (at the time; someone there has since dug it up and brought it back, at least for the moment). The Wayback Machine, nice as it is, doesn’t go deep enough into most sites to provide much more than a snapshot.

The very point of a library is to take these things out of private hands, to make sure that they outlive transient market forces. That was a lot simpler when everything existed in multiple copies; when the New York Herald Tribune went out of business, the copies of the Herald Tribune at the library didn’t suddenly combust, and its photo and clipping files went off to two institutions intact. Websites, though, simply vanish. Yes, there are questions of copyright to be worked out — the Beinecke Library, say, can’t simply take over Gawker and keep it up and publicly accessible. (The likely solution would be for the site to live on computers in the library’s own building, with access limited to cardholders and actual visitors.) It is an imperfect solution, to be sure. Gawker’s archives are already tangled, with plenty of dead links, and many older stories were mangled or rendered inaccessible when they were moved to new platforms. They are, however, coherent enough to be read, which is the main point of having them.

Stipulated: Gawker was — is — hard for a lot of people to love. The things many people consider sleaze, though, are part of our culture, like it or not. (As archaeologists know, the privy is often the best site to excavate.) You don’t have to celebrate something to realize that it’s important. Yet we have an aversion to saving that which slightly embarrasses us. When the Library of Congress, a few years ago, announced that it would begin archiving everything put up on Twitter, people howled, saying things like “death of civilization.” In fact, the opposite is true: The most important thing a historian can ask for is vernacular material, the material that you wouldn’t expect to be saved. The papers of each White House — they’re important, sure. But if you, 500 years hence, want to do a survey of exactly what millennial Americans ate, you don’t want the Obama library. What you want is our Instagram feeds. Nobody’s keeping those, either.

Did I Kill Gawker?