Consider the Gawker mind-fuck at a time of rapid deterioration of our industry: Young print journalists are depressed over the state of the industry and their inability to locate challenging work or a job with health insurance. Although the situation may not be as dire as they might imagine—a healthy magazine is constantly on the hunt for young writers, because it wants the fresh take on the world found only in the young, and because young writers tend to be cheap—they need a release, the daily dose of Schadenfreude offered by Gawker’s gallows humor, its ritualistic flogging of working journalists and relentless cataloguing of the industry’s fall (e.g., items like “New Republic Page Count Watch”). Though reading Gawker subtly reinforces their misery, they generate an emotional bond and soon begin to tip it with their own inside information (and misinformation, as reserved for their enemies). The system keeps getting stronger, a KGB of media gossip, a complex network of journalist spies and enforcers communicating via e-mail and IM, until Gawker knocks print out of the box. With Gawker, there is now little need for the usual gossip players like the New York Observer, vastly diminished in its news-breaking capacity and influence, or even the New York Post’s “Page Six,” emasculated by the Murdoch hierarchy after the Jared Paul Stern scandal. The panopticon is complete. “Peering into my in-box in the morning is like looking at the id of every journalist in the city,” says Gawker writer Emily Gould.
It’s almost part of Gawker’s business plan to ensure that its young writers, by attracting the attention of those they are sniping at, are able to leap into the waiting arms of the mainstream media before they become too expensive to employ. One afternoon, I meet Gould for tea before her early-evening meeting with an agent for appetizers at Serafina. She has the look of a studious but sexy punk rocker: 26, dirty-blond hair caught in a high ponytail that shakes back and forth like a wagging tail as she speaks, tattoos crawling over a shoulder and back exposed today by a purple-plaid jumper. “I don’t even really want to be a writer, but I feel like I don’t have a choice,” she says quietly. “It’s all I’ve ever known how to do.”
Possibly, Denton is holding onto Gawker as a kind of hobby, partly for the fun of having a catalogue of the decline of print, a history of the fall.
Ten or twenty years ago, Gould would have likely emulated Joan Didion, but she is trying to play the blog game now. She means to win, and to grab some attention for herself in the process. This summer, she took some time off in Maine, and before she went posted a picture of herself on Gawker in a bathing suit flipping the bird—“At least I didn’t put up the ones of myself in a silver-lamé bikini. That would have been a little much,” she says, laughing. She even used to do a lot of TV spots for Gawker, but then got badly beat up by Jimmy Kimmel, who told her on-air (he was subbing for Larry King), “I just want you to think about your life...because I would hate to see you arriving in hell and somebody sending a text message saying, ‘Guess who’s here?’” She was panicked about this at the time, but she’s moved past it now. “It’s funny,” she drawls. “People in publishing treat you like a celebrity when you do this job, but you live in Brooklyn, make $55,000 a year, and don’t feel like a celebrity until someone comes up to you on the street and says, ‘Buck up, kid. Jimmy Kimmel’s an asshole.’”
Though Gould is ruthless in pointing out other writers’ shortcomings on Gawker, she is sensitive about her line of work. “In Maine, I was telling the guys I met that I was a yoga teacher,” she says. “What am I supposed to say, ‘I work for a media-gossip Website in New York?’” She shakes her head, and the ponytail bops around. “Who knows how this will all play out for me?” she says. “I could be ruining my life.”
If there’s one person who is most certainly a “have,” it’s Nick Denton, 41, the attractive, upper-class gay Jewish Briton who owns almost all of Gawker Media. He seems to control an entire Soho street, presiding over his empire from his apartment, which is around the corner from the Gawker offices and across the street from his unofficial office, Balthazar (hence his faux IM name on Gawker.com, DarkLordBalthazar). Occasional unpleasantness with employees, who describe him as “less passive-aggressive and more aggressive-aggressive,” and rampant speculation as to his skyrocketing net worth fuel his image, and in fact he has a Machiavellian bent. Denton likes to say that his celebrity look-alike is Morrissey, and he does have the same enormous head, but his hair is worn short, at almost the same length as his graying stubble. The pumpkin head bobs over his uniform of hip business casual—collarless navy T-shirt, iPhone in palm, clean dark jeans tapering off to thin-soled shiny black sneakers. He’s polite, quiet, and relentlessly confident, an effective, poised leader whose true nature is amoral recklessness, an unrufflable libertarian and libertine. Like Tina Brown, with whom he was intrigued in the past, he’s always loved using his position to play-cast a social network with himself at the center.