Denton is fond of denying interview requests while secretly helping writers formulate stories about him via off-the-record conversations, then slagging their work later on his blog, calling one journalist who profiled him “about as reliable as a journalist who turns to an Iraqi exile for intelligence on Saddam’s hidden nukes.” The moment that he told me that he would not conduct an official interview with me, and I said I’d continue reporting without him, was perhaps the only one where I’ve seen him express emotion. For a split second, he was furious. His eyes flicked back and forth over mine like a metronome, searching for some clue to what I was planning, what angle I might be playing, and he spat out his denial with the intensity of a losing tennis player. “Nick loves press, but only press he can control,” says a colleague.
A successful former journalist for the Financial Times who never quite became an opinion leader, and the co-founder of two Web 1.0 Internet companies that didn’t exactly set Silicon Valley on fire, though one of them was nevertheless reported to have been sold for $50 million to Israeli venture capitalists, Denton has been jubilant over the success of Gawker, taking on the self-image of a maverick who has thumbed his nose at both of his former industries. Like most journalists trained in the British system, Denton does not believe in privacy for public figures, nor really for anyone else (except himself, apparently). “Everyone suspects Nick’s motives, and he has defiantly lower print standards than any of us,” says Sicha. “I’ll tell him, ‘That guy’s gay,’ or ‘That guy’s having an affair,’ and he’ll say, ‘Then write that.’ Well, I haven’t slept with the guy, so I don’t want to go to court over that. Nick communicates such things intentionally to us, to continually erode our standards.” According to a post by another Gawker writer, one day Denton harangued Gawker’s editors about being too mean on the site; a few minutes later, he began suggesting ideas for posts, like “Who’s shorter in real life than you’d think they’d be? Who has dandruff?” “Does Nick believe in quality, or does Nick believe in respecting other people’s idea of quality he doesn’t believe in?” Sicha muses. “He has to believe not just in page views. But I don’t know how exactly.”
Of all the ways in which Gawker is antithetical to journalistic ethics—it’s self-referential, judgmental, ad hominem, and resolutely against effecting change in the world—it pushes its writers to be honest in a way that’s not always found in print publications. Little is repressed; the id, and everything else, is part of the discourse (including exhibition and narcissism). Even the Gawker office, a kind of journalistic boiler room, can serve as a metaphor for transparency, open for anyone to see, operating behind a plate-glass window in a Crosby Street storefront. Some of Denton’s bloggers are onboard with this mission: “Quite frankly, fuck discretion,” writes Moe Tkacik, a former newspaper reporter, on Denton’s newest site, Jezebel. “Discretion is how I didn’t figure out how to come until I was 24 years old; discretion is why women’s magazine editors persist in treating their fellow humans like total shit; and when you’ve spent a career trying to catch others in their own indiscretions, discretion just feels a little dishonest and superior.”
It’s a good trick, taking the one thing that journalists have in the world—honesty—from them, and setting up Gawker.com to instill fear of being caught in their foibles. It’s what someone would do if they were trying to usurp an industry, which is exactly what Denton has always wanted (do not, however, buy Gawker’s tepid new book, The Gawker Guide to Conquering All Media, and think you will find genuine tips on how to do this yourself, as none are forthcoming). These days, Gawker is merely the flagship property of a Gawker Media empire, one Denton likes to compare to Condé Nast. Employees have started talking about his blogs as “magazines,” and the company as a “stable of magazines.” All fourteen Gawker blogs maintain standards of stratospherically higher writing quality than other Websites in this LOLcat era, displaying their wares on sites with hilarious, deadpan names: Fleshbot (porn), Jalopnik (cars), Gizmodo (gadgets), and Kotaku (games); an early name for Gawker was “YouNork.” Half of Denton’s sites are modeled on Gawker’s model of pairing a mannered gossip column with the industry of a given city, including Wonkette (D.C. politics), Defamer (Hollywood), Valleywag (Silicon Valley), and the new, excellent Jezebel (women’s magazines and fashion). Denton is only intermittently involved in content and gives free rein to his editors to attack anyone they’d like (only ex-employees get a pass).
Denton’s most successful blogs are, unsurprisingly, Gizmodo and Kotaku, at about 11 and 4 million visits per week. Or, to use the preferred metric, which has the benefit of being a higher number, the two blogs receive about 12 and 5 million “page views” per week, which is the number of times each visitor clicks on any blog page. Page views are very important: Advertisers usually pay for online ads in a unit of 1,000 ad impressions, and the number of page views a Website receives have become like points for content-driven Internet properties, a way to keep score on competitors. Gawker nearly doubled in size last year, but the rate slowed to perhaps 30 percent last year, and the site now does about 2.5 million page views per week. For years, Denton told colleagues that there was no money to be made in blogs, even providing such a quotation to the New York Times. He didn’t see the advantage in talking it up. Today, Gawker Media has approximately 100 employees and contractors. “Nick made us all join Facebook,” says Sicha. “I think he came to the office one day and couldn’t recognize anybody—‘Which one are you?’” Very few Websites provide their traffic information, but Denton has chosen to do so with a link on his home page: No one can accuse him of not keeping his business transparent, at least superficially. Brightly colored traffic graphs provide the curious the illusion of being able to figure out his earnings, but without knowing the percentage of ad inventory sold across all blogs, it’s impossible to generate more than a back-of-the-envelope guess of $10 to $12 million in profit annually if most of his blogs sell ads at the industry standard.
“How many page views are you getting?” That’s Denton’s favorite question to ask fellow Internet entrepreneurs at a party.