The value of Allison to Denton is not only tits=page views: It’s also her popularity with Gawker’s commenters, the largely anonymous readers whose responses to Gawker’s posts are included on every item page. Commenters are the mob sneering at the tumbrels as they pass by—their comments are sometimes hilarious but always cruel and vicious, an echo chamber of Gawker’s meanness. Gawker editors let them know their place by introducing “Commenter Executions,” by which they banned a few of the lamest commenters each week (e.g., “Crime: on certain days, comments on every single post—yet says nothing”). But now Denton—impressed by the microblogging capabilities of current Silicon Valley darling Facebook and crushing on its founder, young Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg—wants to make more of them. He spent most of the summer working with developers on new software that tailors Gawker’s page to the specific commenter who visits it. In fact, he’d love to see a site where half the page is taken up with comments.
“Gawker comments, long an embarrassment, frankly, now represent one of the strongest aspects of the site,” he wrote recently (in Gawker’s comments!). “They reintroduce an element of anarchy, which was in danger of otherwise being lost, as the site became more professional. I *want* secrets to be exposed, memos leaked, spy photos published, arguments to fly.” Noah Robischon, Gawker’s new managing editor, adds, “There are no immediate plans to reward commenters, but it is a natural way for us to scout for talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if commenters who are promoted regularly end up as paid contributors.” But are commenters even close to being in the loop? Last week, Denton tried to get them to step up: “Okay, how about a comment from someone who was actually at the Mediabistro party? Facts, please, people.” But no one, of course, could answer such a thing—the best they could do is snipe: “Who would admit to this [being at the party], even under the cloak of i-anonymity?” sneered one.
The success of the comments has even made Denton rethink the compensation he pays his bloggers, the cows he has to pay for milk. Gawker as an automated message board, with commenters generating exponentially greater numbers of page views as they click all over the site to see reactions to their comments, could be the dream. There would then be no editors to pay, even at the rates he has to shell out. Until recently, most Gawker bloggers were paid a flat rate of $12 per post for twelve posts a day, with quarterly bonuses adding to the bottom line; these bonuses could be used to buy equity in the company, which took two years to vest. Now, Denton is moving to a pay-for-performance system. He has always tracked the page views of each individual Gawker Media writer, thinking of them like stocks in a portfolio, with whoever generates the most page views as his favorite. If each writer was only as valuable as the page views he drew, then why shouldn’t Denton pay him accordingly?
Balk, the site’s primary troublemaker, quickly posted an item on Gawker about this change with the slug “Like Rain on Your Wedding Day, Except for Instead of Rain It’s Knives.” Denton wasn’t amused. “Your item makes the argument for performance pay even stronger,” he responded in the post’s comments. “This awesomely self-indulgent post—of interest to you, me, and you, and me—will struggle to get 1,000 views. Which, under the new and improved pay system, Balk, will not even buy you a minute on your bourbon drip.” (Balk gave notice two weeks later.)
Denton is a visionary tech geek, so it’s not surprising that he would be fascinated by such new applications, but his relentless focus on page views may be evidence of restlessness, or even an existential crisis: Now that he’s making money, really coining it, he knows he may have reached the top. There is a rush on advertising on the Web now, with TNS Media Intelligence reports showing that online advertising was up 17.7 percent for the first half of 2007, while print and TV were in decline. But in its current form, it’s not going to solve the publishing crisis, online or off.
In fact, even Gawker.com has become boring to Denton, because it doesn’t get the number of page views of his more popular sites. There were probably only going to be a few big Web companies anyway, as well as Google, and even though he still entertained the notion of holding onto his blogs for posterity, word had started to leak out of his talk about selling them down the road. Eventually, New York media would be like the New York film business—there would still be a lot of work, but except for some small independents, all the platforms would be owned elsewhere, operated out of office parks in San Jose, California. Possibly, Denton is holding onto Gawker .com as a kind of hobby, partly for the fun of having a catalogue of the decline of New York print publishing, an entire history of the fall. His roots are in journalism, and he undoubtedly enjoys the notoriety that Gawker brings—he’s running one of the best circuses in the city. But a business model is a business model, and increasingly, in the media business, it’s hard to find one. Maybe New York was done as a media town.