Then again, England never had his full trust. He was in love with America, or, rather, with his idea of it. He idealized Silicon Valley in particular. Denton’s quote in the Kuper article on the Young Chiefs sums it up: “It’s an American generation,” he says, sounding both canny and naïve. “I’ve always felt much more comfortable in the States. It is easier for an Internet entrepreneur to raise money in the U.K. if he presents himself as semi-American.” By the time the article came out, he had moved to San Francisco.
It was a disaster. What had seemed like a perfect place for a young queer Internet entrepreneur turned out to be something much scarier: a massive closed culture where Denton was a relative nobody. His two start-ups, Moreover and First Tuesday, an early social network for media types, were clever but unsexy. They made him a small fortune, but they didn’t make him a player. Worse yet, the Bay Area seemed to have little love for a caustic British wit. The smug guildlike insularity that Gawker Media would soon attack was on daily display. A newly minted millionaire, Denton was lonely and bitter. “San Francisco was not for me,” he says. But then, he adds, “I think one’s options—as a European cosmopolitan—are quite limited.” The semi-American persona he’d cultivated back home was gone. Several friends from that era, in describing him, use the word “miserable”; another said “sad sack.”
September 11 hit Denton hard, and his mind was spinning out hawkish retaliation scenarios. Back home, his mother, to whom he had been extremely close, was wasting away from cancer. The year 2001 was certainly among the worst of his life.
He needed a new gig, and to get out of San Francisco. He whipped up a spreadsheet and did an analysis of places to live in, assigning weighted scores to such categories as “old friends,” “business opportunities,” “Hungarians,” “Jews,” “hotter guys,” and “nature.” (The last one accounted for little.) Then, rationality be damned, he tweaked the inputs until New York came out on top. He moved here in the summer of 2002.
“Nick started Gawker to get his mind off things,” says a longtime friend. (Ironically, it was one of the few things he’s ever done mainly for the hell of it.) He had been working on a news aggregator, and thought a blog—a format back then understood primarily as someone’s online diary—could also work well. His first idea envisioned an innocuous listings service: music, nightlife, that sort of thing. Then a young financial analyst named Elizabeth Spiers, who had been running a blog called Capital Influx, caught his attention. It was sardonic, gossipy, and brimmed with distaste for clubby privilege mixed with an unspoken longing to join the club. She and Denton were a perfect match.
Both Spiers and Denton were relatively new to New York (Spiers had moved here in the fall of 1999). A friend who took Denton to Pastis recalls that he didn’t know what the meatpacking district was. The blog’s focus, articulated in a brisk manifesto, thus centered on the things that might fascinate any fresh arrival of a certain kind, at least in 2002: “Tina Brown, urban dating rituals, Condé Nastiness, movie grosses, Hamptons gauche, real-estate porn, Harvey Weinstein, fantasy skyscrapers, downwardly mobile I-bankers, Eurotrash, extreme-sport social-climbing, pomp, circumstance, and other matters of weighty import.”
On October 5, 2002, Nick Denton registered the domain Gawker.com. Its administrative contact was a low-tax offshore company in Budapest, called Blogwire Hungary Szellemi Alkotast Hasznosito. The last three words translate as “Intellectual Property Exploitation.”
The story of Gawker is the story of a couple of young outside observers’ sarcastic musings slowly morphing into an all-purpose, all-but-mainstream gossip sheet. Its first iteration, under Spiers, concerned itself mostly with the upstairs-downstairs farce of the Manhattan media world, a topic of limited appeal. As late as 2004, Gawker’s monthly page views were barely hitting 1 million, and its monthly revenue was just $6,000 (fellow blogs Gizmodo and Fleshbot were already onboard by then, but weren’t terribly successful either). The turning point came in March 2006, when Gawker.com integrated its Gawker Stalker feature (reader-submitted celebrity sightings) with Google Maps. It wasn’t all that innovative or audacious, but it seemed to be both. Gawker Stalker won Denton and the site mainstream attention of all stripes, not least of all from old-school tabloid merchants, who felt weirdly threatened; a look-alike site even showed up in a Law & Order plotline. Around the same time, Gawker.com also hit upon its trademark tenor—a mix of affected cool, open Schadenfreude, and surprisingly earnest self-righteousness—it has kept up since.
Where the tone amused some, it rankled others, and the journalistic methods Gawker Media employed were, to some, a sign of the apocalypse. Essentially, Denton had redefined “public interest” as the right to know everything about a public figure, and “public figure” as anyone with an unlocked Facebook account. Having taken many years to come out himself, Denton proved to be fine with outing homosexuals. He has shown a willingness to pay for tips, a common Fleet Street practice, but one that’s generally frowned upon in the States and has earned him further disdain from mainstream journalists here. This seems to only spur Denton on. In 2009, when Gawker was sued for publishing a sex tape that co-starred actress Rebecca Gayheart, the site made the lawsuit itself a recurring feature (Gawker Media reportedly ended up paying the plaintiffs low six figures). When Gizmodo published pictures of a dubiously procured iPhone prototype earlier this year—the tipster claimed to have found it in a bar, and sold it to Denton for $5,000—the incident opened up a whole new legal gray area. Gizmodo editor Jason Chen’s computers were seized by the police and are still being studied for evidence of malfeasance. These stories are sure to recur the more interested Gawker Media gets in original reporting (last week, it rehired its star investigative journalist John Cook away from Yahoo! News). Peer criticism from old media doesn’t seem to deter Denton, either. He once answered his detractors by plotting out their criticisms of Gawker on a timeline against its inexorably rising audience.