Where other media barons see their job as a calling—a chance to do important, perhaps even socially redeeming, journalism—Denton unapologetically worships at the temple of the page view. His ability to ignore his own preferences is, in fact, a key secret of his success. “I don’t think he’s even interested in a lot of stuff [his blogs] write about,” chuckles Gapper. “He always says that the problem with journalists is that they write about things that interest journalists, not the rest of the world.” And what interests the vast majority is, well, sex tapes, new Apple products, and, in the words of Denton himself, “athlete dong.” If you buy the man’s reasoning, this unflinching populism amounts to a kind of moral platform. “Our ethics policy? To publish the real story, the one that so-called sports journalists have spent their careers avoiding” is a representative Denton tweet on the topic. He was referring to an item about nude pictures of Brett Favre on his sports blog Deadspin. Denton’s frequent memos to staff include laundry lists of Stuff Readers Like (from the latest: “Readers enjoy strong opinion … They like photographs generally … In terms of web interest, we know that female trumps male. Youth also trumps age”). A 2009 missive, entitled “We’re Not Running a Newspaper,” read: “At some media organizations you might get rapped for running a premature story. At Gawker Media, you’ll lose way more points for being scooped on a story you had in your hands.”
We do, however, know empirically one line Gawker won’t cross. In March 2008, a contrite Denton wrote, “Overnight, Gawker went with the story about a puppy, apparently killed by American troops in Iraq. We’d already run a perfectly adequate link; a follow-up post, with a clip, was gratuitously shocking, and unnecessary. Sorry. The post is now down.” For the record: A puppy snuff film is, for the time being, beyond Gawker Media’s pale.
To say that Denton is hands-on is to say nothing. He is the author of 2,332 posts across his network—the equivalent, if you will, of Murdoch putting in weekly appearances on Fox & Friends. Twice, he has dropped in to write and edit his sites himself: Valleywag in 2006 and Gawker in 2008. At Gawker, he wrote mild state-of-the-media rants, broke a couple of election tidbits, and revived the site’s original obsession with Harvey Weinstein. The Valleywag stint had a distinct subtext: Denton was finally having his way with the Bay Area. “You could argue that I shouldn’t be writing this site,” he responded to one commenter (yes, he did that, too). “It’s one of our smallest; it has little economic potential; and much to alienate potential partners and competitors. Writing a blog is absolutely exhausting. But it is good fun.” Denton picked on targets big and small, from Google on down, just like in his days at the Financial Times. He endlessly harassed John Battelle, the “permatanned founder” of Federated Media. He published executives’ home addresses, an act that even Denton’s twisty definitions of public interest couldn’t justify. In an instant message Denton sent me about his two firsthand blogging experiences, he wrote, “You can write anything as long as you mention I tripled the traffic both times.”
“You got the warmer Nick,” says an old friend. “I think he’s made a conscious decision to stop being an asshole.”
Denton’s expansionist streak, in fact, looks a lot like an old-school media baron’s. Soon after launching Gawker, Gizmodo, and Fleshbot, he tried to replicate the original formula in L.A. (Defamer) and D.C. (Wonkette), and later added the other sites. He’s also as unsentimental about his businesses as a traditional tycoon. When Wonkette failed to generate sufficient readership, he sold it off. When Kinja, a news aggregation site that he once believed would be more successful than Gawker, underperformed, he shuttered it. Denton’s eye for the bottom line certainly extends to his staff. It has been well established that Gawker Media content is produced by caffeine-blitzed youngsters at a frantic churn, spurred on by page-view bonuses, barely supported by a base salary, and often fired (and rehired) on a second’s notice.
Gawker’s shift from emphasizing tabloid-style scoops over jokey riffs has certainly paid off—witness the company’s double-digit growth. It should come as no surprise, then, that Denton’s next move is to head further still in that direction. If you look at the beta versions of Gawker and Gizmodo’s upcoming redesigns (set to go live early next year), you’ll be struck by how conventional they look: big headlines, big pictures, a clearly defined lead story occupying a generous video-ready rectangle at the center of the screen. Most of the network’s greatest hits center on pictures and video, not text—and so it follows that Denton’s vision of a blog has also been gravitating from the diary metaphor to the TV metaphor, where his various properties will represent various “channels.” Just like Gawker Stalker, this is not revolutionary or even all that interesting. It’s just smart business.