the group portrait

Gawker Returns for Unknown Length of Time

It begins again: the messy bargain between Gawker owner and Gawker writer.

Top row (from left): Kelly Conaboy, Jenny G. Zhang, Brandy Jensen, Tammie Teclemariam, Jocelyn Silver, Tarpley Hitt. Middle: Darcie Wilder, Claire Carusillo, Allie Jones, Sarah Hagi. Bottom: Olivia Craighead, Leah Finnegan, George Civeris. Photo: Victor Llorente/Victor Llorente
Top row (from left): Kelly Conaboy, Jenny G. Zhang, Brandy Jensen, Tammie Teclemariam, Jocelyn Silver, Tarpley Hitt. Middle: Darcie Wilder, Claire Carusillo, Allie Jones, Sarah Hagi. Bottom: Olivia Craighead, Leah Finnegan, George Civeris. Photo: Victor Llorente/Victor Llorente

Gawker was a website that most recently existed from 2002 to 2016, and its most enduring creation is its own mythology. It had an expansive coverage mission and a staff with an obsessive need to be unpredictable. A small class of people were obsessed with it because the site covered people they knew or knew about, and those people all worked in media so Gawker got written about really quite a lot.

Working at Gawker broke many people in many different ways. (Most recovered!) This isn’t because working at Gawker is special or as stressful as military life or nursing. It’s something about working quickly and aggressively, in public, with chaotic or unintelligible leadership, and with little infrastructure to cushion the disaster when a story or a joke inevitably is done wrong. I tried working there twice, never lasting more than a year. The work kept me suspended in a state of anxiety that I have also tried to replicate for the rest of my life. Trauma abhors a vacuum!

“The greatest compliment one could ever pay to a Gawker writer is fearlessness — the willingness to say what needed to be said irrespective of the consequences,” wrote its founder, Nick Denton, on the publication’s last day, almost exactly five years ago. That was at the end of a long and painful process of the site’s parent company’s being sued into bankruptcy in a well-funded scheme, though not everyone was sad. “The bottom feeders at Gawker are going under. Arrivederci, a- -holes!” celebrated Michelle Malkin that summer; most recently, she has spent her time tweeting white-supremacist, anti-vaccine, pro-January 6 drivel.

Now, Gawker is back. But is it Gawker?

Gawker’s various expressions over time are divisible into as many eras as you have biases. One former Gawker editor — dating from the meatier, better-funded end of its first life — suggested to me that Gawker actually has just two eras. First, there’s a golden era, when you thought it was really cool, and second, later, there’s another era, when you know better.

In its first incarnation, the lone writer, Elizabeth Spiers, embodied a parody of elite Manhattan’s foolishness and grotesque priorities. The site was something to refresh on your desktop office computer’s Internet Explorer for entertainment purposes only; it predated the iPhone by about five years. Each day, readership heated as Manhattanites took to their desks and cooled as they left their seats for their extramarital affairs and/or four-tops at Spice Market or Megu. (That was, diagrammatically, a classic Gawker sentence: extravagant generalization, opaque but likely ironic moralizing, capped with supposedly knowing detail.) It metastasized; multiple writers eventually got their own bylines; it built original reporting muscle by its own rules; it published actual literature of ideas at its heights, even while it was alternately run by people high on drugs or rage.

And then, at last, in the long and dreadful course of a lawsuit prosecuted by Melania Trump’s attorney, Charles Harder, and funded by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, in a scheme to bankrupt the publication, some people were put through enormous stress and even went insolvent themselves. (In a fit of capitalist chaos, as one of the company’s very minor shareholder creditors, I simply kept receiving random checks from the bankruptcy, which by the end amounted to $222,971.15.)

Gawker always let itself be outpaced on its own innovations. Oh No They Didn’t, still roaring on LiveJournal, always did celebrity-gossip chat better. Senseless celebrity sightings? Now Deuxmoi, a particularly popular and unpowerful Instagram account, publishes anything a publicist might wish. Manhattan-centric media criticism? We have Twitter, and it’s not like anyone is afraid of Anna Wintour anymore. Telling the truth about gross men? At last, the mainstream media realized they had the reporters, resources, and lawyers to do most of it right and even make it stick. Beefy — or at least long-winded — observations on the state of the culture? Substack has you covered.

That leaves a narrow slice of Gawker’s heritage to exploit: funny, riffy, sniffy metacommentary. This particular Gawker practice, as it happens, is an aspect that’s always irritated Denton. He thinks of the form as “Squawker” — mouthy, for sure, but maybe toothless. Fortunately Denton does not matter here now, as the title and its archives were picked up for cheap at auction by Bryan Goldberg, another serial blog entrepreneur who may come to regret owning a stable of unruly little ponies.

The site resumed services on July 28, under the leadership of Gawker alum Leah Finnegan, who is a little terror. (Because she’s smart, she’s not doing interviews.) And this time, unlike the extremely man-heavy previous mastheads of Gawker with their big-boy history of bluster, their crew features, so far, one lone (and extremely gay) man.

New Gawker is hiding any grander journalistic ambitions behind a wacky “We’re just having fun on the internet!” persona. It is serving “Chet Hanks — a good actor? Antivax video says yes,” and “Obama celebrates sending drone leaker to jail with superspreader bash,” and, in a proper-nounless headline that would cause Denton to purple with rage, “Children of famous people join in creative endeavor.”

As is often true of media companies, most of the Gawker staff are young enough to have just a fuzzy idea of what came before.

“I used to read Gawker every day,” said Tarpley Hitt, who is 26 and now a staff writer at that website herself. The investigative reporter and blogger has dreamy yet stabby energy, very Joni Mitchell meets Harley Quinn. But which Gawker did she like? “It’s hard to know which one people are talking about at any given time,” she said. “There were so many posts happening all the time. And a lot of them were just, ‘Why isn’t there orange pie?’ or ‘This L.A. broadcaster doesn’t know anything about rain.’”

But one thing the staff of new Gawker share with almost all of us who have gone before is a sense of a limited future — that either one will be fired or the publication will cease to exist.

“I consulted a few different people to ask if this was a terrible mistake. I ultimately came to the conclusion that it was too rare of an opportunity to pass up,” said Jenny G. Zhang, also a 20-something staff writer. “I figured, worst case, at least I’ll have had an interesting experience.”

Impulse-quitting and getting coldly surprise-fired were hallmarks of life at Gawker. Who at new Gawker will be the first to quit?

“Leah. Possibly Bryan,” said Hitt.

Or? “Maybe Bustle [Gawker’s parent company],” said Tammie Teclemariam, 31, the wine and food writer whose tweets about racism in food media spurred a series of high-profile resignations last year, as she works on a cookbook and as a contributing writer to Gawker. “It’s very refreshing that after a year of learning too much about everybody else’s toxic workplaces, I get to start somewhere without any calcified ill feelings between people,” she said.

Will she be taking down more men from her new spot?

“If it becomes necessary, sure, it’s a great place to write a long-form tweet with incriminating information about somebody,” she said. “But I think more than anything, it’s very radical that I’m at Gawker at all. I just want to do regular shit.”

She’d like to work there for at least a year and respects her colleagues making blogs in the content mines. “How long do we think this is even going to last? There’s no ads even on the site yet. It’s like a snow globe right now,” she said.

“This could be the last journalism job I ever get,” said Hitt. “We’ll see what the journalism job market is like in six months.”

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Gawker Returns for Unknown Length of Time