3 December 2007

Gawker: 2002–2007

Pageviews to the People

New York gossip website Gawker was launched in 2002 by an internet entrepreneur and a naïf new to the city—Professor Henry Higgins and his Eliza Doolittle. Founder Nick Denton, a former Financial Times reporter, had helped start the early social networking site First Tuesday, which arranged for web and media entrepreneurs to go for drinks together. Elizabeth Spiers, the 25-year-old writer he hired, was a recent New York arrival who had kept a blog about her life in finance. It’s hard to believe that at first Gawker, which we now know for “knowing everything” about local media and celebrity culture, didn’t even know what to read. But in her very first posts (from March 2002), Spiers writes blurbs to herself about what she’s read or should be reading. Flavorpill.com is “cultural stimuli in New York”; New York is a “fluffy, bitchy city magazine”; and the New York Observer is “the print inspiration for Gawker, a pink-paged broadsheet designed for the Upper East Side elite.”

Lists like this usually only exist in the notebooks of young people who come to the city intent on figuring it out. Spiers, who grew up in Alabama, attended Duke, and then started her career in San Francisco, made her notebooks public. She was not bored by any piece of information about New York. In her first few months as Gawker, she showed a disarming interest in maps of Manhattan (one, for instance, identified all the Wi-Fi users); she linked to New Yorker pieces she liked; and she strenuously objected to an alleged Tupperware party trend, as reported in the Times Style section. “Please tell me this Tupperware thing is intentionally ironic so I can stop banging my head against the wall and screaming,” she wrote. Spiers, who was from a small town and probably knew from Tupperware, couldn’t seem to stand the idea that, in the city, you might not get to throw everything away.

To a reader who first met Gawker a few years later, it can be surprising to read these posts, which combine the excitement and the put-on knowingness of a genuine novice. “I think it’s actually easier to write about Manhattan if you’re an outsider,” Spiers explained on the site in March 2002. “The absurdities, in particular, are much more apparent. The darker Manhattan-centric themes—class warfare as a recreational sport; pathological status obsession; and the complete, total, and wholly unapologetic embrace of decadence—are much more fascinating to us. [Ed. note—We can spend entire minutes thinking about them.]” This is the Spiers signature: the outburst of enthusiasm, followed by the well-timed, half-apologetic reversal. Sometimes she forgot the kicker and just told readers what a good time she was having. In one of her first pieces of media commentary, Spiers attended her first “New York media party,” for Slate and new editor Jacob Weisberg. Spiers tried to dish some dirt: “Everbody hates Wired’s Chris Anderson except for James Truman and Si Newhouse.” But that, it turned out, was a joke: “Most people who know Anderson think he’s a smart and charming guy.” Really, Spiers admitted, “I have to gush”: “New York media people are witty, and that isn’t a word I’ve used in a while.” The only problem was that Spiers’s escort, in town from San Francisco, was exhausted by the end of it.

This couldn’t last forever, of course—not everyone in New York was so nice and smart. After about six months, Spiers’s focus shifted from what it was like to be a New Yorker trying to fill space in a new medium, the media blog (sitting at home reading Craigslist, compulsively checking Site Meter, finally leaving the house only to get her finger stuck in an ATM), to how the rest of the New York media worked. Spiers was straightforward about her desire to land a magazine job someday, and now she turned her attention to the mechanics of print publications. Gawker’s official launch came in December 2002. No one got more notice on the site after that than former Talk and New Yorker editor Tina Brown, who had started her short-lived Washington Post media column, and Anna Wintour, the famous editor of Vogue.

Spiers meticulously cited mentions of Brown by better-situated gossip sources and gleefully quoted from her columns. (Brown was starting a TV talk show and worried that she’d no longer be, as she had been in print, a “furtive, watchful presence in a low-cut sweater.” To which Spiers replied: “The low-cut sweater, at least, works.”) For Wintour, Spiers enlisted Condé Nast assistants to report on what the Vogue editor wore in the elevator (“sunglasses”), ordered at Starbucks (an apple fritter), and did to the hamburger guy at the cafeteria (fired him). Spiers hoped to cut these women down to her own size; at the same time, she was curious about how they got to be where they were. She felt no solidarity with Lauren Weisberger, author of the fictionalized Vogue exposé The Devil Wears Prada. Both young women, it seems clear, believed they had more to learn from Wintour than they did from each other. So Spiers dismissed Weisberger as quickly as possible: “How naive do you have to be to sign up to work for Anna Wintour, expecting that she’s going to be nice to you?”

Reading through the early Gawker archives means watching Spiers receive and record her New York education. As she began to notice, she could make herself a winning protagonist. Spiers worried theatrically that she had become too mean. She also started to write not only about what she saw but also what she wore, as though she were the heroine in the sitcom she and her readers could imagine of their upwardly mobile lives. That spring, she wrote a 1,500-word episode in which she sneaked into the Condé Nast cafeteria. Spiers disguised herself (in “a wrap dress and ‘fuck me you’ boots”) as a magazine assistant. Still—she pretended to be vexed—she believed she had been recognized by “a Condé Nast executive.” As what—a feared gossip, or an interviewee? It was getting hard to tell. Spiers, who with increasing awareness played the role of the bright-eyed careerist, was making a career out of that persona.

Only a few months after its official launch, Gawker was already a media industry phenomenon of some importance. By May 2003, Denton reported on Gawker that the site received more than 20,000 visitors per day and 500,000 page views per month. This wasn’t much compared to the most successful competition (Slate.com was reported to receive about fifty million page views per month), but it did speak to Gawker’s sudden prominence within, as the Daily News put it, “chic Manhattan.” Three months later, a Times profile placed Spiers at the center of a “New York School of bloggers.” She was the author of “tart prose” who started Gawker “as a first step toward a writing career.” Obviously, it had worked, and now she entered the awkward position of a careerist who had mocked careerists, being mocked by other anti-careerists. In response to the Times article, bullymag.com accused Spiers of “the most cynical shallowness”—“the kind that announces itself as ‘honesty’”—and predicted that within two years the scourge of the media world would be writing for New York and Radar. To this Spiers responded that, in fact, she would “sell out much quicker.” Four months after the Times article, she left Gawker for New York.


After Spiers left, Denton is reported to have said that he feared readers would abandon Gawker. It certainly would have been strange to find another Elizabeth Spiers and have her start at the beginning. As it happened, Denton replaced Spiers with Choire Sicha, a young art dealer who had written for New York and gay culture sites years before Gawker started. Sicha was from Chicago and had not gone to college; he had lived on his own in San Francisco and New York for about a decade. Sicha was only a year older than Spiers but, unlike his predecessor, he wrote from a perspective that no longer betrayed any aspirations. His inclination from the start seems to have been, if not to write like a reporter, then to undertake the same erasure of perspective. Spiers had played a very smart straight girl to the New York media and her persona was part of her appeal. Sicha’s own appeal was in being almost impersonally sharp and cruel and correct.

The transition from Spiers to Sicha came at a moment when Gawker was evolving from a single successful experiment to a chain of sites. Denton had launched Gizmodo (gadgets) and Fleshbot (pornography) in 2002 and 2003; in 2004, he started Wonkette (DC), Defamer (Hollywood), and Kinja (meta-blog). The purpose of these sites, from Denton’s perspective, was to yield viewer numbers that would sell advertisements. When Sicha became editor in August 2003, Gawker still didn’t generate much ad revenue (about $2,000 per month, according to Denton, who posted the figure on his blog), but its viewer counts continued to rise. In November, Denton updated the site statistics: Gawker now received 30,000 visitors per day and over one million page views per month, twice the number he had reported only nine months earlier.

If Gawker Media, as Denton called his business, could no longer market itself as an upstart, then neither could its flagship site. Sicha’s perspective was hard to define but, from his first weeks at Gawker, he seemed both complicit with and distrustful of the milieu he described. His voice was often on the verge of dissolving into his material. Like a Method gossip, Sicha had a natural fluency in spin and slipped almost lyrically into the voices of the subjects he intended to critique. When he felt that these subjects, out of restraint or lack of imagination, hadn’t pushed their blurbs far enough, Sicha obligingly did it for them. For one last Sex & the City season, Sicha helpfully revised the slogan—“Sex this good can’t last forever”—for the Gawker set: “Sooner or later they climb off you when they’re done fucking you.” With more powerful people, his commentary seemed less conflicted, but still Sicha meticulously limited himself to their language. (Paris Review editor Brigid Hughes cheerfully insisted that the magazine was open to all prospective writers; Sicha gave “the delightful Ms. Hughes a D for Disingenuous!”) At times his insults and his humor, in the language he imitated, were so subtly placed that they could be missed completely. His response to the publicist for Lauren Weisberger, formerly Elizabeth Spiers’s bête noire, who was then promoting Weisberger’s second novel, simply mirrored the publicist’s tone. Sicha confided: “We’ll be watching this one closely.”

If Sicha’s wit could be discreet to the vanishing point, his cruelty was also tamed by personal reticence. His default style was informed and often obscene but left few traces of the author. Even when Sicha described places he had been, it was hard to imagine him as other than a spectral figure. He listened to talk in bathrooms and elevators. He took photos through the windows of the Maritime Hotel. When speaking of himself, he mostly used “we,” which seemed more ambiguous than pseudo-grandiose, and he noted his own vagueness when admitting overhead conversations were “paraphrased due to inattention.” The few times Sicha wrote directly about his life, it usually was couched as a journalistic ethics disclosure. Twice Sicha published longer posts about Dale Peck, a talented novelist who had become notorious for his “hatchet job” book reviews in the New Republic. Both times (the second time, because Stanley Crouch had slapped Peck at a downtown restaurant), Sicha inhabited the role of the journalist with the same careful humor as he had inhabited the role of the publicist, parenthetically noting that he and Peck had shared an apartment for years: “[Full disclosure: Dale Peck and I share an Airport network, and before WiFi, a DSL line, and before DSL, a dial-up connection.]”

Sicha’s persona did not change much during his time at Gawker, but he did reveal himself to be invested, in a strange way, in the integrity of Gawker as an institution. One of the most extended stories he followed involved unprecedented self-revelation: the drama of his removal from Soho House, a private downtown club for media and arts-related professionals. Toward the end of his Gawker tenure, Sicha was asked not to renew his membership after he reported too often on the club and its members. As he wrote on Gawker: “I chose my dignity. Kidding! I mean, I chose trashy gossip.” Unlike Spiers, Sicha did not see the site as a prelude to a print career, and so he did not consider himself an apprentice to his influential subjects. Unlike Peck, he had not written novels, so his “trashy gossip” could not hurt him in another field. But the cost of this independence was that he had nowhere to turn. His situation had few of the privileges that belong to recognized journalists, protected by an institution and the justifications of public events and public subjects. All Sicha could depend upon was a shifting boundary between people like himself, who were momentarily positioned to observe others, and people who were in positions to be observed. He found his own ways to formulate this unique structure. For instance, there were those who picked up the tab at Soho House, he noticed, and those who strategically hid in the bathroom.


One year after Sicha became editor, Denton promoted him to the new position of Gawker Media “editorial director.” At the time, Gawker Media consisted of six sites, and it was rumored that Denton hoped to have at least twelve publications, like Condé Nast publisher S. I. Newhouse. Statistically, Denton’s most successful site was the pornography specialist Fleshbot, which he ranked at six million pageviews per month in June 2004. Gawker had two million per month, still an impressive number, but growth had slowed during Sicha’s last months as editor. Denton’s choice for the next editor was made under real pressure to revamp the flagship site.

Jessica Coen, who replaced Sicha in August 2004, was 24 years old, even younger than Spiers when she had started. Coen had grown up in Los Angeles and returned there after college. As a bored film studio assistant, she kept a blog, where she published widely circulated synopses of OC episodes and analysis of celebrity gossip. When Coen announced on her blog that she planned to move to New York, she had just been accepted to Columbia Journalism School: she was going to professionalize. Denton and Sicha, who had read Coen, persuaded her to edit Gawker instead, and the site once again belonged to a young woman newly arrived to the city.

There are several reasons why this must have seemed like a good idea. One was that Coen, who was young, unpracticed, and ambitious, probably reminded Denton and Sicha of Elizabeth Spiers. Another is that Coen, in fact, had more in common with Sicha. She had grown up close to a public and picked-over media sphere and seemed to be deeply involved in her own resentment and enjoyment of her material. Like Sicha, she took apart people whom she watched carefully but found very distant.

Coen edited Gawker for two years, twice as long as either Spiers or Sicha. From the beginning, she had a more difficult job. Reading Coen’s first few months at Gawker, you get the sense of a young woman who works very hard, whose friends think she’s funny, and who’s been tasked with impersonating an older, much worldlier gay man. Her assignment, it seems clear, was to take the most successful elements of Sicha’s model and blow them up. Even Sicha probably couldn’t have done it: six months after his promotion, he left to write for the New York Observer.

Gawker had always sold itself as mean but it now became, actually, very mean. Sicha, who liked to pretend to be a news organization, had sent “correspondents” and “interns” to official media events. Coen found more of them, and she sent them not only to launches and readings but also to private parties, where they took embarrassing party photos. This was the important development: the decision to treat every subject, known or unknown, in public or private situations, with the fascinated ill will that tabloid magazines have for their subjects. Spiers had invented the best-known element of Gawker, “Gawker Stalker,” which compiled reports of celebrity encounters. Really this had started as a support group for Condé Nast assistants, who wrote in to say what it felt like to see Anna Wintour in person and, also, what she was wearing. As the feature expanded, under Spiers and Sicha, it remained a record of that nice New York moment: seeing a Hollywood face. During Coen’s tenure, Gawker Stalker morphed from a list, to a list with photographs, to an interactive map that tracked its subjects through Manhattan with unnerving immediacy.

Coen also retained her sincere interest in tabloids, and soon Gawker was covering the story that actress Tara Reid’s shirt had fallen off at P. Diddy’s 35th birthday. The site’s ratings that month more than doubled. Within a few more months, Coen had posted “The Fred Durst Sex Tape You Never Wanted.” When their material was less explicit, as it was bound to be when dealing with New York media or literature, the Gawker editors felt compelled to compensate by making up vivid descriptions. So Intern Alexis, reporting on the New York Times Book Review redesign, wrote: “Can we look forward to tales of backroom deals involving Jonathan Franzen and Leisl [sic] Schillinger snorting cocaine off of Alice Munro’s breast? We hope so!”

If they had only pursued Tara Reid, Fred Durst, and other amateur celebrity pornographers, Gawker simply would have become another version of its own, Denton-owned, Los Angeles spinoff, Defamer.com. Instead, Coen took it upon herself to defame all-but-anonymous people who, within the context of the New York media apparatus, might have seemed like the equivalent of ingénue actresses and other easy-target celebrities.

Taking the form but lacking the content of tabloid magazines and websites, Coen and a succession of guest and co-editors besieged essentially private people, who for the most part did not have the audience or influence of Gawker. Part of this must have been a misunderstanding. Coen had read and written about Nicole Richie, a celebutante who had become known for posing with her father Lionel outside Hollywood clubs. At Gawker, Coen and the other editors delivered the Richie treatment not only to Richie herself but also to Tim Russert’s son, who was a student at Boston College and kept a Facebook.com profile, on which he posted a photograph of himself in a hot tub surrounded by girls in bikinis. Gawker ran the photo and summarized Russert’s profile by saying that he “enjoys Golden Tee, Xbox, and someday hopes to share a plate of buffalo wings with a hot bitch.” Perhaps he deserved this; but it seemed incongruous and cruel, to thousands of adults in New York.

This was one type of subject that Gawker chose; another was the subject that had opened itself to criticism but, in fact, did not have much security or influence. Gawker kept up the heat on the poor alternative weeklies that were being decimated by the advent of free online classifieds. The New York Press, Gawker wrote, was “kind of like a blog, but more expensive for the publisher and less potential for profit. What a smart business model.” Which seemed unfair, because it was true—the Village Voice and the Press, unlike Gawker, were falling apart. Then, in early 2006, Gawker broke the story that Nick Sylvester, a 23-year-old editor at the Voice, had fabricated parts of a cover article. This was a particular kind of scandal: a journalistic ethics violation. But for weeks after it stumbled onto real news, Gawker ran Sylvester through the fictional drama of a Hollywood story. Photos of the reporter ran next to headlines like: “Putting Nick Sylvester on Suicide Watch.” Months later, it was “Sylvester Continues Picking Up the Pieces.”

In mid-2006, ratings at Gawker stalled again, and Denton fired Coen’s co-editor (the site had become too big, in a way, for just one editor to post content, though one editor remained the star). Coen herself soon left to do online work for Vanity Fair. She was replaced by another young woman, Emily Gould, and the cycle of education, sarcasm shading into cruelty, against the backdrop of New York and its corruption, began again. The outright nastiness and tabloid-obsession of the late Coen era ended, though the site began to drift a little, in its focus.


Through all the editors and changes at Gawker, one person remained: Nick Denton. His achievement is beyond question: he developed a business that works like a major print publisher. Gawker Media makes its money the same way as Condé Nast—high-end advertisers—and Denton has constructed a similar hierarchy of publishers, editorial directors, managing editors, and so on, to produce his content. The one crucial difference between Gawker Media and its print precursors is that Gawker costs so much less to produce. The costs of online publishing are almost nonexistent, and Gawker editors, whom Denton hires as unknown outsiders, work for the income of well-paid assistants.

Low costs wouldn’t mean much, however, if Gawker Media didn’t, despite its small budget, attract impressively wealthy and well-connected readers and in turn the appropriate high-paying advertisers. The most remarkable thing Denton has done is eliminate the inefficiency and inflation of the Condé Nast model and then select, as his first target audience, people who work for Condé Nast. The people who produced the mainstream media were, as Denton understood, terminally self-involved and, at least at the top, impossibly overrated. So Gawker analyzed manifestations of their self-indulgence, in their work and private lives, and Denton profited from this. The purpose of Gawker Media was always to improve on the print publishing business model. It was never, as the content of Gawker sometimes seemed to suggest, to produce investigative critiques of the waste that model created. The content at Gawker, like most Condé Nast publications, is a service to the advertisers.

No one ever said Nick Denton was an altruist. But it’s important to note that Gawker Media was designed to compete with the corporations that Gawker abused from the sidelines, because this is what created the dissonance of the site’s later years. From the beginning, it was crucial that Denton hire novice writers for Gawker, not to mention the rest of his titles. These writers came cheap, and they also were useful in their real fascination with their self-important subjects. It was the writers, from Elizabeth Spiers to Emily Gould, who sold Denton’s cynical project to his cynical audience, on the strength of their authentic interest in the material (even when that interest was as conflicted as Choire Sicha’s).

But this agreement between Denton and his hires was based on a misunderstanding. The Gawker editors have always been forthright about the fact that what they wanted was to leave Gawker—its low pay and marginal status—and work for the people they maligned. This stance was supposed to give them more credibility; it was also a form of flattery. Furthermore, it was the truth. But in fact they already were working for a media corporation that functioned more effectively but in the same way as the ones they criticized, and as media players the Gawker editors had become more powerful than many of their targets. Gawker retained the stance of a scrappy start-up and an attitude of populist resentment toward celebrities and insiders, even as it became the flagship publication of an online media empire. The status of Gawker rose as the overall status of its subjects declined, and it was this that made Gawker appear at times a reprehensible bully. You could say that as Gawker Media grew, from Gawker’s success, Gawker outlived the conditions for its existence.

In early 2007, Choire Sicha—the outsider, the non-careerist, the one who had known restraint, whose parody of journalism had retained some memory of journalism’s ethics—returned from the Observer to try to save Gawker. But it was too late. The site’s default mode was a vacuous sarcasm: that was Gawker. And people liked it: So far this year, the site is averaging ten million page views per month.

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