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How Gawker Media C.E.O. Nick Denton Created His Own Mess

How Gawker Media C.E.O. Nick Denton Created His Own Mess

As the media world weighs in on the recent Gawker fracas caused by 27-year-old staff writer Jordan Sargent posting a controversial story last Thursday that outed a married closeted man who was being extorted by a male escort, I cannot understand why anyone would sympathize with the top editors who resigned, on the grounds that their boss Nick Denton had no right to pull the story.

Truth is, Denton had every right to fire them–which he didn’t– and did the right thing. “This is the very, very worst version of the company,” he told the Gawker staff last Monday. “This is not the company I built,” adding, “I don’t want some guy blowing his brains out and that being on our hands.”

Yet Denton is being hoist on his own petard. He is responsible for creating these monsters. In the name of editorial freedom and the pursuit of “snark”–a quality he once praised me for showing early in my blogging career– he encouraged a freewheeling traffic-driven environment where writers and editors were trained to feed the appetite of their readers for breathless click-bait headlines, breaking news, scandal, gossip and stories not necessarily based on fact. (Better to get the traffic attending a juicy speculative tale and amend it later than wait for the truth to be confirmed.) These people even go after cancer patients for being too nice!  All in a day’s work.

I find it hard to imagine that Gawker Media executive editor Tommy Craggs and Gawker editor in chief Max Read needed to fall on their swords by resigning on the basis of “editorial integrity.” (It seems more like they that didn’t like being told what to do.) To his credit, Denton, who is hugely successful and influential in the media space, was close enough to remembering the values of what journalism is supposed to be to pull the offensive story. The outing should never have been posted in the first place and those editors should have been able to understand why it needed to come down.
In the Gawker staff meeting Denton drew a distinction between reporting on public figures like Anderson Cooper or Tim Cook, who are openly gay in their social life, and this case, where the man was relatively unknown. As for interfering on the editorial side of his Gawker Media business empire, Denton said: “This is an extreme, extreme case. I believe it was kind of a travesty of the editorial independence. It’s not something I wanted to be associated with.” He described his editorial staff as using a “maximalist interpretation of editorial freedom.”

Denton compared Gawker to Vox and Ratter in an internal editorial memo:

“If you’re wondering whether a more explicit editorial policy will turn us into some generic internet media company, I’d say no: I see Gawker Media occupying a space on the online media spectrum between a stolid Vox Media and a more anarchic Ratter; close to the edge, but not over it.” 

Perhaps he does protest too much. Check out this memo to Jezebel’s Jessica Coen last year:

From: Nick Denton
Date: Mon, Jan 20, 2014 at 7:37 PM
Subject: This is the opposite of our policy
To: Jessica Coen
Cc: Joel Johnson

If the author believes this, she’s working at the wrong place. And should be guided to a more congenial work environment. We’re truth absolutists. Or rather, I am. And I choose to work with fellow spirits.

(He quotes from the link above)

“Issue two is the reporting on the trans status of the subject. This is much clearer: Don’t out someone who doesn’t want to be out. The end. Everyone has a right to privacy when it comes to their gender identity or sexual orientation, and beyond this, the trans status is not relevant.”

Denton went on to tell the Wall Street Journal that the 12-year-old site continually evolves, and he has “wanted a gentler Gawker for a while.” Let’s hope so.

UPDATE: Now he’s relaunching Gawker.com on Monday at an attempt at a clean slate.

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