For an online media entrepreneur who might be about to lose his fortune to a retired celebrity wrestler (worst case scenario)—or (best case) save it by selling his company to a corporate white knight willing to pay $90 million or more—Nick Denton sounds remarkably sunny.
“Look, a lot of this is about appearances. The calmer and more confident we are, the quicker business returns to normal. Calm is self-fulfilling,” the British-born founder of Gawker Media told The Daily Beast on Friday, a week after his corporate child filed for bankruptcy protection against a Florida jury’s $130 million judgment last March in favor of Hulk Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea).
With the bankruptcy declaration, it was also announced that the digital publishing and gaming company Ziff Davis had agreed to buy Gawker Media for a reported $90 million, or possibly more, if it is the winning bidder in a late-July auction to be supervised by the court.
If Ziff Davis is successful, Denton—who owns around 30 percent of Gawker Media, with an additional 15 percent owned by family trusts—has agreed to stay on as a consultant.
Whatever the future holds, Denton insists that Gawker Media’s nearly 300 employees shouldn’t necessarily be worried.
“It’s too early to tell what an acquirer’s strategy would be,” he said in an interview conducted via Facebook messaging. “But [the games and entertainment company] IGN employs more people now in editorial and video than it did when Ziff Davis took it over.
“Gizmodo and our other brands are already more efficient than many of our competitors. Gizmodo is bigger and better than The Verge—with about a third of the editorial staff.”
Denton continued: “If I’m emotional, I’m relieved that we have been able to secure a solid future for the people and the brands… And I’ve been so proud of the response of people in the company, whether writers, sellers or engineers. Everybody has been so calm, purposeful and grown-up.”
Given the stakes, Denton himself seems eerily cool and composed, maintaining an air of sangfroid through continual meditation.
In addition to that jaw-dropping $130 million figure, the clearly disgusted jury in the two-week trial—aided by an equally revolted trial judge who has consistently ruled against Gawker and last week upheld the verdict—slapped Denton personally with a $10 million penalty, and hit former Gawker editor in chief A.J. Daulerio (despite trial evidence that he has a negative net worth) with a $100,000 punishment for posting a salacious video excerpt of Bollea having sex with the wife of a friend.
Denton and Daulerio are hoping that the bankruptcy court will afford them personal protection as well, pending the outcome of an estimated eight-month-long Florida state appeals process.
Denton—whose husband is actor Derrence Washington—is being forced to tighten his belt, renting out their expansive Soho loft (for a reported $15,000 a month) to move into less costly digs on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I’ve promised Derrence we’ll move back down after the appeal,” Denton confided, “though I rather like it up here. It’s right by where we got married”—in a posh June 2014 celebration at the Museum of Natural History.
Denton noted in an aside: “Derrence is so sick of journalists. He sees a pile of newspapers by the gate at the airport and says: ‘Poison.’”
The legal outcome in Bollea v. Gawker will mean the bitter or happy ending of four years of court filings, depositions, trial testimony, and millions in legal fees—which, on Bollea’s side, have been secretly funded by an aggrieved Silicon Valley billionaire, venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who recently was identified as the financial backer of not only Bollea’s invasion of privacy lawsuit but also a couple of others against Gawker Media.
The Thiel-paid attorney, Charles Harder—the counsel in all three lawsuits, and tangentially involved in two others—recently threatened Gawker with a sixth action on behalf a hair restoration specialist who, according to an exhaustive Gawker investigative report, has for years tended to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s amazing confection of twisty yellow locks.
The cagey Thiel’s goal, as he indicated in a rare interview last month with The New York Times, is to sue Gawker Media into oblivion, or reasonable facsimile thereof, for allegedly violating his privacy by reporting that he’s “totally gay, people,” (although Thiel made no secret of that fact, which was widely known in 2007 when the now-defunct Gawker site, Valleywag, ran the story) and for causing all manner of public pain to some of his rich friends that Valleywag covered aggressively.
In a strange coincidence, Thiel, who calls himself a libertarian, plans to attend the Republican convention in Cleveland as a Trump delegate from California.
And in a wrinkle that is simply bizarre, Thiel has given at least $3.5 million to a British computer scientist-turned theoretician and his “Methuselah Foundation,” which is looking into ways that human beings might live forever.
“It’s been a great story,” Denton continued. “Just think about it. A sinister billionaire. A pro wrestler with a split personality. Donald Trump’s hair. A bunch of radical journalists in New York. A trial. A story that works on both tabloid and intellectual levels. You couldn’t make it up. And we still have the final act to go.”
It’s typical of the 49-year-old Denton—a former Financial Times reporter who launched Gawker a dozen years ago as a media and celebrity gossip brand and built it into a privately held company with seven different sites, covering everything from high tech to lifestyle, and 260 employees—that he can approach a potential catastrophe with a sense of amused detachment.
“Oh, Gawker has always been a crucible for drama,” he said. “We report on it, and sometimes we’re part of it. This is no more stressful than the war with Apple in 2010, or with Scientology in 2008, or with right-wing Gamergate activists in 2014,” he added, referring to various headline-making controversies. “Peter Thiel is a very interesting antagonist.”
Denton went on: “This is interesting because his motives are both political and personal. On the one hand, he wanted to punish a media outlet that dared mock him and his Silicon Valley friends. They’re not used to that.
“But Thiel also has an ideological opposition to transparency. Did you see the video of him questioned outside the Bilderberg meeting?” Denton continued, citing the German-born billionaire’s recent assertion, outside of closed-door conclave of foreign-policy elites, that nosy journalists are the equivalent of the Stasi, East Germany’s Communist-era secret police.
“He made his views crystal clear. Decision makers can’t be honest if they’re being constantly ‘monitored by society.’ He made a connection between transparency and an all-seeing communist dictatorship. That’s a fascinating argument.”
Denton added: “From what I understand, Thiel feels he’s been terrorized by Gawker for a decade. Apart from our piece celebrating the fact that Silicon Valley’s most successful venture capitalist was gay, the coverage of Thiel’s businesses and political views has been more mocking and critical.”
The irony of Denton’s legal troubles—that they are the result of a titanic clash between two wildly successful, high-profile gay men—are not lost on him.
“Thiel and I are both gay, but we have very different views on gay identity,” Denton said. “I’ve long thought it important that gay people be visible in all walks of life—not just in traditional professions such as hairdressing. And I don’t believe an individual’s zone of privacy extends to gay social life. If you’re out in public with your date, I don’t see why the rules for gay public figures should be any different than those for straight people.
“At a higher level, this is a clash between confidentiality and transparency. But there is also the gay angle: a difference between the more radical and conservative approach to gay rights. The radicals pushed for more transparency, for gay people to stand up and be counted.
“The conservatives, such as Peter Thiel, for a long time subscribed to the idea that gay rights are ‘special’ rights. They didn’t want to push society further than it was comfortable in going.”
Denton, who is obviously on the “radical” side of the argument, added: “I think it’s awesome that gay people no longer have to live according to a single template. You can be a Trump-supporting, immortality-seeking, neo-reactionary venture capitalist—and also be gay. That’s progress.”
Denton insisted that it doesn’t bother him that many, many people, not only in Florida but in New York, have been rooting for Gawker’s destruction.
“Oh, I don’t feel that,” he said. “After the Hogan verdict, yes, there was some schadenfreude—especially from media people who had themselves been mocked by Gawker.com.”
He added: “Speaking of those critics, I just had a delightful lunch with Michael Wolff”—the USA Today media writer who has applauded the jury’s findings against Gawker and essentially wished good riddance to bad rubbish.
Wolff paid, Denton revealed.
“I like the guy. Always have,” he said. “He doesn’t mix well with the Gawker bloggers—even though Michael, like them, can never resist a gratuitous insult. I think he hates them because he was once like them.”