The Day Gawker Tore Itself Apart
The gossip site’s meltdown continues with the very public resignations of its executive editor and editor in chief, and a heartfelt mea culpa by founder Nick Denton.
When the history of Gawker Media is someday recorded—and perhaps presented as a case study in flawed judgment at whatever journalism schools might still exist—the events of July 20, 2015 will likely be memorialized as the Monday Morning Massacre.
After an anguished weekend of second-guessing and recrimination over the publication of, and subsequent decision to take down, a seamy story purporting to reveal details of a little-known media executive’s secretly gay sex life, Gawker’s top two editorial employees resigned on Monday in a blaze of glory.
Tommy Craggs—executive editor of the 300-employee, $40 million-a-year enterprise which runs eight different blogs from gossip to technology—and Max Read, editor in chief of the original gossip site from which the company takes its name, both announced their departures with long, angry and bitter memos inveighing against Gawker founder Nick Denton (who owns 68 percent of the privately held company) and his business management team.
Denton responded, more in sorrow than anger, in a lengthy memo of his own, and then—honoring a corporate culture in which the airing of dirty laundry is considered something to be embraced rather than avoided—presided over what was sure to be an agonized, rage-filled staff meeting.
“This is the company I built,” Denton wrote. “I was ashamed to have my name and Gawker’s associated with a story on the private life of a closeted gay man who some felt had done nothing to warrant the attention.”
He added: “And I’m sorry that other editors and writers are now in such an impossible position: objecting to the removal of a story that many of them found objectionable.”
Denton noted that the timing of the controversy is particularly unfortunate, given that Gawker Media is preparing to go to trial, later this year in a Florida state court, over wrestling icon Hulk Hogan’s $100 million sex video lawsuit.
It “was pure poison to our reputation just as we go into the Hogan trial,” he wrote.
Denton—who spent the weekend “feverishly” trying to persuade Craggs and Read to stay, according to Gawker staff writer J.K. Trotter—told The Daily Beast that he was dubious about the story from the beginning, but did not read it before it was published.
“I discussed the essence with Tommy, told him I didn’t see the point,” Denton wrote in a text message. “But it’s not my job to approve posts. I don’t do that. I advise—and now, exceptionally—I override.”
At a meeting at the office today, Monday, according to New York magazine, Craggs and Read spoke about their reasons for leaving, which was to protect “a sacred principle,” according to a source in the room.
Craggs said that the stakes were large: Denton wanted to turn Gawker into a “tamer Vox.”
The meltdown over Thursday’s article has become his “Reichstag fire,” Craggs told staffers. Another source told New York magazine, by that Craggs meant “this was the pretext by which he can Vox-ify Gawker.”
Another source told the magazine, “Nick has decided Gawker should be Vox but a little edgier.”
The wrenching revolutions of Monday seem a world away from the cocktail party for media writers covering the Hogan lawsuit held at Denton’s Soho loft Thursday night. Just as the scandalous story was appearing online, Denton seemed in a celebratory mood and various Gawker editors “spoke about the post proudly,” according to an account by Capital New York media writer Peter Sterne.
“A few of the editors were glued to their phones, checking Twitter and Chartbeat to stay up to date on the angry tweets from other journalists and the number of people currently reading the post.”
Craggs, in his memo, accused Denton and three of his managing partners who voted to delete the story 18 hours and four minutes after it was posted, of being “the four cringing members of the managing partnership’s Fear and Money Caucus.”
President and General Counsel Heather Dietrick, who voted to keep the story on the site, was exempted from Craggs’s derisive label.
The former executive editor added that by killing the story—about Condé Nast Publications chief financial officer David Geithner, a heterosexually married father of three, who denied Gawker’s allegation that he hired a male escort for sex—Denton and his management team were “undermining (if not immolating) [Cragg’s] job, forsaking Gawker’s too-often-stated, too-little-tested principles, and doing the most extreme and self-destructive thing a shop like ours could ever do.”
Max Read, meanwhile, wrote in his own memo that the deletion of the Geithner story—whose publication was greeted with widespread condemnation and revulsion by journalists and others as soon as it went up on Thursday night—represented “an absolute surrender of Gawker’s claim to ‘radical transparency.’”
Read added: “That non-editorial business executives were given a vote in the decision to remove it is an unacceptable and unprecedented breach of the editorial firewall, and turns Gawker’s claim to be the world’s largest independent media company into, essentially, a joke.”
In a memo to the staff written on Saturday, before he or Craggs announced their resignations, Read noted that Craggs felt he had little choice but to quit after the management team, by a 4-2 vote, decided to kill the story over his objection.
Read quoted one Gawker editor as saying that “Tommy tied his dick to a rock and threw the rock off the cliff,” while another Gawkerite “says it’s more like Tommy threw the rock on the ground and jumped off himself. The point is that Tommy’s dick was torn off in a gross way.”
Read added: “Maybe this is a bad metaphor.”
As Erin Gloria Ryan, managing editor of Gawker Media’s Jezebel blog, put it on Twitter, “the last several days have been like watching a fuckup sandwich being made very slowly and now the people who didn’t fuck up have to eat it.”
Craggs’s memo was particularly critical of Andrew Gorenstein, Gawker Media’s president of advertising and partnerships, who, he complained, sent him “a sneering note” as Friday’s management vote was about to take place.
Craggs, who was on his way to California as the corporate meltdown was escalating, shared an acrimonious message thread:
Gorenstein: Im getting emails from Keenan [J.K. Trotter] at gawker re post vote
Gorenstein: In not dealing with her
Me: Yeah, God forbid you explain yourself
Gorenstein: I’m 1 of 5
Nick Denton: We will all need to be at the office tomorrow morning to talk with Edit. I propose a meeting before at 9am among the Managing Partners. And you can all expect to be asked why you voted as you did at the all-hands.
Gorenstein (still replying to me): Don’t give me that bullshit
Me: I won’t be attending
Me: I would encourage you to meet with all of edit, but knowing you people I doubt you will
Nick Denton: I encourage everybody to do so, also.
Me: So that’s what it sounds like when Nick has my back.
Me: By the way, Andrew, Keenan is a male. You all should get to know the writers you just sold out.
Me: They may not be around for long.
Craggs added: “Then Nick accused me of being ‘self-indulgent’ for making it ‘all about the writers being sold out’ and for not being sufficiently attuned to the damage the brand would suffer.”
Craggs asserted that the story was killed largely so as not to alienate major advertisers, a couple of whom were considering pulling their business. Denton, in his own memo, acknowledged the latter fact but denied that it was the decisive factor.
“Were there also business concerns? Absolutely,” he wrote. “The company’s ability to finance independent journalism is critical. If the post had remained up, we probably would have triggered advertising losses this week into seven figures.”
But, Denton added, “I was only aware of one advertiser pausing at the time the decision to pull the post was made; so you won’t be able to pin this outrage on advertising, even though it is the traditional thing to do in these circumstances.”
The most striking thing about Denton’s memo—especially for someone such as this writer, who has followed Gawker (and occasionally been its victim) since its inception—is his apparent repudiation of nearly everything the merciless gossip site has embraced over the years.
“That post wasn’t what Gawker should stand for,” Denton wrote about the Geithner story, “and it is symptomatic of a site that has been out of control of editorial management. Our flagship site carries the same name as the company, and the reputation of the entire company rests on its work. When Gawker itself is seen as sneering and callous, it affects all of us.”
Yet Gawker’s prevailing tone, over the past decade, has been decidedly “sneering” and “callous”—qualities from which Denton, at 48, apparently wishes to dissociate himself.
“The Hogan case has shown we can’t escape our past, and I can’t escape Gawker,” Denton continued. “Of the site’s qualities, some of its best and most of its worst were mine: the desire of the outsider to be feared if you’re not to be respected, nip the ankles till they notice you; contempt for newspaper pieties; and a fanatical belief in the truth no matter the cost. It is a creature of my own making.”
So now Gawker, according to Nick Denton, is his Frankenstein Monster?
Either Denton is a genuinely changed man, or well-meaning aliens have snatched his body.