This is the way Gawker ends—not with a bang but a whimper.
During Gawker.com’s final hours of operation Monday, a death foretold for many weeks and ultimately confirmed last Thursday as a federal bankruptcy judge approved the parent company’s sale to Univision, the once-scandalous and snarky news and gossip site was overtaken by ennui, lugubrious musings, and bitter rage.
“Gawker.com is shutting down today, Monday 22nd August, 2016, some 13 years after it began and two days before the end of my forties,” founder Nick Denton ruminated late Monday afternoon in the site’s last gasp—a lengthy disquisition on Gawker’s history and meaning.
“In cultural and business terms, this is an act of destruction, because Gawker.com was a popular and profitable digital media property—before the legal bills mounted,” Denton added. “But in dramatic terms, it is a fitting conclusion to this experiment in what happens when you let journalists say what they really think.”
Veteran Gawkerite Tom Scocca cited Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel’s nine-year mission to destroy the journalistic outlet that reported that he’s gay and other unwelcome stories.
“Gawker.com is out of business because one wealthy person maliciously set out to destroy it, spending millions of dollars in secret, and succeeded. That is the only reason,” Scocca wrote.
Thiel used celebrity pro wrestler Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy lawsuit (and possibly two other lawsuits that are pending against the company) as the vehicle for his vengeance.
Nearly four years after Gawker.com posted a video excerpt of Terry Bollea (Hogan’s real name) having sex with his best friend’s wife, a disgusted Florida jury awarded Bollea $140.1 million, driving Denton and his company into personal and corporate bankruptcy.
“A lie with a billion dollars behind it is stronger than the truth,” Scocca acidly lamented, citing a mainstream media meme “that Gawker had this coming, that the site was—to some degree, depending on how sympathetic the writer is trying to pose as being—responsible for its own downfall. By now it is conventional wisdom. That conventional wisdom is false.”
A site that, at its height, posted nearly 100 stories a day, was eking them out in its death throes.
As evening approached, Gawker posted a collection of valedictory letters from former editors such as Gabriel Snyder, Alex Balk, Jessica Coen, and Elizabeth Spiers.
The pithiest comment was Hudson Hongo’s rotating “fuck that alligator” graphic—to which former editor Choire Sicha, the author of a sardonic tribute to Gawker and other failed journalistic enterprises such as Radar and Talk magazines, tweeted: “I guess in the spirit of gawker I should just say... fuck you!”
Never has Gawker been less entertaining—perhaps understandable under the circumstances, but still not much fun.
Gawker’s demise was predictable, because no prudently-run media company, however large and wealthy, would have been willing to welcome a brand that was at once toxic and lawsuit-prone.
As Denton put it: “The flagship site, a magnet for most of the lawsuits marshaled by Peter Thiel’s lawyer, has for most media companies become simply too dangerous to own.”
In the latter category was Monday’s story on the website Washington Babylon, which joyfully danced on Gawker’s grave and called out the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, an alleged crony of Vladimir Putin, who purchased a substantial stake in Gawker’s parent company and thus relieved some of its litigation-induced financial pressures.
“In January,” wrote Washington Babylon’s MacArthur Collins, “Gawker quietly got into bed with a billionaire of its own. And not just any billionaire. Needing a sugar daddy to support his upcoming legal fight, [Gawker founder Nick] Denton and [General Counsel Heather] Dietrick sold a minority stake to a company controlled by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg through a matryoshka doll of holding companies.
“An associate and friend of Vladimir Putin, Vekselberg is often described as ‘one of Russia’s most powerful and connected billionaire barons.’ Politico revealed in a barely noticed story that Vekselberg’s Columbus Nova would have veto power over key company decisions at Gawker, despite only owning a small piece of it.”
Collins added: “Gawker’s business model had long been based on some pretty sleazy principles. Outing gay people, slut-shaming women, stalking children of politicians and worse created buzz and wealth for Denton.”
Former Gawker editor Max Read—who quit in protest last year when Denton took down a much-reviled story about a heterosexually married media executive who allegedly solicited a male escort for sex—wrote a thoughtful mea culpa for New York magazine:
“At the time, I felt furious — like I’d been forced out to the edge of a tree branch, only to turn around and see the man who pushed me out there sawing it off. But the truth is I had gone out on the limb because I liked it out there. I liked being the villain, the critic, the bomb-thrower. If one of my bombs went off in my face, it was only my fault.”
Nobody at the soon-to-be-absorbed parent company Gawker Media, not Denton or anybody else, responded to The Daily Beast’s request Monday to visit the corporate headquarters in Manhattan’s Union Square neighborhood, or even returned a phone call on the site’s dying day.
That perhaps counted as an absurd irony, or what someone less charitable might call rank hypocrisy, for an enterprise that had lived—and, of course, perished—by Denton’s journalistic precepts of radical transparency.
Or, as longtime Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan put in his own final blog post, quoting an unnamed former Gawker editor, “Honesty is our only virtue.”
Full disclosure: More than a decade ago, when I wrote a column for the New York Daily News, I was one of Gawker’s many targets—the subject of mean items about my personal life, my diminishing employment prospects, and even my middle-aged fleshiness.
It didn’t bother me—much—and I like Denton along with several other Gawkerites I’m acquainted with.
In the end, everyone has feelings—even writers and editors who acknowledged to Bollea’s legal team, under oath, that when deciding which juicy and potentially hurtful things should be published about various people, the subjects’ feelings were not a factor.
Everyone, at some point, needs to grieve in private.
In the final post, Denton cast Gawker’s death as almost romantic—“the morbid sense of innocence lost,” surely a starry-eyed characterization that would surprise and possibly amuse some of Gawker’s victims.
“One of Gawker’s most cherished tags was ‘How Things Work, a rubric that applied to posts revealing the sausage-making, the secret ways that power manifests itself,” Denton wrote. “The phrase has a children’s book feel to it, bringing to mind colorful illustrations of animals in human work clothes building houses or delivering mail.
“Of course it also carries the morbid sense of innocence lost, and the distance between the stories we tell ourselves about the world and the way it actually works. Collapsing that distance is, in many ways, what Gawker has always been about.
“And so Gawker’s demise turns out to be the ultimate Gawker story. It shows how things work.”