Friday rant - Gawker.com shuts down, should enterprises care?

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed August 26, 2016
Summary:
Gawker.com is officially dead. The litigation that caused its demise is disturbing. The rationalizations from Gawker.com are infuriating. That's fodder for a Friday rant, with enterprise readers in mind.

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In May, when Gawker.com's fate was not yet sealed, my colleague Den Howlett penned a Friday rant: the media business just got a bit interesting. Now, Gawker.com's casket is closed, though you can still pay your respects at Gawker.com, which contains a series of self-righteous obituaries that offer abundant clues to the victim's demise.

This is hardly the first time that a media property has quickly ceased operations. We saw that not long ago in the enterprise space with the May 2015 shuttering of GigaOm, (though GigaOm proved hard to kill, and has returned in a somewhat new form). But there are two notable aspects of Gawker's fall:

  • This is the first I can recall a consistently profitable new media company being shut down. Most fail due to business model/revenue problems.
  • Gawker.com's litigation-caused demise provokes an intense debate on the predicaments of new media, from publishing ethics on the one hand, to the dangers posed to media companies by axe-grinding lawsuits on the other.

As a so-called blogger, I am livid about the exit blogs on Gawker.com. As an enterprise dude, I find myself wondering what the implications are.

One factual note: while Gawker.com has shut down, the acquiring company, Univision, will continue publishing Gawker.com's affiliate publications, including Deadspin, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Jezebel and Kotaku. All will be absorbed into Univision's Fusion Media Group. Time will reveal any editorial changes, but from what I understand, the bulk of Gawker.com's staff has been absorbed into these other publications.

However, Univision views Gawker.com as too toxic to touch. The other notorious publication in the group, the sports rag Deadspin, has cleaned up its journalistic act in recent years, though its legacy is still tainted by past editorial transgressions, including some wretched decisions by former Deadspin and Gawker Editor and world class new media asshole A.J. Daulerio, who along with being a loser in the Hulk Hogan lawsuit, once published a video of a girl having ambiguously consensual sex, refusing her pleas to take it down.

In this parting bit of petulance from Gawker's Features Editor Tom Scocca, Gawker was murdered by Gaslight, Scocca portrays Gawker as troubadours of truth who were ousted by a sinister new force: billionaires with axes to grind, in this case, infamous Trump supporter Peter Thiel, who secretly funded Hulk Hogan's successful suit against Gawker (this was personal to Thiel, who was outed as gay by Gawker in a 2007 post that is, amazingly, still live).

Scocca puts all the blame for Gawker's demise on their legal detractors:

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, while bragging about Gawker's culture of self-criticism, offers none. Citing regrets, he attacks The New York times instead. And while Gawker was indeed profitable, we'll never know if Gawker could have been profitable without scraping pondscum for viral views.

In the comments, one reader ("ChrisMSF") blew a gasket:

How many of these weepy self-pitying thinkpieces is Gawker going to publish? Can you REALLY not see by now how what you’ve done — repeatedly, and which you still defend — wasn’t just not journalism, but was plainly immoral, irresponsible, and clearly illegal?

YOU’RE WRONG. Gawker was WRONG time and again. You were wrong to “out” Thiel. You were wrong to “out” that guy in the gay prostitute “scandal.” You were wrong to publish the Hogan sex tape. Not only are none of these events newsworthy, but your actions in each case were clearly and plainly reprehensible. Defending your obvious mistakes and crying about having to pay for your obvious mistakes only makes it worse.

Then ChrisMSF slammed the hypocrisy of viral-obsessed new media:

It’s infuriating to watch Gawker writers vacillate between “silly celeb blogger” and “serious journalist” only when it suits them... Being real, being grown-ups, and being actual news media comes with responsibility to uphold the law and serve the public interest.

ChrisMSF does overlook Scocca's most salient point: so-called establishment media is not immune from editorial transgressions. See: the U.S. media's spoonfed regurgitation of now-disproven "intelligence" about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. Scocca rings true when he asserts:

In one span of a little more than a year, not very long ago, the New York Times mistakenly accepted (and cheered for) a failed Venezuelan coup, printed falsehoods that helped carry the case for invading Iraq, and saw its top editors resign after a humiliating plagiarism scandal. No one suggested the paper had signed its own death warrant. That the New York Times has the right to exist, to rise above its failings, is taken for granted.

I would simply say to Scocca: the smaller you are, the higher the price for hubris. Or, as my mother used to (jokingly) say to me, No one promised you a rose garden. That doesn't give Gawker license to conflate an amoral page view agenda with truth-telling. Scocca:

The natural conclusion, even for people on the inside, was that the company must have taken too many risks. The willingness to publish things too ugly for other outlets to touch—an account of seeing video of the mayor of Toronto smoking crack, domestic-violence accusations against Bill O’Reilly—had gone over to destructive irresponsibility, and we were being punished for it.

Yes, Mr. Scocca, "destructive irresponsibility" sounds about right. You weren't raging against the machine. You were the new machine; the wheels came off after you ran over one too many. Scocca mounts an impassioned "it's legal" defense:

What Thiel’s covert campaign against Gawker did was to invisibly change the terms of the risk calculation. The change begins with the post about Thiel’s sexual identity in a homophobic investor culture, the post Thiel now cites as the inspiration for his decision to destroy Gawker. It was solidly protected by media law and the First Amendment, as were the other posts that, as Thiel wrote, “attacked and mocked people”—specifically, his cohort of rising plutocrats in Silicon Valley.

Legal doesn't make it right. And if you venture into the legal gray area, conserve that risk for something besides a former wrestler's sex tape. Criticizing and exposing plutocrats? By all means. But the investigative journalism that takes down plutocrats is grueling, expensive work. It's much cheaper to publish a sensational factoid about someone's sexual identity. And it's sleazy-easy to publish a sex tape someone sent you.

Scocca's ominous warning:

Gawker always said it was in the business of publishing true stories. Here is one last true story: You live in a country where a billionaire can put a publication out of business. A billionaire can pick off an individual writer and leave that person penniless and without legal protection.

True - but not news. As a snot-nosed '80s college kid, I studied examples of journalists whose books were tied up in court and rendered silent. I also studied civil rights leaders who paid the ultimate price. Don't nibble on the hand that feeds you and delude yourself into thinking you're not biting. Know your enemy - because they came to play. Oh, and don't shovel plutocrat-fighting manure. Not when your former editor testified, in court:

“Can you imagine a situation where a celebrity sex tape would not be newsworthy?” asked the lawyer, Douglas E. Mirell.

“If they were a child,” Mr. Daulerio replied.

“Under what age?” the lawyer pressed.

“Four.”

The wrap - enterprise relevance?

Gawker wants us to see the danger in the Thiels of the world. That's not wrong. As Den put it in his piece:

The reality is that Thiel is seeking to bury Gawker under nose bleed expensive litigation in a case where only one side can win. I call that outrageously unfair to the point of obscene.

But: if you rely on a page view/ad-driven publishing model, it's hard to avoid the temptation of the viral crud that brought Gawker down. And that's where the enterprise reader comes in. We have a tendency to take media for granted - bad move. If you see media you like, support it with your eyeballs and wallets. In tech media, there are a smattering of worthy publications that have alternate business models, including reader-supported, or, in our case, a sponsored content model that relies upon transparency of disclosure. (I'll add a further list of recommended media as a comment to this piece.)

As Den said about our diginomica mission:

We will always maintain what we believe to be an independent view of the technology world. It may not always be to some people’s taste, but without media checks and balances, the world becomes a very poor place.

That doesn't make us heroes or beyond reproach. If anything, it means we are accountable to our readers. We try to have these conversations in public, and yes, we screw up. A savvy enterprise reader should seek out multiple web sites and viewpoints. There is no gospel, and we're all getting paid by someone.

For enterprises involved in content marketing, the legal risks that Gawker ran into are low. Enterprises are far too conservative with what they publish to have much legal exposure. An unlikely lawsuit would end up as a cost of doing business, not a death knell. But this is a good reminder that the goal here is to reach the right audience. Building topic authority means you don't have to join the viral circus and waste money on flashy, sensationalized content outside your comfort zone.

At the risk of inflaming corporate lawyers, I'd urge enterprise marketers to take a look at some of the edgier stuff Gawker (and Deadspin) has produced. Not the slimy virals, but the edgy truth pieces. There is an undeniable spark there, an indifference to sacred cows sorely lacking in most enterprise prose. You can almost see the profane glee of the blogger as he/she turned their keyboard into a lyrical blowtorch. That's Gawker at its all-too-rare best.

Some of the best web writing I ever consumed was on Gawker or Deadspin. Scocca himself published some brilliant stuff, as in his epic takedown of Malcolm Gladwell and other feel-good handwaivers, On Smarm. That talent will rise again. But they did a disservice to those who believe bloggers can speak truth to power without compromising on ethics or professionalism.

Updated 7:30pm ET, August 26, 30 minutes after publication. The notable tweak was a change in a paragraph about Scocca's Thiel warning. I felt I had not been fair enough to his position. On August 27 am, as promised, in the comment section I added a short list of enterprisey/tech publications with different business models.