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  Gawker Media
squawker
by Abram Sauer
August 14, 2006

If content is king, then Gawker Media is Henry VIII, changing the rules so that it might emerge victorious.

Launched in December 2002, the weblog Gawker.com focused primarily on New York media. Sarcastic in its gossip, it wasn’t afraid to curse when necessary; it was an instant hit. “Snark” was soon a household word, provided your household was located on the island of Manhattan. Founder Nick Denton, a dot-com-era success story,

 
 

soon created Gawker Media, which today controls (depending on when you read this) around 15 online blogs specializing in everything from porn to Hollywood to travel. In 2005, Time magazine named Gawker sites Lifehacker, Jalopnik, and Gridskipper three of the 50 Coolest Websites.

Seemingly ahead of every curve, Gawker is an interesting case study in both online survival and profit. A perfect example is the recent re-engineering of several titles’ layouts. The switcheroo probably seemed innocuous to readers, but not to online ad professionals. Where banner ads had once been on the right, they were now found on the survey-shows-the-eye-looks-here-first left. Gawker’s work with Nike and Evian should be taught in business school.

Gawker Media’s approach to reportage makes it especially difficult to pin down or combat on any common ground. This is due to its humorous, sarcastic dismissal of any takers. Case in point, Gawker’s FAQs:

“If you go to all the parties, you must be as compromised as the rest of them. If not, how the hell do you know what's going on?”
Parties? Did someone say party? Where? Is it open bar? Can we use your name to get in? Anyway, we don't know what's going on—but you clearly do, so why don't you drop us a line at tips@gawker.com and tell us?”
Another example of the voice and attitude is the Gawker Stalker Map, which tracks celebrity sightings in New York City. After reportedly drawing criticism from actor George Clooney, Gawker called for every Clooney sighting. Then it started selling a T-shirt: "George Clooney Stalked Me."

There are four positions from which to regard the Gawker “empire.” The first is uncaring unfamiliarity. (This is the vast majority of the nation.) The second is sincere fandom from a loyal, if fickle, readership. The third, jealousy. (This is a small inner clique of blog-cestuous entrepreneurs.)

The fourth position from which to regard Gawker is abject fear (and probably consequent loathing) from brand owners. Of all Gawker Media’s titles, Consumerist.com has the most fear-provoking potential. This is because Consumerist.com is a brand killer.

“Capitalism is broken. We'll help you fix it,” reads the closing to the “about us” section of the Consumerist site. Billing itself as a guide “through the delinquencies of retail and service organizations,” Consumerist promises to highlight “the persistent, shameless boners of modern consumerism” along with “the latest hot deals, discounts, and freebies.” But mostly it does the former, and its favorite targets are cellphone companies, fast food joints, airlines, hotels, and computer manufacturers—all capital “B” Big Brands.

On June 13, 2006, Vincent Ferrari made a recording of his tragically hilarious attempt to cancel his America Online (AOL) account. Despite rumors that he went fishing for such a bad example of customer service, Vincent was soon all over the Internet and the televised news. Consumerist smelled blood and has since made AOL its whipping boy. Recently the site got its hands on an AOL customer retention manual. You can imagine how that went.

To Consumerist, and all blogs that compete for eyeballs, publishing first is a necessity. What good is an Internet medium if it follows print publishing’s schedule? But in this rush to be first, mistakes are often made. These kinds of mistakes make brand owners “Gawker” in their pants.

On July 24, 2006, Consumerist acted on another website post, reporting that Dell computers contained equipment that secretly recorded a user’s every keystroke. The site made reference to Homeland Security and the Freedom of Information Act, and yet, the sky did not fall. Consumerist soon added a very minor note to the bottom of the post: “Edit: D'oh! This is much ado about nothing. Snopes debunks.” (Snopes is a site specializing in confirming or refuting urban legends.)

(Traditional media does this too. On July 27, the Chicago Tribune misquoted an Apple spokesperson as saying that iPods lasted “four years,” instead of, as intended, “for years.” This mistake was duly noted at Gizmodo.com, a Gawker title.)

The danger of course is not that the Internet can contain misinformation, and no rational argument will soon be made against the Internet being good for consumers. The hazard, in Consumerist’s case, is that so much accurate information creates an environment of credibility and consequent trust. In this, it should assume a higher level of responsibility.

The flippant “D'oh! This is much ado about nothing” could not be more disserving. And while “D’oh! This is much ado about nothing that concerns us any longer despite what lasting damage it may have done” is honest, it’s still too late.

But Gawker Media’s future looks bright as it aims to continue to give readers what they want. Readers want dirt, and because Gawker has greater reach, it gets better dirt. Better dirt means more popular content. And (as we’ve established), in online media, content is king.

 
     
  

Abram Sauer lives in New York City.

  
     
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