Is a “20 Percent Nicer” Gawker Still Gawker?

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Gawker 2015

Gawker is set to relaunch in the coming days and it has teased the possibility of a name change. Schadenfreuder.com is a suggestion.

Relaunching Gawker as “nicer,” as the new marching order seems to be, would be insanity of course. Even in the wake of the site’s recent wholesale condemnation by its own readership after exposing a rival media executive, Gawker is too strong a brand to just dump. That would be like an A-list celebrity changing his name after some embarrassing publicity. Why start over? Instead, get the media to do the rebranding work for you.

And that appears to be what Gawker founder Nick Denton is doing. Like a born-again virgin, Gawker Media is rebranding as “20 percent nicer,” which is another way of saying the new Gawker is going to be the old Gawker so many readers loved.

The late New York Times media reporter David Carr pointed out the pile of dog excrement Gawker was walking toward two years before the site stepped in it: “Gawker, which trades on its bracingly modern approach to news, comes off as moralistic and invasive, while Fox News seems oddly open-minded and pragmatic in comparison.” Carr was speaking of a specific post, but more broadly was warning that Gawker had lost its way. It’s near impossible to believe Denton did not give the piece a more contemplative read than usual.

One way to know that Gawker knows it screwed up is when the site is ignoring the coverage of itself. Look at the case of the Brett Favre “dick pic” story broken by Gawker’s Deadspin sports blog. After the original story, Deadspin happily covered the story’s coverage, including coverage that criticized Deadspin. But after the Conde Nast executive story, Gawker has instead focused on the internal battle between management and editorial, totally ignoring the third party criticism of itself it used to gleefully bathe in.

So after hitting rock bottom, Gawker means to relaunch itself as, in the words of founder Nick Denton, “nicer.” And nicer to everyone else means nicer for brands.

The “Gawker tax” is what Denton calls it. He described the tax to Capital New York as “the cost of selling these brands that any moment can blow up, they can blow up because of internal dissension, they can blow up because of a story that goes wrong, and they call it the Gawker tax. My estimate of the Gawker tax is the gap between the revenues of Gawker Media and the revenues of Vox Media, the gap is around $20 million a year and the gap is increasing.”

That Capital story also laid bare a core problem facing Gawker’s internal brand—how to treat native advertising and content paid for by sponsors. At a meeting Denton argued that Gawker gave its writers sweeping protections from advertising concerns while outspoken editors argued that those protections were not equal to those offered by The New York Times to its writers. This raises the question: Has Gawker editorial been laboring under the impression that its brand is on level with The New York Times? Even most readers would probably raise an eyebrow at that comparison.

Gawker has extended a generous severance packages to any Gawker writers that do not see a place for themselves in the new Gawker. Two of the site’s top editors, including its editor in chief, took the buyouts. Other well-known bylined writers followed suit. These departures will raise questions about Gawker losing its “voice.”

But this concern is not new for Gawker, nor has it sunk it before. The worry about departing editors hurting Gawker’s popularity has been around since founding editor Elizabeth Spiers left more than a decade ago. Ditto the departures of strong editorial personalities like Choire Sicha and Alex Balk, names many of today’s Gawker readers have never heard of.

Meanwhile, the upcoming relaunch will not be Gawker Media’s first big repositioning.

deadpsin-xy

In 2010, Gawker’s pioneering sports site Deadspin faced a bit of an existential crisis. Facing a flood of competitors that it in many ways made possible, Deadspin shifted direction from a more thinking person’s sports blog to the addition of features like Deadspin XY. With its branding now practically expunged from the Gawker Media history, Deadspin XY promised bro-tastic content like “Fights!and/orBoobs!” and posts that “will not necessarily all be fights!and/orboobs!”

Erin Andrews suggestively eating a hoagie featured big in this era of Deadspin. One might consider that Deadspin’s rock bottom, a time when it lost its brand. Today, Deadspin is “fights!and/orboobs!”-free and features more posts about, for instance, cooking bay scallops and hollandaise sauce. It also features more premium advertising.

“Nicer” does not mean a new Gawker with no bite. The old Gawker was civil but wicked and smart. Its reputation for snark came as a compliment, not a dismissal. Many of its posts were practically literary, like a long look at the ideal New York City cocaine dealer. That said, wicked and humorous is hard to scale; just plain wicked, not such a challenge.

So what will a nicer Gawker look like? For many readers—whose comments are often as good as, if not better, than the content—of its ever-expanding platform of sites nested under (the much-loathed) Gawker Media Kinja platform, it probably won’t matter. Specialty sites that make up a lot of Gawker traffic like io9 and Jalopnik won’t get “nicer” because they were never not nice in the first place. On top of that, Gawker is now branching into e-commerce. Its revenues stream has never been more diverse.

Finally, an interesting media nugget that comes on the heels of Gawker’s relaunch is the news that the chronicle of the hippest of New York hipness, Animal New York, just announced that it would cease publishing after 12 years. A recent obituary for the site on Gawker described it as “a mischievous, chatty, aggressive, and unapologetic New Yorker,” a description that could easily have once fit Gawker.

Mentioning Animal New York in relation to Gawker is no accident. Its founder, Bucky Turco, took the opportunity to announce that he would be moving to contribute to the tabloid site Ratter.com. Founded by a former top Gawker editor, Ratter is floundering and recently laid off its whole staff.  Ratter was launched with a $500,000 investment from none other than Nick Denton.

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