Embattled media mogul Nick Denton has been under a lot of stress recently. Perhaps that’s why he had so much steam to let off when he appeared on the “Power in the Media” panel at Percolate’s Transition 2016 conference in New York.
The highly-publicized saga is by now a familiar tale to many. Gawker Media Group, the media company Denton founded, once prided itself on its independence. But after a high-profile lawsuit by wrestler Hulk Hogan bankrupted the company, then-CEO Denton sold the company to Univision for $135 million this sumer. In turn, Univision (controversially) shuttered the flagship Gawker.com website while maintaining its six other autonomous vertical lifestyle sites.
In the Transition talk, Denton was interviewed by Fusion financial journalist Felix Salmon on the subject of media and tech. Their conversation illuminated much more than just the recent trial, ranging across the entire state of media and publishing in 2016. Denton divulged the things he saw working and not working across the online publishing landscape. Topics included everything from the deteriorating trust in mainstream media, to the role of brand in an increasingly silo-ed landscape, down to Denton’s own post-gawker plans.
Here are five of Denton’s most insightful takeaways, plus a video of the full talk embedded below.
1. An independent upstart like Gawker probably couldn’t thrive in 2016
“I saw an opportunity to make a media company without friction,” Denton said. “It was an incredible opportunity to build brands in a world that really isn’t as crowded as it is now.”
As “an unfettered expression of the journalist id” as its founder fondly referred to it, Gawker.com seized a market opportunity in low-cost, high-metabolism news reporting and commentary. But Denton’s not sure that model would be sustainable today, citing the infeasibility of the ad-based model. “The news is being carried by the entertainment,” he explained, “and as long as things are good, the news will be funded.”
Pointing to “where money is going in new digital media,” Denton gave credit to newer lifestyle properties “in the right kinds of niches” like Refinery29 and Bustle. But overall, he didn’t sound bullish on the prospect of a straight, mainstream news site breaking out in today’s surfeit of content sources.
2. Content discovery has shifted, but brand still matters
“It’s pretty rare now for an entire media property to be consumed as a whole… Content is consumed article by article,” Denton commented.
For good reason, Denton and Salmon returned several times to the digital disruption facing news media. The rise of platforms like Facebook and Google as online gatekeeps continues to challenge business models across the industry. Amid such drastic change, Denton asserted the vital relevance of a clear, focused brand identity in this new and uncertain equation: “Brands of course matter, but I think a brand needs to stand for one thing, not two things these days.”
3. Americans’ trust in mass media is at a new low, but media’s power is being overshadowed by Silicon Valley
“Never since the gilded age has there been such a concentration of money and power in so few hands,” Denton says.
It’s clear Denton has had time to ponder the outsize role of Silicon Valley’s tech giants (no surprise given the role of Facebook investor Peter Thiel in Gawker’s legal woes). What he calls the “five big tech monopolies” on the US Pacific coast now dwarf the relatively “little dots” of once-towering media conglomerates like Disney or 20th Century Fox. The eclipsing of media by tech comes at a time where Americans, particularly younger Americans, have lost faith in mass media (among adults age 18-49, trust in mass media fell from 46% to 36% since 2009 according to Gallop).
This was in the context in which Gawker’s informal, insider tone initially gained traction. But given the new normal, Denton’s feelings about the unchecked power of this new elite were palpable.
4. Social media has propelled real social change, but the problem of unchecked trolling has become critical
“When people are living in the comments or on forums and niche sites, and when their entire news diet now may be through Facebook—an amplification of the opinions and shared stories of those self-selecting groups—the risk is an online world that looks much like Somalia: a bunch of clans in perpetual conflict with one another.”
Both interviewee and moderator struck a sober tone on the issues of trolling, bullying and generally unconstructive noise being traded on the Internet. Denton spoke candidly about the challenge to online media posed by the underlying “democratic” nature of comment threads and forums. Though he acknowledged the social benefit of new voices emerging online, Denton described his frustration at the lack of controls or filtering available both to moderators and readers. His answer? “Empower readers not to see people they don’t want to.”
5. Seeing growth potential in a “cocktail party” of participatory content
“There’s been a lot of innovation in the distribution of content,” Denton commented. “I wouldn’t say that problems been solved… but at the article level, there hasn’t really been a lot of innovation.”
An interesting clash between Salmon and Denton came when the interviewer suggested that the most significant innovation in digital news over recent years has been subtitled video, designed to auto-play silently in mobile feeds. Denton was taken aback at the suggestion. “We’ve yet to see that the user experience is improved” by this subtitled video craze, he challenged. “You can argue that… text is actually quite an efficient way to consume information, and we’ve tried to retrofit that into something that a video ad can play on.”
Asked where the next innovation in online content could be, Denton returned to the problem of participation. His hopes are in user-generated content (though the loathes the acronym ‘UGC’ for the associations that come with it). Denton spoke of “not just trying to create a volume or quantity of stuff… (but) to actually make the whole process of the consumption of news or information into a more fun ‘content party’” — a phrase that drew laughs.
Here Denton piqued his interviewer’s interest, offering that some of the Gawker Media properties, like Lifehacker for example, facilitated exceptionally constructive, positive UGC.
Pressed to elaborate on what’s next for his career, Denton replied, “I am interested in forums,” then offering a more suitale metaphor for his vision of a “content party.”
“I like a cocktail party. Not just people you know: some people you know, some you don’t know.” Denton said. “That’s how societies make progress. And that’s more how the internet should feel.”
Jared Spears is a New York-based creative strategist at Interbrand.