Gawker.com dies next week, killed by an unhappy subject

 

 

NEW YORK — Gawker.com, the brash website that broke new ground with its gossipy, no-holds-barred coverage of media, culture and politics, is shutting down after nearly 14 years, brought low by an unhappy, but deep-pocketed, subject.

The news follows the sale of the site’s parent company to Univision. Founder Nick Denton told staffers Thursday afternoon that Gawker.com will come to an end next week.

The site’s proximate cause of death was a major invasion-of-privacy lawsuit brought by former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan. Gawker had published a video of Hogan having sex with a friend’s wife; a Florida jury awarded Hogan $140 million in damages. Gawker Media went into bankruptcy protection after the verdict, and on Tuesday agreed to sell itself to Univision, the Spanish-language broadcaster, for $135 million.

But Gawker’s real enemy wasn’t Hogan so much as aggrieved Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, a PayPal founder and early investor in Facebook whom a Gawker site had outed as gay in 2007. Thiel bankrolled Hogan’s lawsuit as what he called “specific deterrence” against the site’s penchant for “bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.” A spokesman for Thiel didn’t reply to a request for comment Thursday.

Thiel’s vendetta raised concerns about the influence wealthy individuals could wield by covertly working to undermine media companies they didn’t like. And it likely played a role in Univision’s decision to exclude Gawker.com from the sites it will pick up in the acquisition. Univision said it had no comment on the matter.

Federal bankruptcy judge Stuart Bernstein said Thursday that he will approve the sale, under which 95 percent of Gawker Media employees will get job offers at Univision. Denton, an outspoken former Financial Times journalist, said in a staff memo that he won’t be one of them. While he suggested that Gawker.com might one day “have a second act,” he wrote that he’s getting out of the news and gossip business. He also declared personal bankruptcy as a result of the Hogan case.

Gawker.com’s last post will be Monday, Denton said, but its archives will remain online. Other Gawker Media blogs will live on. The company currently publishes six sites in addition to Gawker.com, including the feminist-focused Jezebel, the tech site Gizmodo and the sports site Deadspin. Univision wants those properties to help build a more youthful audience than that commanded by broadcast TV.

But among its brethren, Gawker.com always tended to command the spotlight. In its long and storied tenure, it raked muck and punched up, down and sideways. It waded into stories no one else would touch and broke big news. But it also burned out its writers quickly and could run roughshod over the line that separates jaded from mean-spirited, often at top speed.

The site’s snarky and frequently vulgar style was influential throughout publishing. Gawker was a breeding ground for talented journalists, some of whom went on to jobs at the sort of establishment media outposts Gawker itself frequently mocked.

Early on, the site was a breezy, insider-y chronicler of the media that made it a must-read for many in the industry. In later years it branched out into salacious stories of all kinds, and still enjoyed needling establishment figures in media and technology. But it also started producing stories that had impact well beyond alleviating the boredom of office workers.

In one of its most famous scoops, Gawker reported the existence of a video in which then-Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoked crack , then launched a fundraiser — called, of course, a “Crackstarter” — to purchase it. Ford stuck out the ensuing scandal, but eventually opted not to run for re-election and died of cancer earlier this year.

Gawker was also known for take-downs that set a tone for the broader culture and defined a sense of cool, like Tom Scocca’s attack on “smarm “ and the feel-good, “no haters” mentality that he felt was infecting the internet.

But the site also drew fire for stories that invaded others’ privacy. Gawker posted and then pulled a story that outed a Conde Nast executive who was married to a woman. In its earlier days, it published a “Gawker Stalker” map that pinpointed celebrity sightings.

Denton was famous for burning through staffers, abruptly firing editors and reporters and hiring new ones. But many of those who once worked at the company today speak glowingly of the lessons they learned there. “Gawker was a great place to be a journalist,” one former staffer wrote on The New Yorker’s site in June, when Gawker Media filed for bankruptcy.

“I *only* learned how to write for an audience via the Gawker ethos, and I am so, so, so grateful & sad,” tweeted Jia Tolentino, a former Jezebel editor who also writes for The New Yorker’s site.

 

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