Gawker was once one of the most infamous websites in American media.
He began life as a rambling outsider who turned blogging into a business as a purveyor of irreverent, anti-establishment snark against the rarified world of America’s elite media in New York. As it grew, it transformed into a truly influential news organization before a dramatic collapse in 2016 when it lost a privacy lawsuit for posting a sex tape featuring wrestler Hulk. Hogan.
Now, six years after that ignominious death, a new version of Gawker has made an unexpected resurgence.
Since a silent relaunch a year ago, under entirely new owners, Gawker is once again attracting interest and readers – still delivering snark, still leaning on attitude against the elites – but without the edge of villainy that caused its original iteration so much trouble.
Over the past week, the site has run stories that most media outlets would have preferred to brush aside: alleged anti-British and anti-royal sentiments at the New York Times; whether it was wrong for Meghan and Harry to hold hands at the Queen’s funeral (“Even for a family full of perverts, that’s beyond”); and whether The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are “too mean, too callous, too focused on tedious drama” to deserve a show.
The rotation of topics, relatively unbridled ideologically, marks the return of an organization that was dead. Acquired by Bustle media and helmed by a new editor, Leah Finnegan, the Gawker reboot added (or returned) a welcome burst of satire to an American media landscape that often lacks it.
According to James Brown, founder and editor of Loaded, a British magazine that launched the lad-mag revolution of the 90s and whose account of that era “Animal House” has just been published, the American mainstream press practically gave up on satire.
“It now seems that social media is so awash with humor and irreverence that people no longer see their place in mainstream media,” he told the Guardian. “Editorials are strained and the comedy is seen as a field trip in its own right.”
“People are too worried about how they’ll be perceived, and they’ve stopped being playful, so anything that starts being that way again is welcome,” Brown adds.
Founded by former Financial Times journalist Nick Denton in his living room in 2002, Gawker started out as just two blogs, a media gossip site (Gawker) and a technology blog (Gizmodo). The company had two freelance bloggers who were paid $12 per post.
Over time, Gawker — and a host of other brave blogs — have helped revolutionize American publishing. It has added sports (Deadspin), tech (Gizmodo), and gaming (Kotaku) sites to its stable. Online outlets like Vice, Buzzfeed and Vox followed, giving journalists a way into a business dominated by stilted organizations that had yet to adapt to the proposed democratization of access. by Internet.
Denton told The New York Times in 2015 that what reporters put into their stories is inherently less interesting than what they say after work. The publisher, the Times said, “probably did more than anyone else to soften the mainstream media. Its various websites represented nothing but the proposition that decorum should never get in the way of entertaining readers.
“By Gawker’s definition, if it’s news, it’s news,” the Times added.
But that definition fell apart when Gawker’s interests morphed into sexual preference. Gawker exposed a publishing executive at Condé Nast, sparking a wave of anger. Then, in 2007, Valleywag, a tech-focused subset of Gawker, unmasked tech baron Peter Thiel without his permission.
Thiel then funded a lawsuit brought by Hulk Hogan, a 6ft 7in, 300lb wrestler named Terry Bollea after Gawker posted a 40 second video of Hogan having sex with a radio DJ’s wife named Bubba the Love Sponge.
Bollea’s attorneys argued that the wrestler’s sex life was not a hot topic and that posting it was an invasion of his right to privacy. Jurors agreed, and Bollea was awarded $140 million, later reduced to $31 million as part of a settlement. Faced with the colossal fine, the site closed.
The new Gawker editor, who was not made available to The Guardian last week, said the new Gawker would be the same but different. How far Finnegan wants or can go in revitalizing Gawker is questionable.
“Current laws of civility mean no, it can’t be exactly what it once was,” Finnegan wrote in a note to readers last year, “but we strive to honor the past and d ’embrace the present.’
But Finnegan conceded that she had reservations: “Gawker’s name was toxic, but also oddly revered; an unsolvable combination. He couldn’t be brought back because he could never be who he once was, and also because what he once was was sued by a professional wrestler five years ago.
According to Ryan Thomas, professor of journalism and media production at Washington State University’s Edward R Murrow College of Communication, the alignment of economics, technology, and dissatisfaction with mainstream media coverage public allowed the success of the first Gawker.
“A lot of the Gawker-like sites that sprung up as a result of the blogging boom have old roots in the function that some radical or experimental magazines filled,” Thomas says. “There has always been a need for journalism that challenges, pushes and to some extent holds the general public accountable.”
But Gawker is also re-entering the publishing sphere at a time when outlets like Puck or Unherd, or unorganized platforms like Substack, offer consumers direct access to the opinions or voices they have chosen to consume. Simultaneously, Gawker’s former travel companions, Buzzfeed and Vice, scaled down original reporting.
“I wonder about the sustainability of all this, but we are witnessing the individualization of journalism. It became very personality driven,” Thomas said.
“People created a lot of clickability on what people are angry about today. It’s a feedback loop and there are limits to that because at some point you have to create original content,” he said.