An oral history of Gawker: The Gawker staff on Nick Denton.

Gawker Staff Reflects on Nick Denton, the Site’s Mission, and Being Mean Just Because

Gawker Staff Reflects on Nick Denton, the Site’s Mission, and Being Mean Just Because

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July 23 2015 12:42 PM

“It’s Just Mean to Be Mean”

Gawker staff reflects on Nick Denton and the site’s mission.

Nick Denton
Gawker Media founder and CEO Nick Denton.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Jaguar

Excerpted from Gawker: An Oral History by Brian Abrams. Out now as a Kindle Single.

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In January 2008, Gawker was raking in close to 10 million page views per month. A new regime of Gawker writers undertook new positions, including former Wonkette editor Alex Pareene in an unofficial deputy editor position and commenter LolCait, aka ad ops admin Richard Lawson. Gawker Media founder and CEO Nick Denton adjusted to the editor’s seat after a mass office exodus, which he spun as good publicity. “People like a little bit of a soap opera in their media,” he said. “They understand that these personalities are likely to clash. There are going to be fights. There are going to be walkouts, and there are going to be affairs. My approach was, ‘You know what? Embrace it.’ If they wanted to write something on their way out the door, let them write something on their way out the door.”

RICHARD LAWSON, aka “LolCait”
Writer, Gawker (2008–11)
Writer, the Atlantic Wire (2011­–13)
Columnist, VanityFair.com (2013–)

Everyone left, and then I started writing in early 2008. The person who hired me was Nick, which was very daunting. He summoned me to his apartment and asked if I wanted to write full time. Of course I said yes right away. I remember him saying, “This isn’t the kind of writing that you want to do, but you’re going to be writing so much that it’ll make you a better writer no matter what.” He is very much an impresario. He had the fancy apartment, and he knew everyone and everyone knew him. To interact with him was intimidating.

ALEX PAREENE
Editor, Wonkette (2006–07)
Writer, Gawker (2007­–10)
Writer, Salon (2010–14)
Special Projects Editor, Gawker Media (2015–)

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This was a period where he could get away with anything because no one was going to push back on him. There was no filter. He’d come up with the take, and then if you were smart you’d push back on it. He’d been doing this to Gawker editors forever. The more assertive Gawker editors, the more successful Gawker editors, would absorb his take and then say, “No, Nick, that’s stupid. Fuck you.”

MARY PILON
Intern, Gawker (2006–08)
Reporter, Wall Street Journal (2008–11)
Reporter, New York Times (2011–14)
Author, The Monopolists (2015)

Nick had taken over the site because it had been so crazy.

ALEX PAREENE

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If you came on Gawker right at that transition, and you weren’t very self-directed, you would have been like, “What am I doing?” There was no structure. You would show up on your first day and be like, “Now what?”

RICHARD MORGAN
Writer, Gawker (Jan. 2, 2008)

It seemed like Nick didn’t know what we were doing. He wanted a flow chart of media hookups. “That guy who was an intern at Rolling Stone hooked up with this photographer at the Times Magazine who slept with such-and-such at the Christmas party,” and it would be this never-ending, ongoing, bridge-burning thing. I was like, “This is not the job you described.” And that morning he announced I was covering the TV industry, and I was like, “That’s completely new information to me.” Then he would be like, “US Weekly got Jessica Simpson’s engagement incorrect. Make a post about that.” I get that first days are chaotic, but if the surprise beat is that off from the general description? Those are a lot of layers of not knowing what’s going on. I ended it over AOL Instant Messenger.

LOCKHART STEELE
Founder, Curbed and Eater (2004–13)
Managing Editor, Gawker Media (2005–06)
Editorial Director, Vox Media (2014–)

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Nick Denton has always understood the Internet better than most of us, if not all of us, and it can make working for him confounding. Like anybody, he will tell you that not all his ideas are great ideas. But, with only a couple of exceptions, he comes up with more original ideas than anyone I have ever worked with. And, if what you need is stability and straightforwardness and the idea that we are going to take a path and not take a quick turn, Nick Denton can be a real bitch to work for.

EMILY GOULD
Editor, Gawker (2006–07)
Author, And the Heart Says Whatever (2010) and Friendship (2014)

When people talk about him as a puppet master, I kind of feel like how my husband feels when people talk about Putin and ascribe all of this evil. They’re both, I think, just small-minded, petty people who got in a position of power pretty early and mostly kept their mouths shut often enough that no one would be able to see that they’re actually pretty basic.

ALEX PAREENE

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The worst of Nick is not tyrannical. The worst of Nick is capricious.

MAGGIE SHNAYERSON
News Assistant and Staff Reporter, New York Sun (2003–06)
Director of Public Relations, Village Voice (2007)
Associate Editor, Gawker (2007–08)

At a time when we were paid bonuses based on traffic, the initial Tom Cruise/Scientology post—which was apparently smuggled to us in the dead of night by a terrified former church member or something similarly le Carré–esque—was authored by Nick himself, which meant he didn’t have to pay out any extra traffic bonuses for the story. And, for continuity’s sake, he would continue to byline stories on the topic. I found that a bit appalling and told him as much in a letter when I left. In 2008, though we were being paid well, monthly traffic bonuses on baity items had the potential to equal more than our monthly salaries.

ERIN McGILL
Systems Administrator, Gawker Media (2007–13)

Nick had the bee in his bonnet to publish it. I think he thought, “Why not?” I’m putting words in his mouth, but basically, “They’re fucked up, and people need to know this. It’s newsworthy. Why wouldn’t people publish it?” Scientologists came after us to take it down. They sent people to stand outside our office across the street, which was really weird. [CTO] Tom [Plunkett] and I downloaded the video onto our laptops so we had copies.

MAGGIE SHNAYERSON

That was also the turning point for when Gawker started gaining traction with original stories that weren’t just of interest to New Yorkers. We’d always had the “tips” inbox to which we all had access, but it was a mix of press releases and insidery gossip. With the Scientology story, we had to start adapting in regards to how to receive more sensitive and subjectively more newsworthy information.

HAMILTON NOLAN
Writer, Gawker (2008–)

By the time I came on [Jan. 21, 2008], Gawker had already established itself and had a reputation and had a tone, you know, that I would say was mostly set by Choire Sicha.

RICHARD LAWSON

It all can be traced back to Choire. He basically invented a language. Stuff as simple as all caps and exclamation marks and that kind of picky style. But it’s also [indicative] of deeper skepticisms about institutions, gatekeepers, and culture at large. And where I think he was a little bit older and definitely a lot wiser about it than we were. We’re still trying to ace that style, and now it is everywhere. I mean it’s really ingrained in this kind of new upbeat generation.

NICK DENTON
Reporter, Financial Times (1989–98)
Co-Founder, First Tuesday (1998–2000)
Co-Founder and CEO, Moreover Technologies (1999­–2001)
Founder and CEO, Gawker Media (2002–)

People talk about [Elizabeth] Spiers as someone who set the tone, but I think Choire actually found it. It’s out in the open, but it’s in code. Your enemies will read this thing and are definitely going to misunderstand it, and then you can laugh with them for having misunderstood it. That’s a slightly meaner version of it. Choire’s language does look happy. Underneath, it’s deeply cynical—actually, not cynical. He’s very disappointed by the intellectual world. [It’s not] being angry or full of spleen like [Alex] Balk. It’s fatalistic. It’s laughing or shrugging in the face of death.

A.J. DAULERIO
Managing Editor, the Black Table (2003–06)
Editor, Deadspin (2008–11); Editor in Chief, Gawker (2011–13)

Hamilton Nolan is pretty much the embodiment of what a pure Gawker writer was at that time—that kind of whack-you-in-the-face type of approach.

RICHARD LAWSON

I mean, we were all imitating a style that Choire Sicha, Emily Gould, and Alex Balk had forged. They had a real point of view and a mission for what they were doing. I’ll go back and look at the archives for something I wrote and just cringe. It’s so knee-jerk and not really based on any sort of good reasoning. It’s just mean to be mean.

A.J. DAULERIO

It was “exclamation mark, block quote, exclamation mark.” It’s almost this feeling as if you had to say something bad just because that was the job. It absolutely became, I guess, old stock—kind of just a carbon copy of everything else, and just yelling for the sake of yelling a lot of the time.

HAMILTON NOLAN

But, you know, I like that kind of writing. It’s a little bit mean and very honest—to the point of being rude sometimes. A lot of people who come to Gawker are probably people who are into that tone. I wouldn’t necessarily say that people are copying other people. It’s just you attract who you attract.

Excerpted from Gawker: An Oral History by Brian Abrams. © 2015 by Brian Abrams. Available as a Kindle Single July 2015. All Rights Reserved.