Nick Denton, publicity cat.

Media criticism.
July 11 2006 7:19 PM

Nick Denton, Publicity Cat

How the Gawker Media guy reaps so much media attention.

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Denton's skills at media manipulation include a knack for pulling off stunts. In early June Gawker got the press on both sides of the Atlantic (New York Times, Observer) writing about its prank on Hello!, the U.K. celebrity magazine. Hello! had purchased pictures of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and their infant Shiloh for $3.5 million, and Gawker obtained and published a shot of the cover before the magazine reached the newsstand. Also, People had purchased the U.S. rights to the photos for $4.1 million. Denton had to know going in that Hello! and People would scream copyright infringement and send ugly letters from their legal departments demanding that the pictures comes down, which Gawker could then milk by reprinting on the site with its cheeky responses. You can't buy publicity like that. Gawker declared victory over Hello! and People—probably as it originally intended—when it published a "fair use" thumbnail image of the People cover once it reached newsstands. Will Hello! and People ever sue? Denton believes they won't because it will take too much energy, and I reckon he's right. For Gawker's take on the episode, see "The Battle of Shiloh."

In rolling out his blogs, Denton conforms to a design maximized to reap publicity. His first stop was New York City, where the flagship beguiled the elites (and attracted media interest) with steady servings of media news and gossip. From that national platform he added his first regional blog, Wonkette, which tweaked the powerful and under-written-about in Washington, D.C. Then he went on to Los Angeles, where Defamer riled the entertainment industry, and most recently he dropped into the Silicon Valley with Valleywag. At every juncture the local media, which couldn't be bothered to write about sex scandals, the secret shames of the rich, binge drinking in the halls of power, or other forbidden knowledge, has pissed itself wet writing about the Gawker sites.

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Denton claims he's in the blog business for the fun of it and to shake up the staid newspaper industry. When the Washington Post presents a prim offering titled "The Reliable Source" in lieu of a true gossip column, and the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times don't even suit up to take the field, he has a point. Denton believes that reporters spike gossipy copy about the rich and powerful because they want to stay on the right source lists and still get invited to all the "in" parties. Where such colorful copy exists, it's probably fretful editors doing the suppressing, not reporters, and here we discover the richest source of publicity for Denton to tap. Secretly, many reporters wish they were Denton, free to the point of anarchy to write whatever they wish. What better proxy for their secret rebellion than to write expansively about Nick Denton's wild adventures?

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.