Nick Denton, Publicity Cat
How the Gawker Media guy reaps so much media attention.
The publicity hound scratches the closed door, yips, and slobbers in hopes that someone—anyone—will notice him. But the publicity cat is stealthy, remaining in sight and just out of reach. Not necessarily unfriendly, he dispenses only as much attention as he needs to, which usually means he leaves them wanting more. Classic publicity hounds: Larry Ellison, Arlen Specter, and any celebrity who appears regularly on Larry King Live. Classic cats such as Steve Jobs, Bill Bradley, and Bob Dylan feed the media beast, but only on terms advantageous to them.
To our shortlist of classic cats, let's add the much-quoted Nick Denton, whose Gawker Media produces an entertaining and sardonic group of blogs. From his vantage as a former journalist (Financial Times), he understands what reporters need for their stories about the culture and business of blogs. Denton's usually there for the press, especially the business press, when he's got a new blog to launch. He's given smart quotations to the New York Times,the Wall Street Journal,the Washington Post, the Guardian, Business Week, the Independent, Mediaweek, Fortune, Adweek, PR Week, the San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, and Los Angeles magazine, just to name a few publications. Perhaps his greatest publicity coup came in 2003, when he got the New York Timesto write about Kinja, his blog about blogs that nobody has ever visited and nobody ever will.
The cat does, however, discriminate. New Yorkmagazine ran a cover package about blogs in February and sensibly pegged its feature by Clive Thompson to Gawker Media's rise. But Denton refused to be interviewed by Thompson and instructed his staffers not to talk as well. He has also stalled The New Yorker's ambitions to write about him and his blogs by refusing to cooperate. The operating rules here seem to be to avoid publications that may dilute his publicity by lumping his blogs in with lesser properties, which maybe be the case with the New York snub, or that may ding his mystique (The New Yorker).
An instructive example of Denton's skill at managing the press came earlier this month, when he talked at length with New York Times media columnist David Carr, perhaps the best-read writer in Mediaville ("A Blog Mogul Turns Bearish on Blogs," July 3). Denton had just announced plans to trim a couple of blogs from Gawker Media's dozenish roster and make a few personnel changes. Was this really news, good or bad? Top editorial staffers leave Gawker Media all the time, and this isn't the first shedding of a site. Oddjack, about gambling, left the building in November.
So, what were Denton adjustments doing in Carr's column? The entrepreneur spun it there as he had on his personal site, as hatch-battening before the burst of the blog bubble. Carr doesn't so much buy all the self-disparagement as let it float. Denton tells him, "Better to sober up now, before the end of the party."
End of what party? Denton has scoffed at the financial prospects of blogs from the beginning, a point that both Carr and Thompson highlight. Unlike most Web "visionaries," Denton never declares in favor of any new-media utopia. "While I love the medium, I've always been skeptical about the value of blogs as businesses," Denton wrote to discourage competitors on his personal blog two years ago. One year ago he shared an equally dour comment about the blogging "revolution" with the Times:
The hype comes from unemployed or partially employed marketing professionals and people who never made it as journalists wanting to believe. … They want to believe there's going to be this new revolution and their lives are going to be changed.
Denton garners attention for additional reasons, ranked here from least important to most: 1) Charming and approachable, he puts people at ease and makes himself a sympathetic source. 2) By portraying himself as a nasty, libeling, privacy-invading, copyright-infringing scalawag, he's good copy, even though his blogs about electronic gadgets (Gizmodo), tech and life (Lifehacker), and cars (Jalopnik) are embarrassingly ethical and fair. 3) He's British, and the press loves to make pets out of Brits. 4) He's accessible, providing a link on Gawker to his contact points. 5) He responds to queries promptly, or at least he did to my request for a photograph of him. (I declined to ask Denton for an interview. Oh, and this disclosure: He spoke at the Slate retreat last month and we chatted for a few minutes.) 6) The press loves to write about people who write about the press. 7) He made a mint in earlier cyberenterprises, so he's not just talking out of his hat about the Web. Finally, 8) He's the most (only?) interesting boss in a niche business.
Jason Calacanis, who sold his competing set of blogs to AOL for $25 million in 2005, observed in Wired that Denton is "an English guy who likes to downplay things." Calacanis didn't mean it as a compliment, but by underselling his product instead of overhyping it, by rationing his quotes instead of blowing lip music at anybody who requests it, he builds credibility with reporters.
Denton has a lot to downplay. Not to denigrate the growing blog biz, but it doesn't deserve a fraction of the column inches it receives. Internet advertising dollars account for maybe $13 billion of the total $143 billion advertising bill from 2005. Blog entrepreneur David Hauslaib of Jossip estimates that Gawker Media could be pulling in $10 million to $15 million in yearly revenues if the company enforces its advertising rate card. In the context of big business, that's pennies.